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Q&A: “Media Concentration Is an Attack on Democracy”

Daniela Pastrana interviews FRANK LA RUE, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression

MEXICO CITY, Jun 13 2013 (IPS) - “We have to understand that information, above all else, is a social service. If we lose sight of that dimension we begin to regulate it as merchandise, but the state has many other obligations, such as to guarantee freedom,” said Frank La Rue.

“In Latin America we made a historical mistake when we allowed the commercial vision of information to prevail,” said La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

In this interview with IPS, La Rue, a legal scholar from Guatemala, said: “Freedom of expression must be understood as the collective right of society to be informed, to associate freely and to express itself, but also as the right of peoples to their culture, language and values, and to transmit them to the world through their own communications media.”

The special rapporteur referred to other challenges to freedom of expression in the region. They include “censorship laws” that punish, for instance, defamation of civil servants and inhibit criticism of those in power, or penalise the unauthorised use of radio frequencies.

Another “very important” challenge is the case of the telecommunications laws being debated in countries like Honduras and Mexico.

Q: What basic conditions should be met by the new telecommunications laws?

A: Part of freedom of expression is defending cultural diversity. I have maintained that there should be four categories of media using the broadcast frequencies.

One is commercial radio stations, that should be regulated by a law on concessions; another is community radio stations, which should have the same rights as the former in spite of having low power and short range; a third category is for clearly identifiable ethnic groups; and finally, public telecommunications, which belong to the state rather than to the government of the day.

In the last case, we are not talking about media controlled by those who wield political power, but about the use of public resources for public media.

And the public aspect of social life needs to be recovered. The concept has been lost in Latin America, in contrast to Europe, where several countries have maintained their vision of the public sphere.

But the frequency spectrum is a public good; the airwaves exist all around us, and the state regulates their administration for the benefit of all, like other natural resources.

Q: Is it necessary to divide the spectrum into equal parts?

A: The state does not need one-third of the frequencies, as in Argentina, because it is unlikely to have the administrative capacity or the resources to use them. What is needed is a segment reserved for community stations.

There is a human rights principle which calls for diversity of the media and pluralism of positions. Above the individual rights of journalists is the human right of society to be informed.

The idea is that people should be able to develop their own thinking. In that sense, the concentration of media in very few hands is an attack on democracy, not just on human rights.

Where’s the catch? It’s in the concession mechanisms. Auctions of licences for frequencies are not an appropriate method because they favour economic wealth. There should be transparent, public competitions, with clear rules.

Q: What kind of rules?

A: As frequencies are state property, they are neither a gift nor a lifetime concession. Concessions should be issued for a limited, defined time period.

There is a basic principle: if a frequency is not used as soon as a concession is granted, the rights should be lost, because sometimes people accumulate frequencies without using them, just to avoid competition.

So rules are needed for withdrawing a concession, and there should be a limit on how many frequencies one person can own or operate, because too much accumulation leads to manipulation of public opinion, which is a bad thing.

Q: This leads us to another issue being discussed in Mexico, for instance, about financing methods, because it is understood that only commercial media can sell advertising.

A: An organisation that is not-for-profit can generate income, but no one can make a personal profit from sales.

The state should have regulations for distributing official advertising, with clear criteria. And it should put its house in order, without criminalising community radio stations. Having an unlicensed radio station cannot be seen as a crime, because if we look at the origins of the big media consortia, their concessions were not granted legitimately. They were all granted by dictatorships or corrupt governments.

Q: In Honduras, the inclusion of content regulations in the telecommunications bill has been very controversial.

A: The state should not interfere with content in any way whatsoever. There are legitimate limits to free expression, based on human rights rules and principles, but in my view only one aspect of content should be regulated, and that is regulation of watersheds for adult broadcasting, for the protection of children.

Children and adolescents should be protected from live, graphic scenes of direct violence and sexual acts, not of sexuality but of sexual acts, pornography and the malevolent misuse of sexuality.

But nothing else. Freedom of expression means the prevalence of openness and broad-mindedness. Limitations are the exception, and should not be over-generalised as this gives rise to censorship. There is always the temptation, when legislating, for everyone to impose his or her opinion.

Q: What about the internet?

A: Even less regulation is appropriate. The internet is an open space where there is room for everyone. By its nature, it is impossible to regulate. It can be monitored, but that is an attack on privacy.

The issue here is self-regulation. There is a new challenge of professionalism and ethics which is up to the press itself to define. It is not for the state to determine this, but journalists and the media themselves.

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