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Economic concentration limits pluralism of information in Latin America and the Caribbean

“This trend in connectivity and access to media and digital expression is, according to the UNESCO report, an indicator that ethnic and social minorities have increased their presence in the public sphere. However, the report warns that competition in the telecommunications sector has remained lacking, resulting in high prices and few incentives for investing in the expansion of services in less profitable zones.”

OBSERVACOM Staff/December 2015

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In its report World trends in freedom of expression and media development: regional overview of Latin America and the Caribbean, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), recognizes an active presence of States in the region through reforms of legal frameworks and the development of policies that tend to promote pluralism and the diversity of voices and information sources, as well as increasing public media and polices aimed at universal connectivity. Although all these measures have been carried out within a context of technological convergence, part of a global trend that, in principle, stimulates the emergence and access to media platforms, the regional scenario in terms of media pluralism is still limited by the concentration of media ownership, and differences in access between urban and rural areas.

The UNESCO report highlights important advances in access: open analogue TV is present in 90% of homes, and most of the region’s countries have chosen the Japanese-Brazilian system for the transition to terrestrial digital television (TDT), the broadcasting of which is mostly controlled by the State. Among the most important questions regarding this process are those related to whether the shift to digital TV will promote the entry of new players that promote pluralism, or whether the consolidation and concentration of the sector will be maintained or even increase.

In the newspaper industry and Internet, improvements have also been perceived in terms of access, as the amount of printed daily newspapers published has increased, along with online platforms; rates of Internet access doubled between 2007 and 2012, rising from 24% to 43% of the population according to data provided by Internet World Stats. Moreover, according to the UNESCO report Tuning into Development, in various countries in the region, regulatory laws have reserved at least one third of the frequencies available for public broadcasters and, in some cases, specifically for public universities and indigenous communities.

This trend in connectivity and access to media and digital expression is, according to the UNESCO report, an indicator that ethnic and social minorities have increased their presence in the public sphere. However, the report warns that competition in the telecommunications sector has remained lacking, resulting in high prices and few incentives for investing in the expansion of services in less profitable zones, such as rural areas. In turn, it was observed that some countries funded broadcasting networks using a similar structure to community broadcasters, but administered by the government. In this regard, the UNESCO report argues that it is necessary to evaluate the impact of these policies in terms of pluralism.

Content regulation

Throughout the region policies have been developed to de-monopolize the media and promote pluralism. As pointed out in the UNESCO report, in the last 10 years legal and government initiatives have been implemented aimed at expanding State intervention, and not just in relation to media ownership, but also in terms of content regulation. Regarding the latter, mechanisms linked to the establishment of quotas for independent productions and local or regional content were also highlighted, as well as the funding provided for community media.

However, the geographic concentration of production, along with the concentration of ownership in Latin America and the Caribbean, continues to present an obstacle that affects pluralism and diversity, as it generates a uniformity of agendas and information content.

The role of publicity

Along with the growing trends in terms of access, an increase in advertising spending (the main source of financing of the media) has also been noted. According to the ZenithOptimedia agency, between 2011 and 2012 advertising grew by 5%, which transformed Latin America into one of the fastest growing regions in terms of this area. Furthermore, Internet advertising has been growing even faster, with an annual increase of 21% in 2012 according to Nielsen. However, the trend towards incorporating new content formats has been hampered by difficulties related to monetization, the shortage of funds for new media projects, and delays faced by traditional media. Consequently, consumer demand for online content has grown faster than supply.

A worrying aspect is that, as a result of public spending on advertising to sustain the media, the boundaries between political interference and economic influence have become blurred.

In many countries in the region, traditional media has relied heavily on government advertising in order to survive (especially at the local and provincial level). However, dependence on government advertising makes such media outlets especially vulnerable to the influence of officials and authorities. Consequently, the use of official advertising to punish or reward certain editorial lines has witnessed the increased focus of journalists and civil society.

Trends

The Latin American and Caribbean region has in the last 10 years witnessed significant progress in access to the media, and in most countries policy reforms have been implemented that guarantee the presence of three types of providers: commercial, State and private non-profit organisations.

However, in spite of the expansion of material possibilities –which has also been facilitated by the digitalization process- along with the affirmation of new actors in the public sphere as legal subjects, pluralism of information is still hampered by the economic and geographic concentration of the media, and by the interference of governmental powers in the editorial lines of media organisations. These aspects are still central when thinking about democratic communication developments in the digital environment.

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