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FEATURE STORY

Latin American media: freedom of the press or a dictatorship of the click?

June 30, 2014

Communications experts analyze Latin American media law in the context of the region’s digital revolution

This article most likely arrived to you by recommendation of Facebook and/or Twitter, which makes you part of the growing legion of global users —250 million of them Latin America— who use the web and social networks to keep informed.

Latin America is experiencing a true digital transformation that is radically changing the way in which users receive information. It is forcing governments to adapt media legislation to the new times.

In discussions of this phenomenon, the most pressing question is: Is there more or less freedom of expression in the region as a result of the digital revolution and the new media legislation?

That question was at the center of the debate of a group of experts who met last Thursday and Friday in Washington, convened by the World Bank, Inter-American Dialogue, National Public Radio and the Carter Center. The Freedom of the Press and Digital Transformation in Latin America forum expanded beyond the confines of the auditoriums through social networks with the hashtag #mediosdigitales.

 “Freedom of expression is one of the liberties that society needs to be completely free,” wrote Tony Mora from the Dominican Republic on Facebook, a view that resonates with thousands of users of social networks.

On Twitter, Eliana Barrios asked if freedom of expression should be regulated, “or is it the same thing as censuring?”

Regulation versus freedom of expression?

While the word “regulation” triggers adverse reactions in many people, experts agree that, like in the rest of consolidated democracies in the world, the countries of the region need media laws not to limit freedom of expression, but rather to promote it.

 “Well-defined, open and respectful legislation is an essential tool for guaranteeing the right to full freedom of expression and of information to all citizens and media,” said Sergio Jellinek, World Bank External Affairs Manager for Latin America. He added that the pending task in the region is to achieve media plurality in the context of digitalization.

Media law should not be viewed as a mechanism to silence and censure the press and independent journalists, according to Gustavo Gómez Germano, author of the book La regulación de medios y de televisión digital en América Latina. But that legislation must respect the rights of the individual.

 “Our region needs to review and reformulate legislation on communications media to uphold recommendations of international bodies such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and to remove obstacles to the full exercise of these freedoms, for example by repealing ‘contempt’ laws and de-penalizing defamation in cases of public interest,” said Gómez, who directs the Latin American Observatory on Regulation, Media and Convergence. The expert stressed that media regulation should not affect media content, which “should remain in the hands of journalists.”

Silvio Waisbord, director of graduate studies at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, agrees with him. Waisbord believes that traditionally, there was a negative perception of the role of the state in guaranteeing freedom of expression because it functioned as a “huge piñata of resources.”

The dictatorship of the click

On Friday, the media forum moved from the World Bank to National Public Radio (NPR), the U.S. venerable public radio station. On that forum, participants suggested that the digital revolution has turned the traditional press upside down and that there is still no clear business model to guarantee the survival of media outlets. Even so, it is important for digital platforms to adapt to audiences, said NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos.

Pluralism in Latin American media systems was also discussed on the forum.

“Regulation has not improved citizen inclusion,” said Omar Rincón, director of the Journalism Institute of Colombia’s Universidad de los Andes.

For other experts, the real dictatorship “is that of the click,” in other words, the act users perform to open a web page.

“The click takes place in a context of competition where rigor and ethics as well as depth take a back seat,” said Daniel Moreno, director of the Mexican news site Animal Político. He believes that this pressure causes more harm than good in terms of informing the public.

In this sense, Óscar Martínez of El Faro, a pioneering digital newspaper based in El Salvador, claimed that some online media have managed to “depoliticize” coverage of the national situation, which has surprised readers given that they have traditionally identified a medium with an ideological tendency. “We stopped resembling political parties at some point and began to seem like people governed by ethical and professional standards,” he said.