Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom

MEDIA-LATIN AMERICA: Behind-the-Scenes Censorship

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 15 2008 (IPS) - A study carried out in seven countries of Latin America found a “growing trend” in the region of subtle, largely invisible government interference with the media and journalistic independence.

Examples of this “behind-the-scenes government interference with media freedom and editorial independence” are the arbitrary distribution of government advertising with the aim of influencing news coverage and punishing critics, direct advertising payments to individual reporters, or phone calls to editors from government officials upset over certain news coverage, according to the new report, which was released in Argentina on Thursday.

“The Price of Silence: The Growing Threat of Soft Censorship in Latin America”, which focuses on Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Peru and Uruguay, was produced by the Argentine Association for Civil Rights (ADC) and the New York-based Open Society Justice Initiative, with country-specific research by civil society groups and researchers in the various countries involved.

“Until a few years ago, serious interference predominated in the region, like persecution, direct censorship or even murders of journalists,” Eleonora Rabinovich, director of the ADC freedom of speech programme, told IPS.

“Now these forms of interference are on the decline, fortunately, although more subtle and less visible, but equally harmful, practices have cropped up,” she said.

The countries studied were chosen because experts are aware of “soft censorship” practices employed there, and with a view to diversity in terms of geography and markets, said Rabinovich. “We cannot say the criterion we used was to study the worst cases, no, not all,” she stressed.

The study, which also refers to specific cases in Mexico, Guyana, Paraguay and Nicaragua, says “governments across the region routinely use advertising contracts to reward or punish media outlets for their content.” It adds that “Government officials who commit such abuses rarely violate the letter of domestic law”.

This is another aspect highlighted by the study: the lack of a legal framework to make the allocation of public advertising “transparent and fair.”

Of the seven countries studied, only Peru has passed a law on the distribution of government advertising, in 2006, says the report, although it states that the legislation is too vague to be effective.

“There are no laws in the countries we studied that specifically prohibit discrimination based on media viewpoint,” according to the authors, who say that the lack of transparency and the “centralisation of decision-making in political appointees lends itself to politically motivated abuses of government advertising.”

The most frequent abuses involve the misuse of government advertising to influence media content, says the report, which mentions cases in Costa Rica, Peru, Chile and Honduras, where government officials have used it to secure favourable media coverage.

In the words of Honduran journalist Rodolfo Montalván, as quoted by the report, “the government tries to give you an advertising contract so that you shut your mouth. The criterion the government uses is the journalist’s or media’s silence. Here they don’t purchase the ad; they buy your conscience, your vision as a journalist.”

Then there are the direct advertising payments to reporters. In Honduras, where such payments are “an institutionalised practice,” according to the authors, journalists are even forced to sign contracts requiring favourable coverage of government activities, and payment is simply stopped if this is not forthcoming.

Similar practices can be found in Chile, as well, where there are contracts establishing that a local media outlet cannot criticise the mayor, for example.

And in some regions of Colombia, “we found that the practice of soliciting advertising contracts from government officials is very widespread,” say the authors. They point out that reporters’ salaries are small or even nonexistent, especially in the case of radio journalists, who often derive most of their incomes from personally selling advertising space to the government.

Mabel Morales, news director at the RCN radio station in the northern Colombian city of Barranquilla, says her salary is enough to buy “chewing gum,” and that the rest of her income depends on the advertising she obtains.

In Chile, reporters from several regions say they have to treat the National Copper Corporation (CODELCO), the country’s biggest public enterprise, “with kid gloves,” especially in areas where it finances coverage and travel expenses, and provides advertising contracts.

These practices are “especially insidious” in the case of local or regional media, which often depend on public advertising for their very survival.

But even journalists earning good salaries with national media outlets are tempted by the money offered by government advertising.

“In Argentina, the national government often makes generous advertising payments to journalists who write in influential national print media but have radio or cable television programmes with low ratings,” says the report.

And in Chile, most government advertising goes to “a handful of national print and broadcast media,” it adds.

The report also mentions the case of the Colombian government of Álvaro Uribe, which from 2005 to 2007 “made consistent and suspiciously high allocations to the economic newspaper La República, which is generally supportive of government policies and not a top-circulation publication.”

Something similar occurred in Argentina with the daily newspaper Página/12, which received from the administration of Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) “a highly disproportionate share of government advertising that cannot be justified by the paper’s circulation or any other competitive advantages.”

By contrast, two other publications, Perfil and Noticias, which tended to be critical of the Kirchner administration, received no public advertising in 2006 or 2007. In addition, journalists with the two publications were systematically denied access to high-level government officials, the report says.

Journalists also complain about pressure exercised through phone calls to them or their bosses. A Costa Rican TV news journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity said “It is very common to receive phone calls from government officials, even at one’s home, and at any hour. This happens in all the media and at all levels.”

And in Uruguay, “Although editorial pressures…have diminished under the current (leftwing) administration, senior Uruguayan officials have called media directors to influence the content of what they publish, especially directors of media that are relatively less critical of the current administration,” the report says.

Such pressure “triggers waves of self-censorship that chill entire newsrooms and are capable of silencing even the most courageous reporters”.

Other forms of subtle or not-so-subtle reprisals include denying critical journalists access to public information, or refusing to issue broadcasting licences to certain radio or TV stations.

But the authors also welcome the creation of draft laws aimed at ensuring a less arbitrary use of public resources, including advertising funds.

At the time the report was written, seven draft laws to reform government advertising regulations had been introduced in Congress in Argentina, although one had already lost parliamentary status.

And in 2007, the Supreme Court set a positive legal precedent in a case for discrimination against a provincial newspaper which lost ads after it published reports on corruption in the local government.

In Chile, a multiparty parliamentary commission carried out an exhaustive report on the issue that was presented to the government of socialist President Michelle Bachelet to get it to adopt measures to prevent arbitrary handling of advertising, and in Uruguay a debate on the question has also been opened, although it has not yet given rise to any concrete initiatives.

The authors call for “a public and enforceable commitment at all levels of government to refrain from using advertising and other financial or indirect pressures to interfere with media freedom and independence.”

They also urge governments to “(a)dopt and implement clear and specific laws that establish fair, competitive, and transparent contracting procedures,” “(e)nsure that decisions for allocation of government advertising are not concentrated in the hands of political appointees,” and “(r)efrain from using government advertising…for electoral, partisan, or personal promotional purposes.”

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