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

CHILE: Media Empires Undermine Pluralistic Democracy

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Dec 3 2009 (IPS) - Chile is a classic example of the concentration of media ownership in too few hands, says Chilean journalist María Olivia Mönckeberg in her latest book “Los magnates de la prensa” (The Press Magnates). If the state does not exercise stricter regulation, democracy itself may be undermined, she warns.

“Today, in the run-up to the celebration of the Bicentennial (of Chilean independence), I think we are facing the worst situation for freedom of expression and ownership of the media, in terms of democracy and pluralism, since the early 1990s,” when democracy was restored after 17 years of dictatorship, Mönckeberg told IPS.

Mönckeberg, who was awarded the National Journalism Prize this year, said concentrated ownership of the media is a worldwide problem, but added that “Chile is a rather special case” because the system is “more tightly closed, and very lightly regulated,” and has been taken over by “extremely right wing” economic groups.

Her book, “The Press Magnates: Media Concentration in Chile”, published under the Debate imprint by Random House Mondadori, was launched in Spanish on Nov. 11 in Santiago.

In its 522 pages, the journalist spells out in detail who owns the media in Chile, the help some of them received during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of the late general Augusto Pinochet, and the intricate political, economic, social and religious networks they comprise today.

The disturbing diagnosis by Mönckeberg, who is the present registrar at the University of Chile’s Communication and Image Institute, is set out on page one of the book, which she was able to finish thanks to a grant from the government National Book and Reading Fund.

“Paradoxically, when the Chilean press came to birth it was critical, libertarian and republican, flowing from the passionate pen of Fray Camilo Henríquez, who founded La Aurora de Chile, the country’s first newspaper, soon after the Declaration of Independence” in the early 19th century, she writes.

“But now that Chile is approaching its Bicentennial celebrations, its newspapers serve the interests of influential rightwing economic groups that are more concerned with consolidating their profits and projecting their ideology, than with reporting from a broad perspective and encouraging communication between citizens,” she adds.

Concentration of ownership is the overwhelming reality in the printed press; radio stations “show similar symptoms”; and television, launched originally by the Catholic University of Valparaíso, is highly commercial in nature, swamped with showbiz celebrities, reality shows, gory crime reports and sensationalism, Mönckeberg’s book says.

Among the media magnates scrutinised by the journalist and academic are Agustín Edwards Eastman, owner of the El Mercurio chain of newspapers, Álvaro Saieh, head of the Consorcio Periodístico de Chile (COPESA), and Sebastián Piñera, owner of the Chilevisión television channel and the presidential candidate for the rightwing Coalition for Change.

The El Mercurio group, with around 20 national and regional newspapers, and COPESA, which controls the newspapers La Tercera, La Cuarta and La Hora, a radio network and the magazines Qué Pasa and Paula, comprise a “duopoly” in the Chilean press.

“There is no room in these media for critical voices, or for views that differ from the editorial line, which takes a conservative position in politics and a neoliberal one in economics. Even the letters to the editor are examined through the filter of those who control these newspapers,” Mönckeberg writes.

“Their policy is to exclude articles that would displease the owners or their networks of friends, partners and advertisers. The journalists know this and toe the line, keeping quiet or practising self-censorship when they foresee that a given topic could be thorny or inconvenient,” she says.

Mönckeberg also tackles the business interests of the late billionaire Ricardo Claro, who owned the Megavisión television channel and the magazine Capital, as well as those of powerful foreign investors like Carlos Slim and Remigio Ángel González of Mexico, and Italian-American John Malone.

“What do we see? That Edwards on the one hand and Saieh on the other, together with those who wield power in private television stations, have constructed a kind of fence walling off any real possibility of getting to know Chilean reality in much greater depth, or doing high-quality journalism and generating more substantial debates,” she told IPS.

The author, who worked for the opposition weeklies Análisis and Hoy and the newspaper La Época, which folded after the transition to democracy, quotes several academics who agree that the lack of pluralism in Chile got worse after the dictatorship was replaced by the centre-left Coalition of Parties for Democracy, which has governed the country since 1990.

This was because the Coalition left virtually untouched the neoliberal political and economic order that had been imposed by the dictatorship, with its laissez-faire approach to market forces.

Power, and the way it is concentrated in different spheres, has been a constant interest of Mönckeberg’s, who studied journalism at the Catholic University of Chile, and teaches journalism ethics and investigative journalism at the University of Chile.

This is shown by her previous published investigations: “El saqueo de los grupos económicos al Estado chileno” (How Chile’s Economic Groups Sacked the Chilean State), published in 2001; “El imperio del Opus Dei en Chile” (The Opus Dei Empire in Chile, 2003); “La privatización de las universidades. Una historia de dinero, poder e influencias” (The Privatisation of the Universities: Money, Power and Influence, 2005); and “El negocio de las universidades en Chile” (The University Business in Chile, 2007).

“The research results show that the phenomenon of concentration has spread the length and breadth of the country, and that in most regions, people and organisations are left with no means of expression or voice of their own,” Mönckeberg says in her book.

A graphic example of the lack of pluralism in the country, she says, is the fate of her own book. Only a few radio stations, internet media and foreign correspondents have called to interview her. Chile’s media duopoly have not contacted her, any more than they did when her previous books came out.

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