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Battle Stations: Civil Society Fights Radio and TV Spectrum Auctions

Representatives of the Network for the Right to Communication gathered at the Constitution Monument in El Salvador’s capital city to demand a complete end to auctions of television and radio frequencies. Credit: Edgardo Ayala/IPS

SAN SALVADOR, Jun 26 2014 (IPS) - Pressure from social organisations has temporarily halted concessions of television broadcasting frequencies in El Salvador, a country where the struggle for spectrum ownership has political and ideological overtones, as well as economic ones.

“We have stopped the auctions, but it is only a partial victory because no definitive resolution has been taken,” Oscar Beltrán, the head of Radio Victoria, a community radio station in the small town of Victoria, in the central province of Cabañas, told IPS.

Beltrán was referring to the May 16 Supreme Court ruling that temporarily suspended the auction process begun by the Superintendencia General de Electricidad y Telecomunicationes (SIGET), the state electricity and telecoms regulator.

On May 5, SIGET invited companies and individuals to bid for six national open television channels, numbers 7, 13, 14, 16, 18 and 20. The date when the Supreme Court will issue its final ruling is unknown.

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court partially accepted an appeal on the grounds of unconstitutionality brought by several organisations that had previously challenged six articles of the Telecommunications Law in August 2012.

These articles establish auctions as the sole mechanism for granting radio or television frequencies.

This part of the 1997 Telecommunications Law was contested by several community radio organisations, lawyers’ and journalists’ groups, which later formed the Network for the Right to Communication (ReDCo).

The ReDCo network is pressing the Supreme Court to issue a definitive finding that the six articles in the law are unconstitutional.

The network argues that auctions do not allow sectors like community radios to compete on equal terms for frequencies, as concessions are won by bids from powerful economic groups.

Blocking access for other sectors to the frequency spectrum by means other than auctions violates the constitutional principles of equality under the law and freedom of expression, among others, the network’s representatives say.

“The channels and frequencies that SIGET intends to grant to the highest bidder should be used to promote more public and community media,” activist Leonel Herrera, the head of the Association of Participatory Radios and Programmes of El Salvador (ARPAS), one of ReDCo’s founding organisations, told IPS.

Since 2013 the network has been lobbying for two bills, one on community media and the other on public media, which seek to democratise the country’s communications, a goal that entails reforming the mechanism for granting radio and television concessions.

According to SIGET, in this small Central American country of only 20,000 square kilometres and 6.2 million people, there are 51 free and subscription television channels. Four of the main ones are in the hands of the private Telecorporación Salvadoreña (TCS).

There are also 210 commercial radio stations, as well as 18 community radios that all share a single frequency modulation, 92.1 FM, which they have to divide between them to broadcast simultaneously.

SIGET planned the auction of the six television channels in response to a request by Autoconsa, an electronics company. Expressions of interest were subsequently received from the companies Tecnovisión and Movi, and from the individuals José Saúl Galdámez Ábrego, Luis Alonso Avela and Henri Milton Morales.

It is common in El Salvador for frequencies, especially for radio stations, to be bought by front men, who lend their names to the concessions on behalf of powerful media groups that want to make use of them or fend off competition.

The ruse is used by large communications consortia to avoid being accused of excessive concentration of media ownership.

The auction process was suspect from the outset, because it followed immediately on the Mar. 31 departure of former SIGET head Luis Méndez. It was never clarified whether he resigned or was fired.

Then Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, whose term of office ended on Jun. 1, appointed Ástor Escalante, a lawyer, to the top post at SIGET for the last two months of his term.

The new head of SIGET immediately opened the auction process, alleging that he was obliged to do so by law if a request was made. IPS tried without success to interview executives at Autoconsa, the requesting company.

Escalante did not say why he disregarded his predecessor’s resolution of September 2012, suspending new concessions of frequencies until the country’s frequency spectrum is digitised in 2018.

At the request of the social organisations, attorney general Luis Martínez opened an investigation into Escalante’s action.

“I don’t know what there is for the attorney general to investigate, since no irregularity has been committed,” Escalante told IPS.

The attorney general might also wish to investigate what the former superintendent has done with Channel 37, which used to belong to Francisco Gavidia University and according to the Salvadoran digital newspaper Diario 1 has been sold to Mexican communications magnate Ángel González.

González owns a multi-million dollar empire of 30 television broadcasters and 80 radio stations in Latin America. He has television channels and radio stations in Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Paraguay and Uruguay as well as Mexico, according to several sources.

Escalante also changed the UHF channel 37 to VHF channel 11, improving its quality and range. IPS could not confirm whether the channel is already being operated by González’s group, as claimed.

The irruption of González, nicknamed “the Phantom” because of the secrecy of his operations, on to the Salvadoran market would worry the country’s traditional media groups, because the Mexican entrepreneur is expected to have allies among the ruling leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which has been in power since 2009.

According to Diario 1, the FMLN is keen to use the Mexican group to break the stranglehold of the right on the country’s media. The rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which governed the country from 1989 to 2009, has the backing of the mass media.

Spokespersons for the FMLN and the government of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who took office Jun. 1, declined to comment on the issue to IPS.

Activists have also asked the attorney general to investigate instances of frequencies being granted in the past which they claim did not follow legal procedures.

For example, in March 2009, at the end of the last ARENA government, Luis Francisco Pinto, a lawyer, obtained eight television frequencies under shady circumstances, paying over 300,000 dollars for them. They are still not in use, in spite of the fact that according to law, all concessions that remain unused after one year are revoked.

“It is worrying that SIGET’s actions have not been entirely transparent,” José Luis Benítez, the president of the El Salvador Journalists’ Association, told IPS.

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