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Media Concentration in Costa Rica: Serious Limitations on Analyzing and Exercising Communication as a Human Right

«The situation of Costa Rica’s media is an expression of the socio-political processes that have developed in that nation over the past few decades.»

Lisbeth Araya, Adrián Avendaño and Eva Carazo*/  Costa Rica, September 2014

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The situation of Costa Rica’s media is an expression of the socio-political processes that have developed in that nation over the past few decades. Robles and Voorend (2012) suggest that the traditional mass media, particularly TV and radio, played an important role in the process of transnationalization and diversification of groups with economic power in the country in the context of the profound socio-economic changes experienced in Central America beginning in the 1980s.

The crisis of those years and the period of instability that followed led to the structural breakdown of the interventionist model of government in Costa Rica. They also led to the rise of a group of technocrat-politicians who began to work with international financial institutions to implement a series of adjustments oriented towards what could be called the neoliberal reformist model that contemplates the liberalization of markets, the privatization of public companies and deregulation (Robles and Voorend, 2012).

In terms of social structures, the groups that held power maintained close connections to spaces of political decision-making and increased their participation in new spaces of wealth accumulation, particularly the financial, tourism and real estate sectors.

Robles and Voorend (2012) also state that the media can be a privileged space for transnational investment, which generated an accelerated process of concentration over the last two decades. One example of transnationalization of the media is the case of Ángel González, owner of at least 30 TV channels and 70 radio stations in Latin America. His group Repretel owns the Costa Rican TV Channels 4, 6 and 11 (1). Following the purchase of Grupo de Comunicación Monumental in 2006, he strengthened his control in the radio industry through (…) what is currently known as Central de Radios…. Thirty five of Costa Rica’s radio stations are in the hands of five groups, and the government only owns 11% of the radio licenses…. In the case of open TV, Ángel González competes with the company TELETICA, which is owned by the Picado Cozza family and controls channels 7 and 33. The entity is also the owner of the cable TV companies Cable Tica and Cable Color (Robles and Voorend, 2012: 152-4).

As the ownership concentration process has developed, the media has focused on articulating and justifying the neoliberal model (Sandoval, 2007: 306) and has played a key role in the reproduction of the conflict of economic, political and media interests in Costa Rica today (Fournier-Pereira, 2009).

As such, Costa Rica has a media context that is characterized by an intense intertwining of economic and political interests that actively promote the material and symbolic consolidation of a neoliberal economic model. These processes are facilitated by significant media ownership concentration and the resulting absence of alternative voices with real opportunities for incidence in those situations. “The greater the audience, the greater the concentration in publicity, which excludes others from the market.” (Robles and Voorend, 2012: 152)

Standards and Regulations

In order to construct and protect communication as a right, we must understand its connection to diverse socio-cultural processes which are necessary for coexistence. There is also a need to generate tools that will allow for that protection to be effective. Interests and power relations come into play through communications, which is a system of interrelations and construction of meaning. It is thus necessary to create legal structures that allow for the human right to communication to be recognized, ensure that it is respected through public policies, and regulate access to and use of the media and technologies that facilitate or stand as obstacles to the exercise of that right.

Though Costa Rica’s Political Constitution guarantees, for example, freedom of association, petition and expression through Articles 26 through 29 (Political Constitution of the Republic of Costa Rica, 1949), the right to communication as such as not recognized in the applicable legislation of the country. On the contrary, the national legal context is fairly lax in this area, and the absence of regulation plays against the recognition and protection of communication as a collective and universal right (Salas, personal communication, July 11, 2012).

Below we will review some of the main contents of Costa Rican legislation related to communications, particularly in regard to the possibility of guaranteeing communication as a right.

The Radio Law

The Radio Law (No. 1758) was passed in 1954. Following a series of reforms, it now only retains 12 substantive articles, the first of which sets out government control and the administration of wireless services (including radio and TV) or their use by private parties through granting of concessions for public frequencies or assignment of the same under special conditions. This law has historically served as the basis for the granting of concessions for public frequencies in the country, though it is insufficient in the current context.

