Diego de Charras *
There is a need to recover the processes of debate in the public domain propitiated by different civil society actors in different countries that culminate with the treatment of propitiatory norms for the democratization of communication. But it is also necessary to forge a recovery that is able to go beyond the restricted issue of audiovisual content and the national nature of advocacy and forge a public debate on issues related to human rights on the Internet.
Almost two decades ago, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights entrusted the states with the adoption of measures to prevent the abusive concentration of ownership and control of the media, including antitrust laws, as a necessary condition to ensure the diversity and plurality of voices. Subsequent pronouncements of the Inter-American System and the United Nations have underlined that the undue concentration of media ownership undermines democracy, and in whatever form it attempts to adopt.
During the first years of the 21st century, several Latin American countries were observed to be in the process of reforming their audiovisual media legislation. In terms of stories and different media and political systems, an attempt was made to move forward with modifications that would help settle pending debts. This included the incorporation of new social subjects into the media system, the power of States in the intervention and regulation of the conditions of access to public debates in the media, the establishment of limits on media ownership concentration, and the promotion of domestically produced content, among others.
At the time that these legislative reforms were being raised, most of the recovered democracies in the region had been in existence for more than two decades, and had delayed dealing with the issue of pluralistic and democratic legislation. Also at that time, many of the national media groups (such as Televisa, Rede Globo and Clarín, among others) had been projecting on an international scale, reaching agreements with foreign corporations such as Telefónica, Prisa or Time Warner. Added to this, and as a result of the incorporation of future plans for technological convergence, and crossovers or displacements from a strictly media perspective (or content production) to the area of telecommunications or satellite transmissions (or distribution infrastructure), was the relevance of other actors such as América Móvil or Direct TV.
Media corporations throughout the region, however, did not take long to voice their unanimous objection to the new regulations. This generally took the form of lobbies by industry associations, led by the Inter-American Press Association, and which can be divided into three lines of intervention: i) to put pressure on governments prior to the approval of legislation to not include any regulations that could affect the business interests of the media outlets, arguing the principle that «the best law for the media is the one that doesn’t exist»; ii) after approval of such legislation, challenging its constitutional legality in the courts of law; iii) in the event of a change in government, ensuring that the first initiatives of the new administration include rescinding such regulations.
Where new legislation sought to neutralize threats to diversity and trends towards the homogenization of public discourse, the business stance adopted by companies was basically associated with increasing the size of their profits, along with technological possibilities that the companies themselves hailed as a guarantee of pluralism. However, the experience of recent decades throughout the Western world has shown that in no case did technological progress, by its mere existence, imply the democratization of communications. And in some cases it has even had adverse consequences.
It is true that technological interventions were accompanied by some new problems. But many others simply rehashed old debates in the light of new digital environments. All of which forces us to rethink the role of the State as guarantor of the human right to communication.
Paradoxically, some actors who rejected state anti-concentration interventions are today, with the arrival of the two giants of Google and Facebook, demanding laws and state interventions to limit informational exploitation. According to Jorge Fontevecchia, owner of the Argentine newspaper Perfil: «What the different authoritarian regimes could not do was achieved by Google and Facebook by cornering 80% of the world’s digital advertising revenues, thus denying media companies the best part of their income. Do not confuse Internet or social networks with Google and Facebook. There are millions of internet companies in the world but only two, which more than internet or technological companies are advertising corporations, and have become the predators of editorial offices. Nor does the problem that Google and Facebook create for the ecosystem of cultural industries have anything to do with technology or anything else new. It is simply the old problem of monopoly and the abuse of a dominant position, which is as old as capitalism itself. For this is abuse that allows them to use the content produced by journalists without paying for it and then using that content to sell advertising. Greed is not only inherent to the physical world; it is also part of the digital world.»
Such concern has a basis. In Argentina, advertising revenue channeled to the Internet rose from 0.7% in 2002 to 25% in 2018, while the printed press recorded a fall from 46.2% in 2002 to 15% in 2018. This requires us to rethink some of the historical consensus about the centrality of journalistic work in the information industries, when, on the one hand, it is the public itself that produces the content that it consumes on some of the platforms and, on the other, it is an algorithm that directs people to contents produced by third parties that charge no fees. This undermines the social position of creative and cultural workers such as journalists, musicians, playwrights, screenwriters and actors, among others. Are we facing a paroxysmal moment of capitalism in which the bourgeoisie appropriates a job for which it does not even pay the cost of a basic livelihood?
However, if journalistic practices were impaired by the new platforms, they were also damaged by technological incorporations into the working process in the context of a concentration of ownership that encourages a precarious work environment. This involves new challenges both in terms of training and protection of labor rights, particularly when the intention is that a journalist with a next-generation cell phone undertakes the work previously carried out by a reporter, a cameraman, a producer and an assistant. Much of the discussion is also linked to avoiding the concentration of wealth at the expense of the workers who sustain the information industries, when it is assumed that in a large proportion of these, points of contact, audiences and profits can grow without any increase in production costs.
There is a need to recover the processes of debate in the public domain propitiated by different civil society actors in different countries that culminate with the treatment of propitiatory norms for the democratization of communication. But there is also a need for a recovery that manages to transcend the subject restricted to the audiovisual and the domestic nature of advocacy. There is a need for articulations from a civil society perspective within the global south that diagnose and propose contents and actions linked to the right to communication in general. That is, which can position within the public debate issues related to human rights on the Internet; the responsibility of intermediaries; audiovisual regulation; the right to privacy; access to public information; and democratic administration of official guidelines, etc. For in many cases these issues remain hidden.
Throughout the last two decades, different movements and social groups were the great promoters of the democratizing reforms of the media landscapes in our respective countries, and had even begun to be viewed as partners and even strategic allies of the states. After years in which their voices had been kept confined to marginal spaces by the traditional agenda makers, especially the commercial media conglomerates, it was these social movements that found in human rights standards the support needed to promote unprecedented institutional, political, social and cultural reforms.
There remains then an arduous task to amplify not only the issues but the limits, the agreements and the capacity for advocacy of a civil society that, even in its dispersion and heterogeneity, has demonstrated in different supranational instances to be able to challenge the de facto powers of large corporations and even of states.
Director of the Degree Course in Communication Sciences of the Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA). Teacher and researcher in Communication. Twitter @DiegodeCharras