The writing on the wall: media wars in Latin America

Ivan Briscoe
12 October 2009


Latin America is cleaving into two, with an abyss opening up in its centre. Yet it still manages to share between its polarised political segments some practical techniques in bullying and throttling. The 200 tax-inspectors sent by a left-leaning government to rummage in early September 2009 through the stationery of Argentina's main newspaper sent shivers through the country's press. The jackboots later that month on the stairs of Radio Globo in Honduras showed how a proper dictatorship would do the job of cutting off a media outlet, under the aegis of an impromptu state of siege.

openDemocracy writers assess Latin American politics in 2009:

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009)

George Philip, "Hugo Chávez, oil, and Venezuela" (20 February 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Colombia's imperilled democracy" (6 March 2009)

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long march" (20 March 2009)

Justin Vogler, "Chile: the politics of patriarchy" (1 April 2009)

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, " Barack Obama's drug policy: time for change" (15 April 2009)

Enrique Krauze, " Hugo Chávez and Venezuela: a leader's destiny" (1 May 2009)

Arthur Ituassu, "The price of democracy in Brazil" (21 May 2009)

Ismael Moreno, "Honduras: behind the crisis" (1 July 2009)

Sergio Ramírez, "Nicaragua: between revolution and democracy (5 August 2009)

Adam Isacson, "Honduras: time to choose" (23 July 2009)

Justin Vogler, "Chile always surprises" (17 August 2009)

Arthur Ituassu, "Brazil, the United States and Chile: military ghosts" (21 August 2009)

The muzzle did not keep Globo silent for long. While loyal TV stations and almost all the country's 130 media outlets continued to announce the onset of the evening curfew with a medley of Caribbean marimba, Globo migrated to the internet. First with folk music, then through digitally remastered voices mocking the patriotic oligarchs as they sobbed over their loss of United States visas. Now it is back to reporting as before.

What many expected to be a relatively tranquil year in Latin American politics - in part because there were relatively few elections, in part because time was needed to draw the poison of the George W Bush presidency - has instead brought into sharp focus the ideological divide across the continent. The issue of power over the media has become a shaping symbol of this fracture.

When the fixation began is not easy to say. The media corporations that boomed in the 1990s, spreading their eagle wings over the written and audiovisual spectrum, did not - unlike much of the broadsheet press - take an instant dislike to the new left-leaning cohort. Nor did the radical leaders mount an immediate foray into their territory: former Argentinean president Néstor Kirchner favoured the Clarín group's ambitions for dominance in cable television, while Hugo Chávez's spurt to fame came with a one-minute speech of surrender in front of the nation's cameras. By 2007, he also showed himself willing to barter with the Venezuelan media magnate and coup-monger, Gustavo Cisneros, whose Venevisión channel was duly reoriented towards light entertainment and baseball.

As for the conservatives and the right, a confidence in the ability to sway the mass media when it truly mattered immunised them to its daily probing. For Carlos Menem in Argentina and Álvaro Uribe in Colombia, or disastrously for Fernando Collor de Mello in Brazil and the Ecuadorian populist rock musician Bucaram, the exhilaration of self-advertising brought with it a riptide of incriminating details, half-tolerated, from the serious side of the media spectrum.

Pablo Escobar's mistress, Virginia Vallejo, may not automatically qualify as a reliable witness as to the narco-trafficking business of the 1980s, but one grain of truth in what she says of Uribe - published in a book, Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar, that has been excerpted and pored over in the Colombian media - would surely be fit to imperil his presidency. It should also be said that the lack of prior censorship has been more than made up, in Colombia and Mexico, by the ensuing threats of mercenaries and psychotics; these countries remain the chief killing-grounds of the press.

