Since 2018, with the election of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in Mexico, Latin America’s political landscape has been turning to the left following several years of conservative dominance. Argentina soon followed in 2019 with the election of Alberto Fernandez. Gabriel Boric of Chile and Gustavo Petro of Colombia have been elected over the past eight months. Lula da Silva is widely expected to defeat Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil in a few months. In effect, most of the region’s major economies are being governed by progressive governments, often backed by well-organized social movements.
The last time a similar political moment took place was in the period between the early 2000s and the mid 2010s, when countries such as Ecuador, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Brazil implemented progressive agendas that, despite their many shortcomings, lifted millions of people out of poverty.
That political moment also had an impact on the region’s media and communication landscape. Many countries introduced new laws and public policy frameworks that sought to democratize access to the media, in some cases with the active participation of civil society movements as key players. Some examples were the Organic Law of Communication in Ecuador; the General Law of Telecommunications, Information and Communication Technologies in Bolivia; the Audiovisual Communication Services Law in Argentina; and the Media Law in Uruguay.
Those new frameworks had some elements in common, such as an effort to distribute broadcasting licenses more equitably between clearly defined sectors: the public sector (think public broadcasters such as the BBC), private or commercial media, and community/Indigenous groups.
Another was the introduction of measures to prevent and/or discourage the concentration of media in a few hands, especially in the hands of foreign or domestic capital conglomerates whose influence in other sectors of the country’s economy is too great. These policies also included the establishment of regulatory agencies with the ability to impose sanctions to enforce the new rules.
Ecuador and Bolivia went so far as to enshrine the right to communication in their constitution, becoming the first countries in the world to do. Even countries with more conservative governments implemented positive changes, such as laws that promoted access to public information, as in the case of Mexico, and the dismantling of legal frameworks that criminalized contempt and certain forms of public expression in Chile and Guatemala[i].
Nevertheless, many of those changes faced numerous obstacles. On the one hand, the private and commercial sectors, accustomed to a much more favourable regime, opposed the implementation of new policies, arguing that they constituted attacks on press freedom and freedom of expression. On the other hand, these new regulations emerged in highly-politicized environments and were often seen as tools for the governments of the day to promote their political agendas, making them vulnerable to being weakened or dismantled as new governments came into power. In addition, there were many failures in the implementation of these new frameworks, such as a lack of concrete and sustainable mechanisms to strengthen the community broadcasting sector. However, despite such problems, these processes represented a significant step forward for communication rights.
As new progressive governments come into power today, many are wondering about the extent to which these changes will translate into changes in communication policies. This time around, old challenges related to media concentration have been made even more complex by the increasingly centrality of digital communication. In particular, the nature of “media power” that many of these governments sought to reform has changed drastically: transnational digital giants such as Google and Facebook have become protagonists in the region’s media landscape, especially in terms of advertising revenue, very much at the expense of the influence of more traditional media groups such as Globo in Brazil and Clarin in Argentina. Furthermore, digital misinformation and disinformation, as well as “surveillance capitalism”, has exploded across the region, forcing governments to think about regulatory frameworks in ways they simply did not have to 10 or 15 years ago.
These new progressive governments would do well to draw on lessons from previous attempts to democratize the region’s media and communication ecosystems. From WACC’s perspective, the first, and perhaps most important, lesson, would be to work shoulder to shoulder with social movements and civil society already engaged in this space. In fact, most of the victories in terms of communication rights in recent years have been the result of sustained pressure from social movements.
By the same token, there is a significant opportunity for civil society organizations working on communication rights to establish broad and cross-cutting coalitions with groups working on other sectors in order to position communication rights as a building block of social progress.
Such coalitions must be diverse, inclusive and open spaces for dialogue with different actors, but they must also have the capacity to develop clear common agendas and objectives. This type of coalition must also have the tools to produce and disseminate knowledge, interact with state agencies, establish alliances with sectors of civil society that have not traditionally been involved in communication activism, and influence public opinion in favour of the democratization of communication. It is also essential that they be participatory coalitions so that they are truly legitimate.
A good place for these coalitions to start from would the following common principles:
- Communication is a human right that allows for the defence and promotion of other rights;
- The right to freedom of expression is an essential part of the right to communication;
- Cultural diversity is fundamental to achieve a more democratic communication system. The existence of a regulatory framework that promotes cultural expression, including those of marginalized groups, is necessary to guarantee cultural diversity;
- The electromagnetic spectrum is a common good and must be democratized. For this, there must be clear and equitable rules on the ownership and concentration of the means of communication to avoid the concentration of power in a few hands;
- The collection and analysis of vast amounts of personal data at the heart of “surveillance capitalism” is a process that is concentrated in the hands of private actors and state security agencies, at the expense of individual citizens and civil society. Collection of data has to be made more transparent, democratized, and be made to serve the common good instead of private commercial interests;
- States have the duty to regulate digital platforms in order to protect their citizens’ human rights;
- Citizens have the right to participate in governance processes and decision-making on communication policies;
- Community and citizen media are expressions of the right to communication and should be supported; and
- Efficient and equitable access to public information must be guaranteed
The establishment of more democratic communication policies is a long-term process, and their success depends in part on the political will of the government at the time and on the extent to which private sector actors such as large media conglomerates succeed in resisting change. WACC is keen to partner with organizations across the region to make use of this window of opportunity for the promotion of communication rights.
[i] Maria Soledad Segura and Silvio Waisbord. Media Movements: Civil Society and media Policy Reform in Latin America. ZED Books. 2016.