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How social movements have changed media policies in Latin America

Innovations in communication policies raise new questions for understanding media governance in the region. How do CSOs participate in policy-making process?

Silvio Waisbord (George Washington University, USA) and María Soledad Segura (Universidad Nacional de Córdoba-CONICET, Argentina)
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In the past two decades, an unprecedented number of media policies grounded in the right to communication was passed in Latin America. This is an absolute landmark in the history of the region’s media policy-making. Where those policies were passed, civil society organizations (CSO) played critical roles. No similar period of intense mobilization and visibility is found in the past anywhere in the region.

Innovations in communication policies raise new questions for understanding media governance in the region. How do CSOs participate in policy-making process? Which demands and proposals do citizens make? What strategies do civic organizations use in policy advocacy? Do they contribute to improvements in media governance? What are the obstacles and opportunities for the strengthening of citizen participation?

In Media Movements: Civil society and media policy reforms in Latin America (Zed Books, 2016), we examine experiences of citizen participation in media policy-making in the region with special focus on Argentina, Ecuador, México and Uruguay. We consider that these cases are relevant to understand the role of organized citizens in media reform and policy-making; to understand how and when “media movements” make a difference in policy reforms. We offer answers to these questions by examining the types of organizations, demands, interpretative frameworks and strategies; the impact on the three phases of policy-making: public debates, parliamentary debates and content of new laws, and implementation; and other contributions of civil society to democratic governance.

Media systems in Latin America have resulted from the accumulation of decades-long political decisions that largely reflected the interests of political and economic elites and the lack of inclusion of diverse citizen interests. Media governance in the region is characterized by a long history of anti-democratic policy-making. This pattern is undergoing important changes, as citizens and civic organizations have been engaged in different roles in policy-making in recent years. Although it is too soon to talk about complete changes in old patterns of participation and decision-making, it is necessary to recognize significant transformations.

Have CSOs contributed to shifting historical elite-dominated media policy-making?

After analyzing social impact on three phases of policymaking, our answer is cautiously affirmative. Although there has not been a complete transition, policy-making has changed in important ways. From being an affair largely limited to political and economic elites, it has gradually become more open to citizen participation and receptive to long-standing rights-based demands championed by activists. Certainly, situations and developments are not similar across all countries.

Changes are particularly visible during the first phase of policy-making. Citizen presence has been noticeable during public debates. Media movements have managed to shape public debates about policy reforms. Civil society has shaped public discussion, public opinion and the government agenda. It has been able to infuse debates and policies with the language of communication rights as the bedrock for the democratization of media systems. It has also contributed to move debates beyond the realm of elites and technical specialists by pushing to incorporate citizens.

Organized activists have also made significant inroads during the legislative debates and the drafting of new bills. Through advocacy, activists have slowly gained access to legislative staff. Congressional committees have considered technical reports and recommendations produced by CSOs. Public officials have consulted on technical matters with CSOs representatives. Citizens and civil society organizations have been invited to give public input to bills and provide expert testimonies in congressional debates and court sessions dealing with media and information legislation. They have also participated in ad hoc mechanisms mandated by Presidents on specific opportunities.

Most of the eleven broadcasting and telecommunication laws passed in Latin American countries during the last decade contain aspects that meet civic demands and international standards of communication as human right. However, some laws contradict civic proposals and international standards relating to community broadcasting. Between 2002 and 2014, seventeen Latin American countries adopted access to public information laws. Most of them are based on civil society proposals and recommendations by international organizations. Civic demands also had an impact in nine Latin American countries that repealed insult laws or removed criminal penalties for defamation. These promising developments contrast with the laws of Ecuador and Venezuela, which criminalize speech.

Notwithstanding auspicious developments, policy-making is still fraught with numerous problems, ranging from backroom deals among elites to legislation that favors media powers.

Nonetheless, media movements have also made important contributions to policy implementation. They called attention to merits and shortcomings of new laws. They have monitored the work of various agencies and used legal instruments to advance reforms and indicate obstacles. They upbraided officials for failing to comply with the laws and urged corrections.

It is also important to acknowledge another important contribution of media movements to media governance: strengthening institutional competencies of civil society and the state related to media policy-making. These contributions go beyond media policy-making; they provide critical resources for democratic citizenship and governance. It includes: state participatory mechanisms to channel citizen participation; and the honing of strategic competencies related to mobilization and advocacy among CSOs: individual and organizational expertise related to technical matters, policy-making process, and strategic thinking about positioning and advocating for media reforms. Further, other citizen initiatives have borrowed from media movements to form organizations and strategic actions.

Another contribution of media movements is the affirmation of a rights-based discourse about public communication and media systems. Bringing in this discourse to frame debate is a key contribution of media movements. Whereas the right to communication discourse was largely limited to activists, academics and policy experts in the past, it has been mainstreamed in recent years. It is hard to imagine that the rights-based framework would have achieved its current position in public discourse and legislation without citizen mobilization.

Recent events in the region give credence to our conclusions. Unquestionably, shaking up old practices and reforming regressive policies are long-term processes. Rights-based demands, however, continue to infuse public debates and civic organizations are becoming integral part of policy-making, even amid pushback policies from conservative governments and worsening conditions for public expression in several countries.

From our analysis, several lessons can be drawn:

  1. Media policies are the result of complex processes that involve not only political and economic elites, but also social organizations. Public policies are not completely controlled by the State, but are also influenced by dynamic relations of state, market, and civic actors.

  2. Civil society is not a unified whole, but rather, it is complex, conflictive and heterogeneous. It maintains relative autonomy vis-à-vis the market and the state.

  3. Civil society engagement is not enough to make policy changes happen. Support from powerful elites in strategic positions is necessary, too. The dynamic interaction between mobilized activists and political elites attest to new forms of collective action.

  4. Even if the ascendancy of transnational bodies and global forms of activism indicate important forms of participation beyond state borders the state remains a crucial actor for media democracy in a globalized world.

Our book has received praise from media policy experts. Des Freedman, professor at Goldsmith University and author of The Contradictions of Media Power, considers the book ‘a hugely important, unusually accessible and beautifully written book. It is of interest to readers well beyond Latin America.’ Andrew Calabrese, from University of Colorado, also says that it is ‘a well-researched, richly explained and lively presentation of the landscape of media activism in Latin America.’.

This analysis of media reform movements in Latin America provides an essential one-volume introduction to media policy on the continent; a must-read for anyone interested in media policy and power anywhere in the world.’, points Sandra Braman, professor at Texas A&M University. Tristan Anne Borer, from Connecticut College and author of Media, Mobilization, and Human Rights, evaluates it as ‘an important book for those interested not only in the role of the media in civic life, but also for those concerned with the role of social movement activists in contesting power and in fostering the democratic process both in Latin America and beyond.’ 

Related links:

LA SOCIEDAD CIVIL Y REFORMAS A LAS POLÍTICAS DE LOS MEDIOS DE COMUNICACIÓN EN AMÉRICA LATINA