For Omar Rincón, director of the Journalism Institute of the University of the Andes in Colombia, there are essentially three types of media landscapes in Latin America:
- Countries where media dominates the government and sets the agenda. These, according to Rincón, would be Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Brazil.
- Countries where the government and the media are locked in bitter combat with no clear winner yet – Argentina, Bolivia, and Uruguay.
- Countries where the media is about to be dealt a knockout blow by the government–Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua.
What this adds up to, Rincón said, is that freedom of the press in Latin America is on the decline.
Hyperbole? Maybe a little. But it was only one of many salient and provocative points raised at the Media Forum: Freedom of the Press and Digital Transformations in Latin America, a conference in Washington on June 26 and 27 sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue, the World Bank, NPR, and the Carter Center.
Other attention-getting commentary by some of the panelists:
In Ecuador, media owners are connected to other elite power centers such as business impresarios, oligarchs, and the banks who use the media to advance their interests, according to Romel Jurado, president of an Ecuadoran organization called Checks and Balances and billed as an expert in media and communications law. Therefore, the country needs a strong media law to advance the “democratization” of the media. When pressed by a questioner about why there is a clause about “media lynching” in the law, Jurado replied that the clause is necessary to prevent media houses from colluding to damage the reputation of a third party–such as the government. He argued that there was safeguard for media built into the clause because the government would have to prove that such collusion had taken place in order to prosecute any journalists or media owners.
In Mexico, said Daniel Moreno, general director of an online news organization, Animal Politico, the online media face twin challenges–the “dictatorship of the clicks” and the enormous weight that the government advertising budget carries in the media market. He said the national government’s budget for public advertising is $350 million U.S. and the number doubles when all the individual state ad budgets are taken into account.
In El Salvador, Internet penetration is just 19 percent, said Óscar Martínez, the editor of El Faro, another online publication. El Faro provides extensive coverage of the emigration of Salvadorans to the United States, but, he said, you can bet that not many of those who decide to make the trek north are included in that 19 percent of the population with Internet access. Still, he said, some of El Faro’s longer investigative pieces get as many as 100,000 unique visitors, who stay on the page for an average of 10 minutes.
Both Moreno and Martinez lamented the difficulties of finding the right business model to sustain their publications. Their survival rests on a strategy of “multi-revenues,” as Moreno put it. This includes subscriptions from readers, grants from donors, whatever advertising they can get, selling their content to other media outlets, consulting for other media on how to do online journalism and publishing, and running a store to sell hard copies of their work printed as books and other material.
The main takeaway from the conference was that the one area where press freedom is still holding its own in Latin America is via online investigative journalism publications, which is something the media development community should pay attention to and support.
“We weren’t afraid of the Internet,” said Martínez, who used to work for El Salvador’s biggest newspaper. “We fled to the Internet.”