The most important legal initiative for democratizing the media in Uruguay that has been put forth in the past few years waits in a box somewhere in Parliament –with preliminary approval from the House of Representatives- until the national elections, which will take place on Sunday, October 26. The Frente Amplio and Partido Nacional are the only parties that are mentioning communications in their platforms, though their proposals are quite different from one another.
Fabián Werner*/ Uruguay, October 2014
During the administration led by José Mujica, the Frente Amplio (FA) promoted a bill for an Audiovisual Communication Services Law (LCSA) that was considered a model in regard to both its discussion and its final drafting by the Special Rapporteurs for Freedom of Expression of the UN and OAS. Despite this notable support, pro-government legislators could not –or did not know how to- approve it in time to avoid constitutional prohibitions against the creation of new positions in public administration.
The initiative was supported on and off by Mujica’s government, but was rejected with monolithic vehemence by business leaders and members of the opposition, who even announced that they would ensure that it was not approved (or repeal it if it had already been approved) if they won the elections.
Despite this media controversy, none of the parties challenging the official party in these presidential elections have included the issue in their platforms. And while Frente Amplio defends the progress made on this and other initiatives linked to telecommunications, it is not talking about the issue at public events organized for its candidates.
The Key Strategic Tools of the Frente Amplio
“Telecommunications is one of the strategic areas of the development of societies,” states an FA document, noting the progress made under the last administration in the deployment of fiber optics to households, which “positions Uruguay as a leading nation in the world in the areas of broadband and connectivity.” This aspect is worthy of note, even for those who drafted the platform for the opposition party Partido Nacional. However, the statements that have been issued have not included proposals for specific measures or elucidated how a third FA administration would use this modern infrastructure.
The FA document identifies equitable access to telecommunications services, the development of the sectors (“in which access to information and knowledge is a key factor”) and sovereignty (in order to “guarantee the country’s cybernetic security with policies aligned with the other countries in the region”) as the three axes of its program in this area.
The Left also highlights the role played in the past few years by ANTEL, the public telecommunications company, which it describes as a “flagship” in the application of public policy in this area. Without a doubt, the battle on this terrain will be ferocious, as the foundations of the platform set out by the Partido Nacional –the main challenger, coming from the center-right- propose completely opposite perspectives with a marked strengthening of the role of private companies in both mobile telephony and Internet services.
In regard to the media, the Frente Amplio states that, “The pluralism and diversity of the media system is an indicator of development given its high impact on the strength of the democratic system and promotion of an informed public.” Following this conceptual definition, the platform questions the situation of the Uruguayan media system in which the main business groups in national private commercial television have grown without any regulations and formed a national network of open and cable TV broadcasters with which they have dominated the country’s news agenda, marketing income and viewership.
After outlining the steps taken by the past few administrations linked to community radio broadcasting, the decriminalization of communications crimes and access to public information, the Frente Amplio document describes new procedures for granting radio and TV frequencies, makes mention of equitable distribution of the spectrum for the three sectors and calls for non-political use of official publicity, as had been the case in previous administrations”
The new normative framework for digital TV and call for new operators in the three sectors along with the promotion of the Audiovisual Communication Services Law are aspects of the government’s work that are noted in the document. The text then sets out strategic lines of action for telecommunications during the next period. These include “continuing to protect and promote the exercise of freedom of expression; the comprehensive application of the new Audiovisual Communication Services Law; the approval of legislation on official publicity; the expansion of the public media budget; the promotion of self-regulation of the media and respect for the rights of more at-risk social groups such as children; respect for communications workers’ rights; and the adoption of active government policies for promoting and supporting community media entities.”
In regard to access to the media, the FA commits to ensuring equity among the public, private-commercial and social-community sectors and to “limiting and avoiding undue concentration in the ownership and control of the media, maintaining the policy of expanding competition in the private sector, allowing and promoting the entry of new stakeholders in audiovisual communication services and reverting existing monopolies and oligopolies at the national and regional levels.”
Less Government, More Market
Partido Nacional is the only opposition party that is developing a platform that addresses the field of telecommunications. Its proposal includes a clear emphasis on the development of the market through increased opportunities for private investment. While the country’s position in this area is recognized and the progress made in recent years especially with infrastructure is noted, the blancos –as the leaders of this party are known- claim that a “modern institutional structure” has yet to be built. They criticize the dominance of the company ANTEL and the weakness of the communication services regulatory entity, URSEC.
