Central America and its democracies are facing the enormous legal, political, cultural, and institutional challenge of developing a human rights focus in communications. This necessarily requires the disassembly of the hyper-mercantilism that has characterized the region’s media map.”
Oscar Pérez and Armando Briñis*/November 2015
In the region of Central America, media concentration in commercial oligopolies (www.voces.org.sv) has been one of the main obstacles to the exercise of freedom of expression and the right to communication, particularly because it has become a barrier to the existence of a plural and diverse media system.
There is no doubt that the impact of concentration of media ownership in commercial media oligopolies presents an insurmountable barrier to the ability of other sectors of the population of Central America to disseminate their own ideas. It also stands in the way of citizen access to opinions and information that differ from that which has been established by the media agendas of commercial oligopolies, thus affecting the quality of regional democracy.
During the 156th period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), a hearing was held on the situation of the right to freedom of expression in Central America.
The following organizations took part in the hearing: the Citizen Board for the Human Right to Communications, the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC- Central American Sub-region), the Committee for Freedom of Expression (C-Libre), the Association of Community Radio Stations of Guatemala (ARCG), the Cultural Survival Association, the Foundation for Communication for Development (Comunicándonos), the Central American Institute for Studies for Social Democracy (DEMOR), Mujb’ab’l yol (Meeting of Expressions), and the Honduran Community Media Association (AMCH).
Barriers to Freedom of Expression and the Human Right to Communication
Central America and its democracies face the enormous legal, political, cultural, and institutional challenge of developing a human rights focus in communications, which necessarily requires the disassembly of the hyper-mercantilism that has characterized the region’s media map.
Due to the fact that they do not have national communications policies or legal frameworks that promote and effectively protect freedom of expression and the right to communication of the public, the governments of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are at the mercy of serious structural lacunae that threaten the health, stability, and progress of their political system. Any public policy or politico-legal framework that regulates radio and TV that does not enjoy a consensus of all of the sectors engaged in communication and that does not guarantee real options for balance in the functioning of public, commercial, and community media –without being afraid of making a mistake- will fail to strengthen plurality of voices, freedom of expression, and the quality of democracy.
Given the situation of constant threat against freedom of expression, the aforementioned organizations presented their position to the IACHR. Special attention was paid to the commercial logic that is dominant in Central America. It is not difficult to explain that in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the legal standards do not regulate communication as a human right. On the contrary, the legal framework or telecommunications laws have served the interests of commercial media oligopolies or monopolies, visibly affecting the plurality of voices and free circulation of opinions and ideas from all social sectors in the region. In short, this threatens the quality of the incipient Central American democracies.
In regard to the effects that are cause for concern and developed as a result of this absence of national communications policies and legal frameworks, and that affect freedom of expression and the right to communication in Central America, the following can be highlighted:
1. Concentration of the media is increasing in Central America and directly affects freedom of expression, the promotion of the plurality of voices, and the quality of democratic debate.
2. Community radio broadcasting is invisible and criminalized. In Central America, overwhelming and aggressive pressure is exercised by the commercial radio broadcasting sector. In telecommunications laws, there is no concept of not-for-profit broadcasting or community broadcasting. The only exception is Honduras, where a fragile set of rules has been issued for this type of entity.
As such, community radio stations have been forced to operate in a markedly adverse legal system designed within a mercantilist logic and in which this third sector of communications will always operate at a complete disadvantage.
3. The region has a limited or complete lack of plurality of voices that is expressed in the concentrated Central American media system. This is a sort of homogenization of news agendas given that the news priorities are determined on the basis of the owners’ interests and the parameters dictated by marketing and publicity without necessarily considering the collective interest in information. The paradigms that are disseminated tend to reproduce a societal ideal based on the conservative tradition, individualism, authoritarianism, the patriarchy, and patterns of consumption that come from northern counties.
4. The official publicity of Central American governments continues to use the media to reward or punish. There are no secondary standards on official publicity. The government’s marketing expenditures are generally decided by high-ranking members of the Executive Branch in order to reward or punish, responding more to political sympathies or antipathies than to technical criteria regarding the public or coverage or the promotion of the existence of more media outlets and greater plurality of voices.
Given this situation in which the right to freedom of expression and the human right to communication are threatened in Central America, the complainants argued that there is an urgent need for the Inter-American Commission and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression to pay attention to and support all efforts by Central American civil society to work together for greater freedom of expression and plurality of voices as strategies for strengthening the quality of democracy in the region.
*Members of Fundación Comunicándonos and the digital newspaper VOCES.