«The mere issuing of this law is not sufficient to guarantee the qualities of public service. The political class must refrain from making this public good its patrimony and the election of members of government agencies must not include practices such as party quotas…»
Patricia Ortega Ramírez*/Mexico, November 2014
Provisional Article 10 of the constitutional reform on telecommunications and broadcasting passed in Mexico in June 2013 lists a series of principles for the development of public TV and radio. The article states that “The public media that provide broadcasting service must have editorial independence; autonomy of financial management; guarantees of citizen participation; clear rules for transparency and accountability; defense of their contents; financing options; full access to technologies; and rules for the expression of ideological, ethnic and cultural diversities.” (Our translation.)
That reform suggested that Mexico could finally move from government media to public media. However, these principles were not taken up properly in the secondary law, which was issued the following year. Today we are facing a series of difficulties related to ensuring autonomy of management, editorial independence and social participation in approximately 250 radio stations and 280 TV stations that are in the hands of federal, state and municipal governments. The new Federal Telecommunications and Broadcasting Law does not clearly guarantee those principles. Legislators decided that the agencies responsible for concessions of public use are to define how they will ensure that those conditions are met.
It is paradoxical that it is the governments, many of which are accustomed to politically benefitting from these media channels, that must identify mechanisms for ensuring autonomy of management or the editorial independence of the channels under their power. The regulatory body is responsible for assessing whether an agency meets the requirements set out under the law, but the Federal Telecommunications Institute has yet to establish criteria for certifying that precept.
The Public Broadcasting Law, which was passed in July 2014, provides for a different situation. In view of the inconsistencies that we have already noted in the federal telecommunications structure, it is important to recognize that the creation of the new broadcasting system generates opportunities for introducing an authentic model of public service.
There is no single way to define a public media outlet. The role that public radio and TV have played in countries around the world has varied depending on the social and political space in which these media develop and the relationship that they establish with the government and society. However, if one analyzes the public broadcasting models that have emerged in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Canada, the United States, Chile and Colombia, to name just a few examples, we can see that although there are differences, they do share some characteristics. These include universality of service in terms of both geographic coverage and social reach; diversity and quality of content; autonomous management; societal participation in the direction and assessment of the media and government decisions; editorial independence; and service for minority and majority sectors. Of course, we are referring to basic qualities for the assessment of the fulfillment of the public service of broadcasting, but these are not the only ones that can be attributed to a public media outlet.
In international discussion of the topic, these qualities also have been recognized by political and academic sectors as essential principles for the public broadcasting service.
In this sense, we believe that the new Mexican Public Broadcasting System can become a true model of public communication. The law that regulates this agency sets out principles and attributes that could encourage work oriented by these precepts. It is a decentralized, non-sectorized and not-for-profit agency that, under the law, should have “technical, operational, decision-making and management autonomy” as well as editorial Independence (Article 1, our translation). I believe that there are three fundamental elements in the Public System Law:
1. Government structure. According to Articles 13 and 14 of this law, this is a structure that allows for decisions to be made in a collective manner and for the public to have a voice and vote in those decisions. The government board is composed of representatives of three State offices (government, public education and health), three members of the Citizen Council and the President of the system. The decisions are put to a vote and the President has the casting vote.
2. Citizen Council. In various countries in which the public broadcasting model has been successfully developed at the regional or national level, various forms of citizen participation have been incorporated into the assessment, orientation and government of public media. These councils are generally plural in nature. Civil participation in said councils is one of the founding principles of the public service.
Articles 22 and 23 of the Public Broadcasting System Law provide for the creation of a Citizen Council to ensure the independence of the system and “impartial and objective editorial policy….” That council will be composed of nine representatives of society who will be “selected through a broad public consultation by a two thirds vote of the present members of the Chamber of Senate.”
While the council may only express opinions, it is important to note that three of its members will have voice and vote on the Government Board. As such, it will be important to ensure that the members of these councils do not represent party interests or have individual interests in the audiovisual market.
3. Universality of service. Mexico does not have a national public media outlet. The creation of the new Public Broadcasting System will remedy this, thus broadening access to public media content for all citizens with no economic cost. But universality also implies production, acquisition and dissemination of content and the way in which they take up the concerns of social, political and ethnic minorities and majorities. We are referring to diversity of content as well as genre, format and everything that contributes to offering audiences different perspectives on reality. In the guiding principles of the Public Broadcasting System Law, basic elements are set out to guarantee diversity of content and national coverage.
The mere issuing of this law is not sufficient to guarantee the qualities of public service. The political class must refrain from making this public good its patrimony and the election of members of government agencies must not include practices such as party quotas. It is also important to recognize the limitations of the law in regard to the absence of financial autonomy. It is clear that the system will mainly depend on the funds allocated by the government.
* Professor and researcher at Universidad Autónoma de Xochimilco (UAM-X).