“The important investment made in the fiber optic network must be capitalized to allow for the participation of new stakeholders in its use,” proposes Partido Nacional, observing that in a possible change of party in the administration, the private sector will be strengthened to the detriment of the public telecommunications company. The party is particularly concerned about the existence of a “right-wing monopoly on landlines” and “very unequal competition” in the mobile telephony field in which “only three entities split a market that has increasing levels of billing.” While the party does not offer any specific proposals related to this sector, these statements reveal the intention to create new private companies in the cellular telephony market with the resulting decrease in government presence.
The blancos are the only ones who address the issue of net neutrality as a matter of public policy. They define it as “a condition for protecting the exercise of freedom of information and expression” and claim that there is a need to protect it through the passage of a law, as has been done in Chile and the Netherlands. In any case, no concrete measures designed to guarantee neutrality are offered, though the authors of the platform hold that there is a need to approve standards that do not prevent Internet connection service providers from entering the business of contents but that ensure that they do not give priority to their contents over those of other entities.
The platform also proposes consumer protection against the formation of oligopolies and the possible violation of consumers’ private and safety on the Internet. This would be possible through the creation of the figure of the “digital ombudsman.” The document notes that “the government will be able to access information that new technologies are capable of providing, but only in a context that offers due protections and with judicial intervention. The role of independent auditors who will avoid the abuse of power by government or private entities is essential.” The platform does not provide information on specific measures.
The document also states that there is an interest in approving a new Telecommunications Law “developed through a dialogue with all public and private stakeholders and oriented towards encouraging user protection, the development of investment, technological innovation, and the protection of freedoms.”
Mention of the issue of telecommunications in the platforms of the various parties that are seeking the presidency is absolutely minor, and in the majority of cases consists of little more than an isolated statement in a speech or interview.
For example, the Partido Colorado platform hardly mentions the issue in the section on culture, assigning the work of disseminating cultural expressions throughout the country to “information and communications technologies.” Outside of the platform, Colorado candidate Pedro Bordaberry has presented proposals for installing technology parks focused on new information technologies, the division of the public telecommunications company into two decentralized services (one to provide infrastructure without competition and another service entity that would compete with private companies) and the promotion of access to the Internet as “a basic human right (French model) so that legislation to this effect can be introduced and a standard on net neutrality can be established.” The latter proposal is included in a with 60 government measures that the candidate released in April ahead of the June primary elections.
Meanwhile, the Independent Party’s platform only mentions the media as part of public policy for impacting the area of public safety and discusses telecommunications when it proposes that there is a need to improve existing infrastructure in the country in order to promote development. In his public speeches, Pablo Mieres has been one of the staunchest critics of the Audiovisual Communication Services Law, joining Nacional and Colorado party members who attribute to it intentions that threaten freedom of expression.
In this context, the bill must await the verdict of the elections to know whether progress will be made towards its approval or if it will drown without reaching the shore. From civil society, which supported this collective drafting process, the Frente Amplio leadership is expected to keep its promise of approving the bill after the elections and start to work on the regulation of the new standard. This will allow the country to move towards compliance with international standards in the area of freedom of expression.
*Fabián Werner is the Coordinator of the Freedom of Expression Area of the Access to Public Information and Archives Center (CAinfo) and is the Director of Sudestada.com.uy.
 Beyond this statement, the current administration reinforced the concentration of media with its digital TV development policy given that it privileged the right of private commercial channels to access a digital signal without meeting the requirements set out for new applicants.
 The handling of the guideline by the government in the midst of the campaign has been a point that has been repeatedly questioned by the opposition, which accused the administration of using public monies to promote its work.
 ANTEL survived a privatization attempt by the last Partido Nacional government (1990-1995) along with other government-run companies. This decision by then-President Luis Alberto Lacalle, the father of the party’s current candidate, could only be avoided through a public referendum in December 1992 in which around 70% of the votes were cast against the massive privatization that the administration proposed.
 Bordaberry presented 60 initiatives.
 Some 500 individuals and over 30 social organizations are calling for Frente Amplio not to delay the Audiovisual Communications law.