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Democratization of the media and governance in Latin America

 “From the perspective of the political actors involved, the problem lies in the extent to which these initiatives came into conflict with the imperatives of governance. Beyond their commitments and program preferences, concerns about political survival and reproduction, inevitably occupy a central place among those who assume governmental roles.”

Philip Kitzberger */ Regional, May 2015


Since the beginning of the present century, the role of the media has become the subject of unprecedented political mobilization in Latin America. This politicization has denaturalized the existing media order, ushering in an unparalleled debate on its democratic deficits.

In much of the region, the post-neoliberal political shift created the conditions that (re)motivated those social actors committed to media democratization so as to mobilize.

A series of government experiences of a more progressive nature were found to be receptive to these demands. Some, like those instigated by the Workers’ Party in Brazil and the Broad Front in Uruguay, responded to their historic commitment to the democratization of the media. Others, led by new leaderships that had emerged from situations of crisis, tested the possibilities of these agendas, taking into account their level of confrontation with the established sectors heavily represented in the traditional media.

Even in cases like Mexico, with governments removed from such demands for democratization, social mobilization against one of the most concentrated media systems in the region forced the inclusion of this issue into the political agenda.

Beyond this new scenario, the extent  to which (and way in which) these agendas were converted into legal reforms aimed at democratizing the sector varied widely depending on the power relationships in the different social, political and institutional arenas.

From the perspective of the political actors involved, the problem lies in the extent to which these initiatives came into conflict with the imperatives of governance. Beyond their commitments and program preferences, concerns about political survival and reproduction, inevitably occupy a central place among those who assume governmental roles. From this perspective, those actors who control resources that are potentially threatening for political stability itself, become the focus of strategic consideration. Media institutions control ideas, information, agendas, reputations, visibility and public legitimacy. In Latin America, these resources are heavily concentrated in large conglomerates and their control is framed within an instrumentalist culture that positions these resources according to corporate interests or specific political agendas. This configuration creates situations in which certain media actors are perceived as strategic for governance.

In spite of the erosion of audience domination that has come about due to changes in communications technologies, the on-going reputation of certain traditional media actors has made them effective powers able to influence the political process.

That power over reputation allows these actors to build effective power and  keeps certain issues from being placed on the political agenda. Moreover, it facilitates the conquest of institutional areas of influence,[1] the colonization of state agencies and negotiations, at hierarchical level, of market protections and reserves for their interests in increasingly competitive environments.

Although this phenomenon is widespread in the region, in terms of the different national contexts, various dynamics can be identified that determine different strategic options. In Argentina, for instance, the first Kirchner government was the product of a huge political crisis, had limited electoral legitimacy and was institutionally weak. In this genetic context, the pragmatic understanding with the Clarín Group, perceived as essential in order to foster dialogue with broad sectors of the society, appeared as the only strategic option guaranteeing governance. However, since the agrarian conflict of 2008, the hostile coverage of the government by the media outlets of this group made Clarín (in the eyes of the executive) irredeemably committed to its political downfall. Given this situation -and the broad endorsement within civil society for the government’s plans for the deconcentration of the media market- the government chose to veer towards a strategy of radical confrontation that created the setting for legal reforms.

The example of Brazil provides an interesting contrast to that of Argentina. It would be difficult to claim that the conglomerate headed by the Globo network has enjoyed a minor reputation as a strategic player capable of conditioning the country’s governance. In fact, and despite the historic rivalry, the Workers’ Party came to power in 2003 exploring a pragmatic understanding similar to that mentioned above. Moreover, the hostile coverage that accompanied the outbreak of the Mensalão crisis did not lead to a change in the government’s strategy, nor towards the adoption of a radical confrontational approach similar to that in Argentina. So what reasons accounted for this difference?

A major factor lies in the sequence of events that affected subjective perceptions regarding media power. In 2009, the Kirchner-led Judicialist Party lost the mid-term legislative elections following the start of hostilities with the Clarín group. Despite the massive loss of votes among urban middle-class sectors, Lula da Silva was reelected in 2006 after winning the support of working class sectors in Northeast Brazil. Consequently, both governments drew different lessons about the media’s ability to affect political survival. These considerations shaped the respective strategic options along with other political factors.

In 2009, and in the wake of its electoral defeat, the Kirchner government managed to build a majority in both houses of the legislature so as to approve the Law on Audiovisual Communication Services. In Brazil, major obstacles have hindered the potential formation of the majority needed to support the regulatory reform of the media sector.

Fragmentation of the party system has made the Workers’ Party the progressive ruling party with the lowest number of legislative representatives in the region. The WP on its own has not exceeded 18% of legislators in either legislative chamber since forming its first government. And even with its leftist allies (with whom it shares reformist commitments) it has not exceeded the 30% quota. In fact, the WP has governed as part of a broad coalition of between 8 and 12 parties, some of which are highly pragmatic, and others directly conservative.

In Brazil, legislators are elected by a system of proportional representation on the basis of an open list which, by personalizing electoral competition, makes them particularly vulnerable to media scrutiny. This stands in contrast to Argentina, where closed electoral lists provide greater weight and autonomy to political-partisan organizations.

Added to this greater media influence on political careers is the presence of a complex web of interests between political and media elites in Brazil. Since the return to democracy, the granting of radio and television licenses to local politicians has acted as an important resource for various governments in order to obtain support. Thus, a high percentage of legislators have developed local media interests, and many of them have formed links, under conditions of affiliation, with the country’s large media chains, particularly the Globo Network. This complex web has been deemed the «electronic rule of the coronels”  and can be noted in the legislature as a virtual «media caucus», with a strong presence in both chambers and specific legislative committees. Although in Argentina there are certainly links between politicians and the local media, these have not been extended and connected in any comparable fashion.

This brief comparison underlines the situation without depleting the importance of the relevant contexts. The fate of the demands for media democratization depends on their ability to articulate –and without losing direction- with the governance concerns of their allies in the political arena.

* Torcuato Di Tella University. Conicet


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[1] The formation of the so-called “Tele-bench” in the Mexican Congress is an eloquent example.

... (en este espacio hay varias líneas de código de programación personalizado)