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Towards A New Media Law in Costa Rica: The Right to Communication Under Discussion

“The Ministry of Science and Technology (MICIT) has presented a `Base Text for Discussion of a New Radio Law.´ This initiative comes in response to the need to update Costa Rican communications legislation. Though progress is being made towards improving the administration of the radio spectrum, there are limitations to guaranteeing the exercise of the right to communication by the people…”

Luisa Ochoa Chaves* / Costa Rica, 2015.

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The Ministry of Science and Technology (MICIT) has presented a “Base Text for Discussion of a New Radio Law.” This initiative comes in response to the need to update Costa Rican communications legislation. Though progress is being made towards improving the administration of the radio spectrum, there are limitations to guaranteeing the exercise of the right to communication by the people.

For the discussion of the proposed law, MICIT has organized sectorial workshops with the academic, business, and social sectors. The discourses of the academic and social sectors recognize the effort made by the Executive Branch to present a working document and generate spaces for its discussion. The proposal highlights the importance of community media and measures for improving management of the radio spectrum as well as the definition of a time limit for concessions and a cap of 50% for foreign ownership of the media.

However, the base text presents a series of limitations that, if left unchanged, would leave Costa Rica with legislation that does not guarantee use of the radio spectrum to benefit the public interest or mechanisms for the exercise of the right to communication by the people.

The first limiting factor is the failure to make clear why and for whom a new media law is necessary. Is it for media companies or the public? Is it meant to manage the radio spectrum or to democratize its distribution to various shareholders?

As a result, the right to communication and communication-media pluralism are not the guiding principles of the proposed MICIT law. The bill instead identifies as its first principle “free competition,” which is contradictory if one considers the fact that the radio spectrum is recognized internationally and increasingly as a public good, a scarce and limited resource. Other absent principles are inter-culturality, which would ensure that Costa Rica would be represented by a diverse set of cultural manifestations, and the principle of territorial equity, which would make possible better distribution of the spectrum in order to provide services in areas far from the central valley.

The MICIT’s proposal also fails to establish a clear distribution of the radio spectrum for public, private, and community media channels. Though it states that 30% of the spectrum is to be set aside for community and educational purposes, the place that community, public, educational, and ecclesiastic media occupy in the distribution of this percentage is not clear, and the latter three have an important presence in Costa Rica’s media landscape. In addition, the measures for decreasing media concentration are insufficient, as 30% as a concentration cap does not facilitate the democratization of the spectrum.

On the other hand, there is the danger of marginalizing community media in two ways. First, the geographic area is restricted without considering other perspectives such as the construction of communities of meaning whose formation does not depend on their attachment to the territory. Second, there is a lack of stability in operation given that community media would use five-year permits rather than concessions, which involve a 15-year time period.

Other issues with the MICIT text are the lack of a council or instance that includes civil society sectors, the failure to identify the creation of funds for promoting national production, and lack of mention of international standards for interpreting the law, particularly in regard to cultural diversity and human rights.

 

Stakeholders Involved

Even as the MICIT text is being discussed, the Network of Alternative Media and Communication Initiatives (Red MICA), a space for reflection and articulation of initiatives and media for promoting equitable, participatory, and democratic communication in Costa Rica, is putting the finishing touches on a bill that it has been working on since 2014 with civil society stakeholders which prioritizes the perspective of the right to communication and gives democratization mechanisms for the radio spectrum a key role.

On the other hand, the business sector canceled its participation in the workshop organized by MICIT and has not yet offered observations on the document. In a piece published in the newspaper La Nación (Lara, J.F., January 31, 2015), Andrés Quintana, the Honorary President of the National Radio Chamber (CANARA), stated that he believes that it is not necessary to change the 1954 law and proposed that MICIT develop a new technical regulation for it.

In this context, two points of view seem to emerge. The first is represented by the business sector, which is not interested in discussing a new media law that may modify the benefits resulting from 60 years of exploitation of a public good without annual rate increases or time limits for concessions. The second involves academic and civil society stakeholders who are concerned about the positioning of the right to communication as a fundamental human right, which is currently not recognized or guaranteed by Costa Rican legislation.

In the middle is the MICIT proposal, which tries to integrate the perspectives of the various sectors without clearly committing to a vision of the communication model that is needed for Costa Rica.

 

Freedom of Expression is Not Under Discussion

One issue of concern is that some are using the topic of freedom of expression to dilute the debate and shift the focus away from the discussion of the right to communication.

In order to clarify this matter, it is important to distinguish between the right to communication and the rights to freedom of the press and freedom of information. Freedom of the press emerged as a response to the need to guarantee the free expression of ideas by all people and especially by the media against possible government officials’ interference. The right to information developed in response to the need to protect those who produce information and those who receive it. By contrast, the right to communication has begun to emerge by virtue of the need to guarantee all people with both access to information and the opportunity to produce it and turn it into knowledge (Saffron, 2007).

As such, the right to communication integrates and implicates freedom of expression, access to information, and access to social media. It also opens up the opportunity for diverse social groups that had been excluded from the media landscape to create their own media.

While the existing bills would replace the General Telecommunications Law and Radio Law, which regulate matters related to concessions and radio and TV services, what is under discussion is the opportunity to deepen Costa Rican democracy through the recognition and guarantee of the right to communication.

 

*Advisor to the Communications Unit of the Vice-Rectory for Social Action of the University of Costa Rica