«According to the National Telecommunications Commission, this country of 8 million people which is marked by profound inequalities has 653 FM radio stations, 281 AM radio stations and 299 TV channels.»
Manuel Torres Calderón*/ Honduras, September 2014
One of Honduras’s important assets is its condition as a “media” country, which can have a positive or negative impact on the consolidation of democracy. The recent evolution of the Honduran media has three characteristics. The first is ownership of major media outlets by a limited number of stakeholders, the second is the proliferation of smaller media outlets, and the third is the expansion of new technologies.
According to the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), this country of 8 million people which is marked by profound inequalities has 653 FM radio stations, 281 AM radio stations and 299 TV channels (2013).
In recent years, there has been an increase in the presence of TV due to the expansion of cable systems. Today, Honduras has local, regional and national channels. At least 75% of the Honduran audience reports that it “obtains information” through TV, with radio and the written press ranking a distant second.
The marketplace mirrors that change in media preference. The National Statistics Institute reports that 95% of homes in the capital city of Tegucigalpa and the industrial city San Pedro Sula have at least one TV and that nearly half are cable TV subscribers.
The numbers for rural households are quite different: 36% own a TV and 9% have pay services. The “cableros,” as the owners of the cable system are known, represent a growing power that determines what the population should see and hear.
A Common Scenario
Media concentration in Honduras does not differ a great deal from that of many other Latin American countries. It is a global and transnational phenomenon, particularly in regard to digital TV, cable and new technologies associated with telecommunications. Transnational media capital competes with local businesspeople, who must sell out to them, partner with them or learn to coexist in the market.
The newest and most significant foreign competitor is Mexico’s Ángel González, who has acquired ten TV frequencies in Honduras, eight of which are operational. González owns thirty or so TV channels in Latin America and is very well-known in Nicaragua and Guatemala, where people say that he can get presidents elected or end their administrations.
In regard to “national” ownership, the main radio, written press and TV media are held by five families (Ferrari-Villeda, Rosenthal Oliva, Adonie, Flores Facussé and Canahuati-Larach). They in turn own or are major shareholders in a large variety of companies in different industries, such as banking, insurance, exports, processing and imports. Many of these are linked commercially, financially and politically to the government.
For example, the Ferrari-Villeda family owns 36 FM radio stations, 25 AM radio stations, 27 TV channels and an extensive cable system. The former presidential candidate for the popular Anti-Corruption Party, Salvador Nasralla, is employed by its company, Telesistema Hondureña S.A.
The OAS Office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression has stated in its reports that if the media “are controlled by a small number of individuals or social sectors, or by a single entity, a lack of plurality results that impedes the performance of democracy.”
The Proliferation of Small Media Outlets, But Not Messages
In contrast to the concentration of the large-scale media, many districts have a considerable number of small media outlets (radio and TV) with many different owners. However, this should not be interpreted as a democratization of the spectrum.
Many of these media outlets are owned by political leaders who reproduce the socially, commercially and ideologically conservative communications model. Marco Antonio Ramírez, a Liberal Party leader, owns 29 FM radio stations in different areas.
The exception may be a group of 20 or so community radio stations that advocate the construction of citizenship and defense of the public sphere. They generally have limited power and no certainty regarding their ability to continue to engage in their work from one day to the next. There are no government regulations that benefit them.
What do they need to keep from disappearing? Training, co-productions, a shared technology platform, sustainability capacities and the ability to function as a network in order to defend their interests.
The Expansion of New Technologies
Alongside the traditional media systems, there has been accelerated growth of new communications technologies, most notably Internet access to mobile telephony.
Major transnational capital appears here once again, including that of Carlos Slim through América Móvil, which owns the brand Claro, and the consortium Millicom International Cellular S.A., which owns Tigo, the strongest brand in the country. Their excessive privileges stand in stark contrast to the lack of protection offered to community radio stations by the government.
Honduras, like many other nations, has at least one active mobile phone line for every inhabitant. We have reached the point where mobile phone payment is now considered part of the basic basket of goods, which is incredible when one considers the fact that at least two thirds of the population of this country lives on two dollars per day.
The development of Internet and mobile telephony has created an interesting but as yet unexplored opportunity for freedom of expression. The potential in that field is enormous. Market studies reveal that 1.8 million Hondurans are Facebook users, 300,000 have active accounts on that service, and 2.5 million have smart phones and tablets.
Concentration of Ownership and Messages
Of the three characteristics of the media system, the one that causes the most concern and, to some degree, analysis is the concentration of ownership into the hands of a very limited number of people. However, the element that presents the greatest challenge to the environment and represents the greatest risk is concentration of the message, which does not distinguish between large, medium or small-scale owners.
The news and discussion agenda that is imposed from a space of formal power and from real powers shoots through the entire media apparatus like an electrical impulse, from the top down with few exceptions. The coup that fractured the country in 2009 created space for the voices of the opposition, but it was not strong enough to position a communications model that was different from the traditional one. The main difference is the flag of the party or caudillo that is followed. Plurality in news coverage does not exist.
The debate over true democratization of the written or broadcast word is still ongoing, and is practically frozen between party ideologies and political approaches and, to a large extent, overly simplified. Today, Hondurans have more access to the media but no to news veracity. The right to the freedom of expression and opinion is violated to the same extent as the rights to healthcare or work. Everyone is waiting for a time when there is true respect for this right.
* Extract from a talk on media ownership and concentration presented at the Free Voices Central American Regional Meeting which was held on July 23 and 24 in Guatemala. The event was organized by the Civitas Center. Manuel Torres Calderón is a journalist and a member of the Board of Directors of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras.