International experience tells us that according to best practices, state intervention is required to determine quotas and participation in the various markets (limits placed on concentration), combined with the insertion of new actors representing different sectors, which is something that we have not seen in the current bidding processes for radio and TV
Aleida Calleja*/Mexico/October 2016
In order for the necessary conditions to exist for public debate within a democracy, it is essential to have access to a diverse range of information sources, free access to those sources, and media openness that allows different voices to take part in the debate. Hence the importance of ensuring pluralism and diversity, two inescapable aspects of freedom of expression within a media system.
Pluralism is defined for these purposes as the opportunity for the voices of different social forces, citizens and sectors to be heard. Diversity is understood as the availability of a wide variety of information sources that provide access to information that can lead to opportunities of expression for all citizens (Hornelas Pineda, 2015: 231).
International agencies that defend freedom of expression have established that for pluralism to become a reality, limits need to be placed on the concentration of media ownership so that no individual is permitted to control information and public opinion. They also argue that this should be accompanied by positive measures to ensure that underrepresented voices also have access to the media. They have also underlined that the rules of economic competition are not enough to achieve said objectives.
There are no international experiences or conclusive rules on limits to ownership concentration, especially with regard to cross-media ownership. Pluralism in the media is a multidimensional concept that has been dealt with in different ways. The instruments that are probably the most advanced have been implemented by the Council of Europe using criteria that cover legislative frameworks, strong and independent regulatory authorities, transparency of media owners, and specific measures against vertical, horizontal and cross integration; and the active promotion of the production and dissemination of varied content (Alvarez, 2013: 21) (García Castillejo, 2016).
In its Measurement Framework for Media Plurality, the Office of Communications (OFCOM), the UK regulatory body, states that rules of economic competition are not enough to guarantee pluralism, and that reviewable indicators and metrics must be periodically designed to prevent any media owner from having too much influence on public opinion and the political agenda, and that any measurement that considers market shares or concentration should be interpreted alongside a range of contextual factors in media ownership (OFCOM, 2015: 3.33).
Criteria and indicators for determining concentration and pluralism vary according to market profile. In Germany, for example, a company is described as dominant when it has more than between 25% and 33% of the market share (German Commission on Concentration in the Media, KEK, 2015). This percentage also relates to dominating power of opinion when the TV programs of a company register a yearly average for audience ratings of 30% (Broadcasting Contract in a Unified Germany, Article 26, 2007).
Having the necessary criteria to strengthen pluralism is vitally important, especially when opening up the spectrum to new players. In Mexico, the Federal Telecommunications Institute (IFT) has initiated the tender process for 148 open digital TV channels covering 123 zones throughout the country, along with 191 FM and 66 AM frequencies. This is the largest tender of broadcasting frequencies in the country’s history, which is certainly good news, although the opening occurs while the IFT still doesn’t have the criteria and metrics to evaluate pluralism, which it should have issued in 2015 according to its corresponding Annual Work Program (AWP). In its 2016 AWP, the organization states that it will produce guidelines for plurality in broadcasting but not until December, although it has already started the bidding process for open radio.
The regulatory procedures implemented by the IFT to date have integrated pluralism into the discourse employed, although we are yet to see evidence of specific attempts to put words into action. For example, in the work plan for 2016, one of the indicators states as follows: “ID 58. Plurality allows citizens to respect their right of access to information in an impartial manner (sic), so that if they choose, they may perceive different perspectives of the reality in which they live, which can contribute towards them forming their own ideas and opinions. The Institute therefore considers regulation to be fundamental in order to promote and establish tools for users and audiences so that they may be respected.”
In this sense it may be worth asking what the regulator will do to guarantee that objective when it does not have the criteria to apply with respect to the entry of new players in the tender process, or for its index on concentration. Would it not be logical first to establish these guidelines so as to maintain them as a reference, so that in the entry of new players they serve as a guarantee of the pluralism that the IFT has been mandated to protect for every Mexican citizen? Are ex-ante and ex-post measures not required? Does the regulator believe that the market by itself can guarantee pluralism?
Although the IFT decided to use the HHI index to measure markets and the competition within them related to telecommunications and broadcasting, indicating that under no circumstances would it take any decision using as the only analysis input the aforementioned index on concentration, it does not at any point establish criteria for pluralism in broadcasting.
International experience tells us that according to best practices, state intervention is required to determine quotas and participation in the various markets (limits placed on concentration), combined with the insertion of new actors representing different sectors, which is something that we have not seen in the current bidding processes for radio and TV, respectively, as there has not been any grading in terms of content, among other factors; and neither is market measurement mentioned in the regulatory document.
Everything would seem to indicate that for the regulator, pluralism is equal to a greater quantity of media outlets, when clearly it is not, as it is possible to have many media outlets but all acting alike and with a similar content.
In a democratic society, it is necessary to ensure the widest possible circulation of news, views, ideas, opinions and information. And even if there are multiple forms of media, if they are all highly representative of just one social group, diversity will be restricted. The central issue is not whether there are many forms of media or not, but rather who controls them and how such control may affect the democratic debate.
In the absence of clear guidelines for promoting pluralism in the concentrated Mexican audiovisual market, especially in the area of open broadcast commercial television, we face the risk that the historic opening of the spectrum will become a threat rather than an opportunity for freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity.
* OBSERVACOM Advocacy Coordinator