“In Central America, the right to freedom of expression and the right to communication face an insufficient legal framework that moves against the democratic trend seen today in many countries of the American continent.”
Oscar A. Pérez (*)/Centroamérica, abril 2015
There is no doubt that the concentration of media ownership in commercial media oligopolies in Central America has only been possible thanks to the existence of legal frameworks that facilitate and promote this situation. Allowing such processes to occur and continue is the constant that dominates the governments of the region in regard to the administration of a good that is part of our global heritage: the radio spectrum.
Even worse, recognition of the right to freedom of expression as a human right, which is made explicit in every political constitution in Central America, is clearly denied by secondary laws around the region. This situation erodes the quality of our democracies.
These conclusions form part of a recent analysis of the current situation of public policy and legal frameworks in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. The purpose of this undertaking is to help promote the democratization of communications and the demand that the right to communication be respected, mainly from the perspective of the region’s community radios.
A recent publication on power and the media in Central America and the construction of citizen public policy –which is available online in Spanish at www.voces.org.sv- is designed to promote and impact public policy and legal frameworks that facilitate citizen participation in the demand for respect of the human right to communication. The authors view with regard to that right is that it is a fundamental condition for contributing to the quality of democracy in the region through processes that complement the work of human rights defenders and community journalists. This work was made possible through the support of Fundación Comunicándonos with financial resources from the Dutch Human Rights Fund for Central America administered by ICCO Cooperation of Holland supported by the Embassy of the Netherlands in Costa Rica.
It is important to highlight the fact that there is a lack of research on radio broadcasting and government power in Central America, at least from the perspective of policy and law. In contrast to previous studies, the work conducted in the four countries listed above engages the effects and problems generated by laws in the area of broadcasting and the policies actually adopted in this area, above and beyond official statements or publications. The idea is to go beyond the cold text of the law and the promises made in public policy documents.
The conclusions reached by the researchers suggest that in Central America, the right to freedom of expression and the right to communication confront an insufficient legal framework that works against the democratic trend that is seen in many of the countries of the American continent today. The basis for this debt in regard to human rights is the hijacking of the words, sounds, and images that have prevailed throughout the history of the region, and that has allowed commercial media oligopolies –which currently have a great deal of political and economic clout- to commercially and freely exploit the resources that make possible the enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and communication, such as the radio spectrum. There is also a lack of secondary laws on the awarding of official publicity, recognition of community broadcasting, and a system for protecting journalists.
These commercial media oligopolies, which maintain clear channels and conflicts of interest with the groups that hold political and economic power inside of the region and beyond, have manufactured and disseminated slogans in such a way that they may be socially assimilated as unquestionable truths. One of them is that freedom of expression should not be regulated because that would go against the system of freedoms of a society that adheres to a model of market economy. This argument tends to confuse business freedom with the human right to communication under the logic of the market. According to this commercial logic, it is not difficult to explain that legal norms in Central America do not regulate communication as a human right. In fact, the situation is quite far from this. The legal framework has been placed at the service of commercial media oligopolies, clearly limiting the plurality of voices in the region.
In the case of El Salvador, the most important step that needs to be taken is the adoption of a National Communications Policy and the adjustment of laws on broadcasting, specifically the Telecommunications Law, from a human rights perspective. The goal of these efforts would be to contribute to the construction of a quality democracy based on international standards which have already been recognized by the governments of the region. In regard to Guatemala, there is a need to undertake local, state, and national dialogue processes that allow for current community radio coverage to be respected as much as possible without interfering with legally established stations. There is also an urgent need to reserve part of the radio spectrum for community use through legal mechanisms. In Honduras, the Magna Carta does not recognize the right to communication. This translates into a lack of access to communication and discrimination against social sectors, community groups, and black and indigenous groups in regard to this right. Finally, while Nicaragua has a communications policy, the nation’s reality suggests that its implementation has been very limited and that it has not been used to develop communications or strengthen the country’s democracy.
The aforementioned book views the firm trend towards greater concentration of ownership of the Central American media by commercial media oligopolies with a great deal of concern. This concern only increases when the scope of the analysis is expanded to include digitalization processes, which have already been activated in Central America. The current trend points towards generating greater concentration of the media in the hands of a few companies or families, which would directly affect the quality of our respective democracies.
The results presented in this important book do not provide an encouraging picture for Central American society, particularly because the officials responsible for guiding this transformation or technological convergence process, are looking to digitalize radio and TV using the same legal frameworks that brought about the concentration of ownership of frequencies in the hands of a select group.
As such, it is urgent that governments and legislators in each nation in the region focus on and reorient the digitalization of communications. This is not merely a technical issue. It is also a deeply political one that has to do with the future of new generations in Central America. We still have time to shape this system, which is currently rigged by the radio and TV associations and chambers. The multiplication of channels or frequencies as a result of the digital dividend should help modify the current media map in the region. The digitalization of communications is a great technological opportunity for our communities, but it could become a terrible nightmare if we continue to allow legislation to be passed that favors the interests of the commercial media oligopoly.
For the health and quality of our democracies, it is imperative that the political class and civil society of the region work towards a more pluralist media map in which we can strengthen and promote freedom of expression with the three sectors that generate communication: public, commercial, and community broadcasting. In doing so, we would be able to enjoy communication as a human right. Making this a reality is simply a question of whether or not there exists the political will to begin to democratize communications in the region.
(*) President-Director of the Foundation for Communication for Development (Comunicándonos), Representative of AMARC for Central America, and member of the Citizen Board for the Human Right to Communication of El Salvador.