Andrés Colmán Gutiérrez*/Paraguay, May 2016
Television continues to be the media format with the greatest reach, penetration and power in Paraguay. However, seven of the country’s nine channels that broadcast via the VHF system are concentrated in the hands of two powerful business groups. Of the two remaining channels, one belongs to a smaller business group, while the other is owned by the State.
Channel 9, the country’s oldest TV broadcaster, was established over fifty years ago (1965) by the family of dictator Alfredo Stroessner. Over the following decades the channel was used as the mouthpiece of the regime. It subsequently passed through the hands of a number of politicians and businesses, and now belongs to the Latin American, Miami-based media network Albavisión, which is owned by the Mexican-American Angel «El Fantasma» González.
However, González, along with his Paraguayan and Argentine partners, doesn’t only own the historic Channel 9. They also run three more free-to-air channels: Channel 5 Paravisión, Canal 12 Paraná Tevé, and Channel 10 Sur.
The last two channels used to simply re-broadcast the contents of Channel 9. However, taking advantage of a political situation of instability following the parliamentary coup that ousted President Fernando Lugo in June 2013, his successor, Federico Franco, made certain changes to the internal regulations of the National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL), allowing Channels 12 and 10 to extend their transmissions to the whole country. This decision led to protests by the other affected channels, which filed a legal action before the courts citing unconstitutionality. The conflict continues at the judicial level, still unresolved.
With little journalistic content, the daily news programs mainly consist of police reports and neighborhood dramas with a sensationalist focus coupled with an excessive diffusion of «prepackaged» products, that is, Mexican and Venezuelan soap operas and popular US TV series. The four channels of the group owned by «El Fantasma» are distinguished by a policy line of coexistence with the government of the day and a current affairs focus that is much more propagandistic than critical.
In second place in terms of ownership concentration we find the Vierci Group, belonging to the wealthy Paraguayan businessman Antonio J. Vierci, owner of Channel 4 Telefuturo and Channel 11 La Tele, who now also manages Channel 2 Red Guaraní, owned by businessman Jose Luis Manzoni Wasmosy, cousin of former President Juan Carlos Wasmosy.
The Vierci group also manages other major media outlets, such as the Última Hora newspaper and Radio Monumental, and although the channels carry significant entertainment content, they also provide news programs with critically balanced content, and various interview/talk shows and political debates. The main stance adopted in terms of the government and de facto powers has been variable, and frequently the presenters of the main current affairs programs have demonstrated conflicting positions with respect to the struggles and demands of social movements.
A third and smaller business concern, the Chena Group, belonging to the young businessman Cristian Chena, owns Channel 13, a media organization that historically came into existence during the Stroessner dictatorship, becoming Paraguay’s second biggest channel. It is linked to a family that was very close to that of the dictator Stroessner, the Bo family. However, since then it has also passed through several political and business hands, until the arrival of the current owners.
Chena, who built his business empire on the sale of Internet domains and website products, has adopted a more journalistic approach in Channel 13, with news, talk shows and current affairs investigations, and a strongly critical editorial line regarding the present government of President Horacio Cartes. Chena also owns the popular daily newspaper “Extra,” and until only a few months ago was also the proprietor of one of the country’s most listened-to radio stations, Radio Cardinal, although this was recently sold to the owner of the ABC Color daily newspaper, Aldo Zuccolillo.
An attempt to break up the ownership concentration was made in 2011, during the government of the Socialist and Liberal alliance of former Bishop Fernando Lugo, when the then-Minister of Communications, Augusto dos Santos, instigated the creation of Public Television Channel 14. Unfortunately, the diverse focus and opening up towards social and cultural themes was brought to an abrupt end after the parliamentary coup that removed Lugo from power in 2013. Today, Public Television, which has since been renamed Paraguay HD TV, has adopted a more commercial line, although it lags far behind its corporate rivals, and has low audience ratings.
A tenth free-to-air channel managed to win a license in the VHF system and recently emerged, transmitting only at the regional level in the city of Encarnación in the department of Itapúa, in the south of the country. This is Mas TV, Channel 51, belonging to the Repsur Group, a powerful family of entrepreneurs based in that region, the Hrisuk family, which in the past were closely linked to the government of dictator Alfredo Stroessner. Today, the channel is now seeking to innovate its broadcasts by adopting a more journalistic approach, with numerous news and talk shows, and a much higher technical quality as it prepares to switch to a digital signal.
The high ownership concentration of TV channels, while having a powerful effect on the dynamics of the media and politics in Paraguay, has had a relative influence on the critical approach of the country’s main newspapers, as the latter have truly demonstrated an ability to mobilize citizens with their investigations, and capacity to bring down ministers. Moreover, TV entrepreneurs have also had to deal with a changing landscape and the increased offer of cable channels, as well as the forthcoming transfer from analogue to digital television, moving from the VHF to the UHF system, which will allow more transmissions to be made through the communications spectrum.
CONATEL has announced that the «analogue switch-off,» originally planned for 2022, will be postponed until 2024, although some of the present commercial channels announced they will start transmitting in digital format in 2018, and these will be joined by various new channels.
The new proposals for digital channels include one run by the Zuccolillo Group, headed by entrepreneur Aldo Zuccolillo, the director of ABC Color, the most influential newspaper in Paraguay. Zuccolillo has attempted on several occasions to acquire his own VHF TV channel, but was never able to purchase any of the existing channels, or be awarded a license concession for a new transmission, probably due to political reasons. He presently has a large digital television infrastructure in place, transmitting via the Internet from the digital page of his newspaper, but he clearly can’t wait to start expanding in the UHF system.
The great expectation is that the transfer to digital TV will be accompanied by an expansion in proposals allowing for the entry of new players, and that these will be more linked to social movements and the grass-roots/citizens’ sector; however, so far there have been few indications that this will actually happen. Although there are some projects of independent producers that propose alternative types of transmissions, such as the Let TV channel directed by the investigative journalist Augusto Barreto, with support from Ecuadorian businessman Carlos Aviles, owner of Lobo Entertainment Recording, it is more likely that those who enter the market are other local business groups with well-defined political interests, such as the Cartes Group, linked to current President Horacio Cartes. In the last year alone, the latter group has acquired the newspapers La Nacion, Crónica, Popular, and the radio stations 970 AM and Monte Carlo, and is deploying an entire television infrastructure in order to support the website of the La Nación daily newspaper and the HEI cable TV signal. These media platforms have so far maintained a largely pro-government stance, and have recently been accused of censoring a series of investigative reports on Catholic Church priests accused of pedophilia.
In spite of the accusations and persistent demands of representative bodies such as the Union of Paraguayan Journalists (SPP), the Paraguayan Journalists Forum (Fopep), and the organization Voces Paraguay that brings together representatives of the community radio sector, no effort has been made to create a new legal framework that places limits on the concentration of media ownership. Only strong mobilization and public pressure, backed by a range of political forces, would be able to reverse the present critical situation.
*Journalist and member of the Managing Board
of the Paraguayan Journalists Forum (FOPEP)