Elsewhere, those of the region's oligarchs busy repackaging themselves in search of political power have become skilled in deploying the TV spot's capacity for cloying superficiality. True, the results have varied: Álvaro Noboa (Ecuadorian banana tycoon) and Eduardo Montealegre (Nicaraguan banker) failed in their effort to use the media as a trampoline to the presidency (rumour had it that the latter disinfected his hand before and after meeting the locals), while the candidate of El Salvador's rightwing Arena party lost to Mauricio Funes (leader of the rebranded, centre-left FMLN) in March 2009. But Panama's Ricardo Martinelli, an ultra-white supermarket mogul and believer in "small government", did ascend to power in May 2009; his $30-million TV election-campaign (slogan: "walking with the people's shoes") had shown him engaging in manual work - at least when the cameras were running.

The conglomerates carved

This easy coalescence of folksy sentimentality, consumer values and the mass media (television greatest among them) has not played easily to the left. It has exposed some of the characteristics of the new radical leaders - now, after several years in power, shorn of their novelty value; among them, a frequently intemperate attitude, a tendency to over-conceptualise, and an instinct to shake hierarchies as well as hands that can slide into the domineering.

The broadsheet press, with very few exceptions, was in any event suspicious of them from the start. It is now in the papers of the Grupo de Diarios de America, for instance, that the archetypal fears of creeping communism and popular militias can be found, or where the venerable liberal commentariat (Andrés Oppenheimer, the Vargas Llosas) pronounce. El Nacional, El Universal, La Nación, El Mercurio, El Tiempo, La Razón are, as their names suggest, saviours of 19th-century liberal values from putative power-grubbers and collectivist nagging. They are also pretty good newspapers.

On their own, however, these papers have been minor irritants. The new legislation of the kind approved by the Argentinean senate early in the morning of 10 October 2009 after a marathon session, or being concocted in Venezuela and Ecuador, cares little for the circulations of the elite press. It is not Clarín in newsprint that the visitation of Argentinean tax-inspectors wished to perturb, but the holding with a $6 billion-turnover that it has grown into since Carlos Menem slashed rules on cross-sector ownership in 1989.

Argentina's media bill bears the political imprint of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Nestor's wife and successor as president. But the team behind it appears to have been largely composed of professors and semioticians, who proceeded on the unarguable basis that control of the country's media is lopsided and grossly unfair. The legislation will - if its provisions are implemented - vivisect the conglomerates, cap TV and radio licenses at ten per company, deny cross-ownership between cable and free-to-air television, and reinforce the purchase of centralised regulation. League football will become a state monopoly.

This extraordinary intervention in the media will entail a frenetic year of bargains and sell-offs; for the head of the national library, Horacio González, one "social culture may be ending and another showing signs of emerging." In Ecuador and Venezuela, the battle is rougher and more bilious. The saga of Chávez's crusade against the TV channels that lined up against him in the 2002 coup is well known. But the "law on media crimes", tabled by attorney-general Luisa Ortega Diáz in July 2009 (and aborted soon after), appears to signal a new phase of meddling in and muzzling press work. To judge from the viper tongue of Rafael Correa in Ecuador, the three bills to regulate the media in congress might be similarly harsh. The media, he has said, "do not defend freedom of expression, but the freedom to blackmail and manipulate."

The climate, in short, is darkening fast. Where the Argentinean bill may be looked to as a model of enlightened reformism, the reality is that of vast personal animus between the Kirchners and the private media, anchored in the farm-tax dispute of 2008 (see "Argentina: a crisis of riches", 17 July 2008). A question over Néstor's hugely inflated wealth in one recent press conference provoked his fury at alleged slander, ending thus: "I don't ask what [Clarín owner, Ernestina] Noble does with her money." At this level of supposed public-private equivalence, there is some fear that the law might be the disguise for a vendetta, and the result a media empire loyal to political command. Or, as Mexico's dictator Porfirio Diáz reputedly said: "For my friends, whatever they want; for my enemies, the law."

