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One of the strongest appeals of liberalism as a political doctrine is its supposed universality. Although writing in particular socio-political circumstances, the first European liberals championed equality and liberty as universal principles and declared the right to property and free trade, alongside religious liberty and press freedom, to be fundamental human prerogatives. These ideas greatly inspired the Latin American Wars of Independence fought throughout the 19th century. These revolutions saw the establishment of a dozen new republics and their adoption of liberal-inspired constitutions. Since then freedom of expression has been, at least nominally, legally guaranteed in all Latin American countries and has been portrayed as a method to ensure individual liberty in the face of state power.
However, the classic understanding of freedom of expression as the absence of all legal constraints to publish an idea or publicly express an opinion has never been enough to protect this right. On the one hand newspaper owners in the 19th century, as media impresarios went on to do in the 20th, more often than not sided with repressive regimes to silence individual voices in the region. Eventually, at the dawn of broadcasting technologies, freedom of expression would be translated by Latin American governments as an unregulated media market in which the state refrained from owning and operating radio and television stations but kept a rigid control on what could be broadcast by commercial providers. On the other hand the liberal protection of an individual right to expression did not envisage the emergence of large media corporations, (like Globo and Televisa) whose commercial interests would outweigh their democratic responsibilities.
Concentration of media power has been a historical reality in Latin America. By the end of the 20th century the monopolisation of national media markets by large corporations became as big a danger to free speech as the direct censorship exercised by the state. As a result of a narrow understanding of freedom of expression and a lack of political will, the diversity of voices within the media systems of the region stalled; instead of reducing the historical influence of media moguls, the electoral reforms which transformed the region during the 1990s and restored multi-party democracy granted these corporations a new hold on the political parties.
In Mexico, perhaps the Latin American country which most passionately adopted the neoliberal agenda and one in which media concentration has reached one of the highest levels in the world, the limits of the classic liberal conception of freedom of expression can be better perceived by analysing who exploits, and more importantly who cannot exploit, the national airwaves. In addition to the insurmountable entry barrier present in a market in which two family-owned corporations control over 90% of all television stations and 10 groups own 70% of all radio, media democratisation in Mexico is obstructed by the legal near impossibility of setting up not-for-profit, community based stations. In Mexico, as in most other Latin American countries, the airwaves are inalienable resources which the state administers in name of all citizens.
Notwithstanding recent media reforms which, rather than opening up opportunities for local voices, has allowed foreign investment into the audiovisual market, a non-commercial, community based media has yet to be fully recognized by the state. Since the early 2000s, the Mexican branch of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasting (AMARC) has maintained a long running campaign to push for the legal recognition of community broadcasting as an alternative to commercial media. It has also given legal and financial advice to a number of community radio stations already operating in the country. These stations, which are often situated in marginalized areas serving segregated minorities, do not only lack government support and full legal recognition but are often persecuted. According to a special report by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, aggression against community broadcasters by state officials is a reality in the country. AMARC Mexico has documented these attacks which are designed to intimidate and are often disproportionate and violent. For example, in 2009 the community radio Tierra y Libertad, with less than 40 watts of power, serving a small working-class neighbourhood in the city of Monterrey and staffed by less than a dozen volunteers, was raided by over a 100 police officers. Hector Caméro, its director and founder, was originally sentenced to 2 years in prison for the unlawful exploitation of a national asset and he is still fighting in the courts. Tragically, community broadcasters are also part of the increasing number of journalists being killed in the country.
Critics could argue that a truly liberal media policy would not prohibit community media and would instead allow the airwaves to become an open market. This approach, even if efficiently enacted by the state, would never do enough to protect and promote freedom of expression for all members of society. Liberal theory is ill-equipped to deal with existing and historic inequalities; the market alone would never be enough to dismantle the media monopolies which plague Latin American media. Competing on a hypothetical level playing field would do little to diversify the media environment after decades in which urban minorities, indigenous communities and rural inhabitants have been prevented from broadcasting their hopes and opinions.
In recent years, a number of Latin American countries have begun to challenge the media corporations dominating their markets and have embarked upon systematic processes of media reform. These changes to legislation have often been decried by liberal commentators as populist attacks on freedom of expression. These reforms have nevertheless generated new opportunities for communities and individuals to fully exercise their right to public expression, often for the first time. For example, in 2009 the Argentinian government determined that one-third of its airwaves should be reserved for non-for-profit organizations, a law which has encouraged the development of the community radio sector. In Chile, a country not known for its progressive media policies, the central government has established a grant fund to support local and regional content production. In Venezuela, so often derided as a pariah state by Western governments and which has been criticised by organizations promoting freedom of expression, community radio has now gained a strong foothold in the media system; according to AMARC International, community media has grown exponentially, from 60 stations in 2002 to 244 radio stations and 36 television stations in 2010.
All these policies have the possibility of being corrupted, broadcasting licenses for community stations can be discretionally granted and be used to generate support for particular political parties or individuals. Nevertheless recognizing this model of content production and distribution addresses a fundamental form of inequality, that of the access to the airwaves. Latin American governments should however not only ‘tolerate’ community and non-profit media, but should actively encourage its development as a mechanism to reduce media concentration and to shrink the influence of huge media broadcasting corporations that have for too long been intimately associated with corrupt and anti-democratic regimes.
This article is part of the Liberalism and the Media strand of the Liberalism in neoliberal times series that OurKingdom is running in partnership with Goldsmiths, supported by the Department of Sociology. You can read Gholam Khiabany's introduction to the whole series here.
Liberalism in neo-liberal times - an OurKingdom partnership with Goldsmiths, University of London