María Soledad Segura**/Argentina, May 2016.
If we accept that communication policies respond to the construction of the society model that is being proposed, it is no surprise that shortly after taking office, the new Argentine government has made substantial changes in the regulation of communications. These and other measures have an impact on community, popular, alternative and cooperative media.
Necessity and Emergency Decrees (NED) 13 and 267 have been introduced to amend the Audiovisual Services and Communication Law 26522 which recognizes non-profit organizations as providers of audiovisual media services, sets aside a third of the radio spectrum for them, establishes a development fund and gives them representation on the board of the regulatory body. Although said decrees do not modify those specific articles related to non-profit media (apart from the case of cooperatives that provide cable television), it is clear that they are based on the paradigm of communication as a commodity and not as a human right. A new stage has thus been initiated for social-sector media in Argentina.
The new communication policies include the standstill of the Competitive Development Fund for Audiovisual Media (FOMECA). The new body for regulating audiovisual communication and telecommunications, ENACOM, not only did not open new lines of development, but also failed to honor payments awarded to projects. Furthermore, the Office of Special Projects, which is responsible for the development of the Fund, suffered a significant downsizing. It is also symptomatic that information on completion projects on the website of the previous regulatory body, the AFSCA, are no longer available online. AMARC-Argentina estimates that «just in this area the State owes various radios that are members of the network a sum greater than ARS 5 million.» These funds, which were awarded through public tenders, had enabled communities and indigenous groups to improve their position in a hypercompetitive market: i.e. to acquire equipment, produce content, contract services, and regulate management.
Considering the changing priorities in public policies and the dismantling of some areas of the State, uncertainty exists about the continuity of programs focused on the development of popular, rural worker and indigenous radio stations, and implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries, the Public Ombudsman, the Family Agriculture Secretariat, the National Agricultural Technology Institute(INTA), the National Commission for Popular Libraries (CONABIP), the Ministry of Culture and other national bodies.
Moreover, increases in electricity tariffs have led to a rise in production costs for the alternative media within a context of devaluation and inflation. According to data compiled by Larisa Kejval, two community radio stations in Buenos Aires provide a good example: having previously paid ARS 3,700 per month, production costs for the radio with the widest transmission range rose to ARS 12,000; while in the case of the broadcaster with the smallest transmission range, payments of ARS 2,500 every two months rose to ARS 5,000 per month. Consequently, FM Fribuay, a popular radio in the province of Buenos Aires, was forced to stop its nighttime transmissions.
This new scenario finds the majority of non-profit media in a legal situation that is still precarious: some have recently been awarded licenses but have still not been authorized to commence operations; others have precarious permits (some with a frequency set aside for some point in the future), or no permit at all that allows them to legally operate, according to Martín Becerra, Agustín Espada and others. Although in recent years licenses and operational authorizations have been provided, the non-implementation of a technical plan for radio frequencies has presented an obstacle to gauge the 33% of the radio spectrum that Law 26522 stipulates should be set aside for this media sector, and has also prohibited competitions in those large cities where the radio spectrum has become saturated. Where invitations to tender have been made, little progress has been achieved in increasing the expansion of the differentiated conditions for these broadcasters, according to representatives of this media sector such as Natalia Vinelli. These conditions made it possible, for example, for the Courts to order such stations to hand over their transmission equipment to an alternative Buenos Aires channel, Antena Negra TV, accusing the president of the cooperative of interference.
Instead of solving these problems, NED 267 accentuates them. Caps have been increased for the concentration of ownership of free-to-air radio and television stations, while being eliminated for cable TV; cross-ownership has been permitted between audiovisual and telecommunications companies; the operational period of all audiovisual licenses currently in force has been extended along with authorization for a 10 year extension on the cessation of licenses. In addition, ENACOM also annulled divestment plans submitted by media groups that exceeded the limits set by the Audiovisual Law. Thus, and as noted by Miguel Rodriguez Villafane, in the so-called conflict zones, frequencies have not been freed up that can be used for that part of the spectrum set aside for non-profit media organizations.
Digital channel number 33, which was awarded to Barricada TV (one of the first three non-profit channels to be awarded licenses for free-to-air, low-power digital broadcast television), is currently occupied by Channel 13 even though a resolution by AFSCA places it at number 35. Under such conditions, the reception of signals is hampered: such media outlets must transmit with a power of 150 watts, while Channel 13 does so with 12.500 watts. To date there has been no official response. Espacio Interredes (Inter-Network Space), which brings together community and cooperative media associations, has complained to ENACOM about the definitive authorization of the three channels.
Furthermore, community media associations lost representation in the Federal Council of Audiovisual Communication Services (COFECA) when it was disbanded by NED 267. This led to the loss of a formal channel for social participation and impact on the formulation of communications policy.
However, the new scenario also finds non-profit radio and television stations strengthened in terms of policy union. Since 2009, national and regional associations have increased. Moreover, in the current year, and in order to address the impact of these new policies, Espacio Interredes was created so as to bring together such organizations, some of which are also members of the Coalition for Democratic Communication, which began once more to mobilize and now promotes the New 21 Points for a Democratic Communication.
Legalization and development policies for community media are necessary to ensure the principles of diversity, participation, access, equity and plurality of the media system in a democracy. In present-day Argentina, and given the increasing standardization of the editorial lines of the leading media and State media companies, which flagrantly hide or minimize events of huge social significance, coupled with the closure of media outlets, layoffs, job insecurity and/or anti-union persecution of more than 2,500 media workers, these policies are also extremely urgent.
** Lecturer at the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba
and researcher for the National Council for
Scientific and Technical Research, CONICET, Argentina.
*This text is an expanded and updated version of «Community Media,» published on 27 April in Pagina/12 by Ana Laura Hidalgo, Larisa Kejval, Alejandro Linares, Verónica Longo, María Soledad Segura and Natalia Vinelli, who are members of the team for the research project: «Community radio and television since Law 26522. Conditions, strategies and challenges,» financed by CONICET and the Public Defender’s Office. The aforementioned takes references from the book «Nonprofit media: between the Audiovisual Law and decrees. Strategies, challenges and debates in the 2009-2015 scenario» which was published by Segura and Cintia Weckesser this year.