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An Opportunity for Change for Communications Policies in El Salvador

The President-elect pledged to promote the participation of new stakeholders in the media. This opens up an opportunity, and we need to ensure that such promises are kept.

Daniel B. Mina*/ El Salvador/ June 2014

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Five years ago, the Partido Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) promised “change,” including the democratization of the country’s communications. The main achievements stemming from this promise and the outgoing administration of President Funes are the Law on Access to Public Information (LAIP) and the bills for laws on Community Radio  and Public Media.

This year, during the presidential campaign, the FMLN clearly stated in its “El Salvador Adelante” (El Salvador Forward) platform (page 100) that it would promote the transition from the analog radioelectric spectrum to a digital one in order to broaden the number of available frequencies, improve the concession mechanism, and encourage the creation of new media outlets.

President-elect Salvador Sánchez Cerén stated at a press conference in May that, “I share the idea that the radioelectric spectrum should be democratized… so that the population can have greater access to information. We also know that the radiospectrum offers opportunities for the public, private and community sectors. As such, I believe that one must take into account the interests of large and small corporations as well as small community businesses, because this is an issue of democratization.” (Press conference held on Friday, May 16, 2014. Our translation.)

If the new administration keeps its campaign promises, the next five years will be crucial for democratizing the current media system in El Salvador. During this new period, at least two key occurrences will take place that could promote or stand in the way of the opportunities that we have to build our democracy through the discussion and dissemination of ideas.

On the one hand, El Salvador is poised to jump into the world of digitalization of TV by 2018. On the other, the automatic renewal of the current concessions of radioelectric frequencies (radio and TV) for another 20 years could occur in 2017.

How important are these two developments for El Salvador? The digitalization of TV channels- and radio signals a few years later- opens up opportunities for more individuals, companies and civil society organizations to utilize new spaces to create new media channels. This has been called the digital dividend. In other words, the five large companies (commercial media oligopolies) that have always been in control would no longer be the owners of most of the radio and TV frequencies. However, if digitalization is accompanied by the continuation of the current concessions and the use of the same criteria for their allocation –auction in an exclusively economic sense-, the digital dividend will be to the advantage of the same people who have always benefitted.

In regard to the automatic renewal of the current radioelectric frequencies, if all of the concessions of radio and TV frequencies could be opened up to public competitions in 2017 with a sense of social and public service prior to the renewal of the current concessions, a more plural and diverse media system could be achieved. This would allow for more perspectives and greater opportunities for democratizing communications, which would support the findings of the Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS and that of the U.N.

The expiration of the first 20 years of the radioelectric concessions in 2017 makes it necessary to push for legal reform in the coming months. Such a reform could keep the exploitation of radio and TV signals by commercial media oligopolies from becoming eternal under the protection of the current legislation.

Although it will also be important to strengthen the  General Office of Electricity and Telecommunications (SIGET), the regulatory agency must be given enough independence to avoid undue influence by economic and government powers. President Funes’s recent appointment of Astor Escalante to head the body confirms this need, as his closeness to the powerful media group Samix, one of the major stakeholders in commercial radio corporations, is public knowledge.

The new agenda of the incoming administration in regard to communications should address the auctioning of national open television channels 7, 13, 14, 16, 18 and 20, which SIGET announced, generating strong social opposition. The challenge to the move is based on the fact that the plan is to hold a bidding process just a few months after the end of the Funes system, and because it is an anti-democratic, exclusive mechanism, as has been noted by the Special Rapporteurs on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations.

Due to the implications that the auction has for freedom of expression, a group of organizations that belong to the Network for the Right to Communication, which includes social and academic organizations and alternative communications media, alleged that it was unconstitutional. This and a set of actions deployed by the Citizen Board for the Human Right to Communication led the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court to take up the appeal. Last May, it found in favor of the plaintiffs and ordered the suspension of any government action leading to the implementation of bidding processes.

The question that people are asking in El Salvador is why Funes’s administration decided to hold bidding processes for new TV channels and what interests this move serves, as even the current Superintendent of Competition, Francisco Díaz Rodríguez, said that the Telecommunications Law that has been in place since 1997 is obsolete. He stated that this is due to the fact that it was issued without competition criteria, thus favoring economic concentration, and he referred to the mechanism in place for auctioning off access to frequencies.

The Opportunity and the Issues

Supporting and promoting the development of public, private and community media, making government market allocations transparent, creating information services for the people, equitably distributing said services in the various media channels and developing a process of digitalization that is in keeping with the interests of the nation is the work of the administration that recently won the elections. The work of social organizations and the Salvadoran people is to ensure that the administration keeps its promises.

 

*Journalist for the digital newspaper VOCES in El Salvador and member of the Citizen Board for the Human Right to Communication.

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