In response, a host of voices from the liberal as well as conservative part of the spectrum - international columnists, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) and other media watchdogs, even the aides to President Obama - express their concerns. Are these the first steps on a ladder of censorship, ending in state control on the Cuban model? Will there be, as in the four state-run information channels of Venezuelan television, wall-to-wall ministerial briefings and Bolivarian lectures and land-award ceremonies, interrupted by sport? It is surely revealing, and deeply perplexing, that the phrase hatched by the Chávez government to denounce the opposition press, "media terrorism", has passed so readily into Latin America parlance that Roberto Micheletti, the bumbling conservative autocrat of Honduras, used it to describe news reports of the return of the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya, to the country. 

The case for reform

It is easy to dismiss the case for structural change in the media as part of a broader reform agenda. The people's choice, it would seem, has shaped Latin American infotainment. In a sector where public funding has been minimal, no outlet can keep going for long without an audience; the package of soaps and celebs and satirical playfulness with high officials is surely an expression of human nature.

But this ignores the entire architecture of the region's media. The sector is criss-crossed by lines linking it to major economic and political actors, whether through corporate tie-ups on one side or unofficial state patronage on the other. Brazil's Globo and Mexico's Televisa both thrived as a result of these favours; Argentina's two main newspapers have long been major shareholders, along with the state, in the company that supplies printing paper. Dictatorships trimmed the field further, ensuring concentration in the hands of a few.

The boom in communications of the 1990s in turn represented a zenith for business. It was here that the enriched conglomerates were able to distance themselves from the state and sponsor extraordinarily subversive revelations of official sleaze, while also promoting a peculiarly shopaholic outlook on life. By 2004, a survey by the United Nations discovered the effects: 65% of Latin America political leaders believed the media were the real powers in the region, far more than the government, congress, the courts and the United States embassy.

To a large extent, the simultaneous economic polarisation of the continent was eased by the possibility of maintaining these fragmenting demographics hooked to the television screen. Hugo Chávez's TV appearance in 1992, at the conclusion of his failed coup, was a perfect illustration of such paradoxical unity around the small-screen at a time of impending civil conflict. Argentina's implosion in late 2001 cannot be conceived without the mediation of live television, notifying viewers that the crowds were gathering in Plaza de Mayo.

But this cult of television provides a thin, brittle arena for a parody of public life: striated with consumer values, venerating images of the secure upper-middle-class lifestyle (Martinelli white, of course), and unable to generate what Alexis de Tocqueville captured in his beautiful description of north American political life, the "reciprocal condescension" between social classes. To move beyond this strangulated realm and prise open the media would require yet more radical change: democratising access, devolving content to forgotten regions, darker faces routinely on screen, deepened awareness of the real living conditions of the majority.

Slowly, without great fanfare or political oversight, moves are being made in this direction. Venezuela's largest selling newspaper, Últimas Noticias, inhabits the chavista worldview yet aims acerbic criticism at the government's achievements in the shanty-towns. Community radios have multiplied in the same areas. Brazilian soap-operas have long shuffled between social classes, and the rich are by far the nastiest characters.  

Expediency vs ecosystems

But the substance of the current batch of reforms lies in the overarching political contest rather than the fine grain of media content. These bills and initiatives are simply too embedded in a project of political survival to stand out as valid cultural engineering (despite certain academic perceptions that try to make them so). The Argentinean legislation is emblematic here: the government has made concessions, but not over licence-caps and the formation of a new regulatory authority (with an inbuilt government majority). In this media power-play, the king is not content but such vital instruments of institutional power.

For Correa, the chief enemies out in the open: Teleamazonas and the newspaper El Universo. A recent column in the latter newspaper - entitled Camilo, el matón - insinuated that the president had links to the FARC guerrilla movement in Colombia, suffered low self-esteem, pilfered public money, spread violence, beat journalists, and was ready to shoot the average citizen. All in 500 words.

The flavour of these reforms derives from the intensity of a moment where sweeping plans are rudimentarily bolted on to stratagems of self-preservation in an era of unprecedented freedom of communication. Perhaps the Argentine bill is no more than the Kirchners' last gasp: the new deputies due to take their seats in December 2009 will terminate the president's congressional advantage, and might consign Cristina Fernández to a largely decorative role. Rafael Correa, Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales are certainly safer in power, but all are aware of the possibility that their deeds could be quickly reverted and their popularity imperilled.