The foundations of this law, which was passed by Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly in 1954, include:

A basic procedure for obtaining concessions (Article 7)

Recognition of the shared responsibility of radio station owners if they allow transmissions that by are against the law, intentionally or otherwise (Article 8)

The granting of a weekly 30 minute block to the government by commercial radio and TV stations (Article 11)

The regulation of percentages of foreign production to be broadcast as well as the taxes to be charged for the same (Article 11)

e) The prohibition of certain actions such as the use of vulgar language or the “provision of reports to the enemy in case of war” (Article 17 c, 17 ch, 17 h).

f) The introduction of annual radio taxes of between 1,000 and 3,000¢, the payment of which guarantees automatic extension of concessions (Article 18).

Though the transfer or sale of rights to frequencies without prior authorization from the government is prohibited, that practice is not sanctioned and takes place openly in Costa Rica (Salas, personal communication, July 11, 2012).

Costa Rica’s Radio Law is not sufficient in the current context of the country and the world, and falls short when it comes to regulating the operation of key media systems such as radio and TV. The growing concentration of frequencies in the hands of national and international conglomerates is undoubtedly facilitated by these holes in the legislation.

In an opinion piece entitled “El insólito regalo de frecuencias de radio y televisión al sector privado,” Villalobos (2012) notes that radio and TV frequencies were gifted (practically for life) to the private sector following the initial application of Radio Law No. 1758. This favored the concentration of the media in the hands of a few family nuclei, just as Robles and Voorend described. This also reflects the Central American trend described by Becerra and Mastrini (2009) in Los dueños de la palabra: The phenomenon of telecommunications has been poorly regulated by the Costa Rican government…. The regulation has come from rules… which have always been subject to the interests of the politicians in office…. The canons for the use of frequencies have not been updated in the past 40 years due to the pressure exercised by concession holders…. (Villalobos, 2012).

Media concentration goes directly against a principle that is inherent in regard to the right to communication: pluralism (Becerra and Mastrini, 2009; Villalobos, 2012).

The General Telecommunications Law

Another important regulation in this area in Costa Rica is General Telecommunications Law No. 8642, which was approved in June 2008 in the context of the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. It is mainly oriented towards allowing the use of the radio spectrum for private telephony and telecommunications companies in the new context of opening of those services.

It is interesting to analyze, for example, Article 29 of this law, which states: …the use of radio and TV for news, cultural and recreational purposes is a private activity of public interest. The granting of concessions and the provision of radio and TV services will continue to be regulated by Radio Law No. 1758 … its reforms and its regulations. SUTEL will be responsible for conducting the activities and studies necessary to prepare concession competitions and recommend their granting or not to the Executive Branch…. The contents of this article notwithstanding, the networks that support radio and TV services are subject to this law in the area of planning, administration and control of the radio spectrum, access and interconnection and the sectorial regime of jurisdiction provided for in this law…. (General Telecommunications Law of Costa Rica, No. 8642, 2008. Our italics.) 

This article defines radio broadcasting as a necessarily private activity, which makes it difficult for it to be recognized as a collective right though it is considered to be of public interest. In the same sense, while radio broadcasting services are subject to the old and weak Radio Law, which as we have seen facilitates the granting of concessions that are practically for life, the radio networks and spectrum that allow for the existence of said services are regulated under the General Telecommunications Law. This means, for example, that new information and communication technologies would be developed in Costa Rica under the logic of commercial competition, which lacks the perspective of guaranteeing the collective right to communication, as occurred with radio and TV. Unfortunately, this contradicts Articles 2 and 3 of the law, in which the guiding principles that are set out are universality, solidarity, benefit for the user and transparency (General Telecommunications Law of Costa Rica No. 8642, 2008).

* Extract of an article published in Anuario de Estudios Centroamericanos and presented at the XII ALAIC Conference in Lima Peru on August 8. 

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