Notes on the Media and Power in Latin America
By Pablo Corral Vega
Ecuadorian constitutional lawyer, photojournalist, and 2011 Nieman Fellow
In the late seventies, many Latin American countries were under military dictatorships, almost all were repressive, far right, and supported in one way or another by the United States as part of its global anti-Communist strategy. The return of democracy in the eighties raised great hopes. But the neoliberal policies implemented in the region have meant further impoverishment of the poor and enrichment of the rich. The populations in many countries quickly discovered that democracy is not synonymous with equality.
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The most serious structural problem in Latin America is the lack of hope, or to put it another way, the lack of social mobility. For a person born into a poor family the possibility of significantly improving socioeconomic status is minimal. There are many reasons for this immobility: They include limited access to services, weak education systems built on rote memorization, ineffective public health systems, malnutrition, justice systems that don’t work, and governments that fail to protect citizens. On top of all that, there are also subtle lines that shape society according to the way someone speaks, skin color, dress; that is to say class, race, ethnicity, and culture all still impact opportunity.
There is a magical belief in redemption through politics, the arrival of an enlightened leader. Because of that belief Latin American politicians have turned themselves into salespeople hawking hope.
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Caudillos have always existed in Latin America. They are charismatic leaders who can be positive heads of their communities and they can morph into strongmen or dictators. They’ve come from the right and the left; they’ve emerged from the military ranks and the civilian population. Some seized power in coups; many were elected. What they all share is a capacity to create a deep emotional bond with their country. The leader loves his people and because he loves them he cannot be wrong.
A charismatic leader is born but also built. The populism we’ve seen recently in Latin America has been characterized by a systematic use of polling and the mass media. While the process starts with a leader so in love with himself and his vision that he’s willing to take on the role of the redeemer, bringing that idea into being now requires a powerful team of communications and political experts to study and measure the impact of every move the leader makes. Unlike in the past, we are now seeing a highly sophisticated populism driven by polling and marketing.
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Omar Rincón, a Colombian journalist, author, and professor of Media and Communications, talks about tele-presidents. He argues that it is a mistake to analyze politics in Latin America through the lens of democracy; rather we should use the lens of the tele-novela (the soap opera). In this tale we see a person with a pure heart come across a poor, suffering victim—the people. He alone can rescue them from their suffering. These tele-presidents, according to Omar Rincón, are close to the people but far from democracy. They have discovered they can communicate directly with the people. They have no need for journalists or media owners. They can build, with public funds, their own media empires.
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The central thesis of a new left, that emerged from the wave of disappointment in democracy, is that while "capitalist democracy" may be representative, it does not bring wellbeing to the marginalized, and it’s necessary to build, in its place, direct participatory democracy. The trap of direct democracy, in which most decisions are made through referendums, is a weakening of the separation of powers (with its checks and balances) and erosions of the rights of minorities. Both are cornerstones of modern democracy.
In this environment it’s natural that we see the emergence of enlightened caudillos who embody the people, and in so doing, are not subject to limits in the exercise of power. Their regimes quickly become electoral authoritarianism. And the media, in the absence of institutional mechanisms for discussion and disagreement, become the main political opponents.
If the support of the people is what gives them authority, there is no higher priority for these governments than to be popular.
Being popular, of course, is not only a necessity of leftist governments. Popularity is what allowed Fujimori to dissolve Congress and establish a regime of systematic police espionage and blackmail. It is what allowed Uribe to fight a dirty war against the guerrillas and his political opponents. “If I have the support of 60% or 70% of the population,” they seem to say, “I cannot be wrong ...”
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The media is one of the great powers. In fact it is almost impossible to get political power without the support of the media. The sine qua non
for election is to be known, i.e. visible in the media.
Some governments try to control the media ecosystems that allowed them to come to power: removing opposition voices, watchdogs, political commentators, any outlet that might generate new ideas or especially, new leaders. Control of the press is not so much a matter of freedom of expression; it is a matter of power. Control of the press is an essential requirement to stay in power indefinitely.
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As in other parts of the world, journalism in Latin America has significant flaws. Many newspapers are owned by powerful families who have supported conservative governments. Journalism salaries are low; the training is poor. There isn’t enough investigative journalism. And when it is done, it may not draw on a range of reliable sources or conduct the work in a systematic and balanced way. There are segments of society that do not appear in the media at all, whose needs and interests are invisible. There is a great deal of tabloid journalism. Some television news is low quality. Some outlets practice what amounts to blackmail.
Undoubtedly, it is necessary to democratize the media, creating new spaces or new outlets for the voiceless, outlets that promote investigative journalism and citizen oversight. It would be valuable to establish some form of regulatory mechanisms for the press that are completely independent of the government and media’s business interests.
But without an independent media, there’s an abyss. It’s impossible to think society would benefit if the current media were gone or silenced. Journalists play a key role in monitoring governments. A free and critical press is an essential prerequisite for democracy.
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Repressive governments urge the press to be objective. Objectivity does not exist; the angle reporters take on news is always colored by ideology. Because there are no apolitical, perfectly neutral, or objective journalists, it’s critical that journalists act with diligence and good faith, and draw on a range of sources. On the other hand, to punish them because through their work a political position is explained, whatever it may be, is to deny the value of pluralism.
These same governments argue that the media are inherently compromised because they are businesses. It’s bad faith to claim that the media should operate without being profitable because it implicitly pushes for the disappearance of private media. The only media that can operate without profits are public media which, in Latin America, are unfortunately always the voice of the incumbent government, not society.
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In several countries in Latin America there are dramatic struggles going on between the government and the media. The rulers want to communicate directly with their people, without independent journalists getting in the way. They seek to co-opt, conquer, or eliminate a critical media. Their power lies in their popularity and thus they seek to root out all criticism or oversight. And the media, which have become political opponents in the absence of political institutions for debate and deliberation, has forgotten that its main function is to do good journalism.