It is also true that populist leaders can profit from the fire and antagonism generated by the media battle. Whereas dictatorships silence politics in the name of a spurious normality, the populist or radical left sees political intention in every space and shape - and needs to preserve internal enemies (and external foes too, where they present themselves or can be pressed into service, most notably from a Cuban standpoint). But in neither case does the logic of preservation or mobilisation match the vague promise of diversity and democracy that the media bills tout.

These reforms, driven by closed presidential circles, seem numb to the real ecology of the mass media. Interestingly, it is the veteran journalists on the Peronist left in Argentina that have sounded this note of caution: for author Álvaro Abos, a newspaper is "never an immobile block, but always a combination of signals, some of them contradictory." The media corporations that are so fearsome to the radicals are also composites, in which working journalists and TV directors bypass largely invisible rules at a vast remove from senior management. Their efforts carved out a space for political transformation, whether through satire (consider Caiga Quien Caiga in Argentina), revelation (the videos of Vladimir Montesinos in Peru, the Bishop Juan Gerardi murder case in Guatemala), numerous cases of high-level sleaze and an interest in long ignored backwaters (such as the fascistic enclave of Colonia Dignidad in Chile). The shotgun killing in El Salvador on 2 September 2009 of French documentary director Cristian Poveda - surely the only onlooker to have recorded the sexual economy and murderous baroque of mara gang culture in such detail (in his exceptional film La Vida Loca) - demonstrated the daring and obstinacy which Latin America needs if it is to expose and comprehend itself.

The seizure of ownership or the disciplining of private firms would do little to animate this working base. None of the public TV channels in Venezuela is remotely capable of criticism of the government or corrupt officials, although TeleSur is showing its teeth at the regional level. The media business may well offer an imperfect and biased capacity for oversight, but some of its attributes - a modicum of journalistic freedom, a slightly inattentive management, and a healthy interest in circulation or viewing figures - surely contribute more to the refoundation of the Latin state than clumsy, improvised interventions or oaths of Bolivarian service.

A little patience is required in this stampede. Even should the authoritarian instinct win out, the word will somehow get out. If not via the internet, then elsewhere. In Tegucigalpa right now, the favoured site for political messaging is next to the cathedral, which is whitewashed by the authorities every day as a result. One graffiti artist wrote the perfect riposte: "Don't paint, I'm coming back tomorrow."


Ivan Briscoe is a fellow of the Conflict Research Unit at the Clingendael Institute, in The Hague. He has previously worked as a senior researcher at the FRIDE institute in Madrid, as editor of the English-language edition of El Pais, and as a reporter for the UNESCO Courier and the Buenos Aires Herald.  

Among Ivan Briscoe's many articles in openDemocracy

"Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve" (17 April 2003)  

"Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula"" (30 July 2003) 

"Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (25 May 2005) 

"The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America" (18 October 2005) 

"The Summit of the Americas' free-trade farewell" (4 November 2005)

"Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow" (10 February 2006) 

"Latin America's new left: dictators or democrats?" (28 September 2006) 

"Never let me go: can Ortega reclaim Nicaragua?" (2 November 2006) 

"Evo Morales: the unauthorised version" (16 January 2007)

"A ship with no anchor: Bush in Latin America" (22 March 2007) 

"Argentina and the Malvinas, twenty-five years on" (2 April 2007) 

"Venezuela: is Hugo Chávez in control?" (9 August 2007) 

Guatemala: a good place to kill" (17 October 2007) 

"Latin America's dynamic: politics after charisma" (19 December 2007) 

"From the shadows: Spain's election lessons""(11 March 2008) 

"Argentina: a crisis of riches" (17 July 2008) 

"Venezuela: troops, polls and an itch at the top" (21 November 2008)

"Lockdown in Vienna: the UN's drug summit"  (23 March 2009)

"The Americas and Washington: moving on" (17 April 2009)

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