Free media: issues, challenges and proposals

Media Concentration and Power: a History of Violations Undermining Democracy in South America

, by BARBOSA Bia, FREIRE Rita, MOURAO Mônica

South America has a history of institutional permissiveness toward media monopolies and oligopolies that have developed and consolidated in the region. Over the last decades of the 21st century, various governments in a number of South American countries have not only neglected to adopt anti-concentration rules or to promote plurality in the local mass media, but have also benefited from an intrinsic relation with the so-called mainstream media in shaping public opinion and in defining the directions taken by different nations.

In addition to impoverishing dialogue by silencing, erasing and denying their countries’ cultural and political diversity, the main Latin American media groups have supported dictatorships, contributed to forge leaderships of conservative parties and have legitimized coups against elected governments. In countries such as Brazil, these groups have tightened their grip over the land through political and commercial media outlets, a phenomenon known as “electronic coronelism”. In Paraguay, the current president, Horário Manuel Cartes Jara, owns a communications group that recently acquired the media outlet of a competitor, controlled by the country’s former president, Juan Carlos Wasmosy.

There are very few examples of consolidated public media outlets and community broadcasters that have managed to survive in South America. It is therefore impossible to consider the last decade, a time when the Latin American people’s political and cultural aspirations were quelled, without analysing the role played by the commercial media, aimed at subordinating national and sovereign policies to interventionist interests.

Although standards established between 1930 and 1960 (the so-called national development period) generally limited foreign capital in the countries’ broadcasting sector, the violent period of military dictatorships in the region resulted in a yielding to foreign interests, which represented a significant alternative source of funding for local media outlets.

In Brazil, for example, an agreement with the Time-Life group, sanctioned by the military, enabled establishing the Globo Organizations empire, still operational today. In Chile, the El Mercurio and Copesa groups are the sole beneficiaries of a subvention system, established during the Pinochet dictatorship, which pays out five million dollars to the press every year. They currently control more than 90% of newspapers and dominate the digital media industry. In Peru, the El Comercio, ATV and Latina groups jointly dominate 84% of the media market. The former alone represents 60% of the sector’s revenue.

The conglomerates developing in the region at the time would later serve the hegemonic liberal model established in the 1980s. The highly concentrated media landscape would mark the beginning of repeated attacks against democracy in South America.

Not until people struck back against the WTO (World Trade Organization) in Seattle was there any questioning within the mass media of the Washington Consensus [1] and the leadership of the US and its allies towards a globalized society. The counter movement to the World Economic Forum in Davos, initiated by the World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre in 2001, always relied on alternative media to foster debate and to talk about the fight against “pensamento único” (uniform thinking).

In Venezuela, the 2002 coup attempt against president Hugo Chávez, was backed by the private media, as illustrated in the documentary The Revolution Shall Not be Televised. The initiative was met with resistance from pro-Chávez supporters, who took action after hearing the news on community radio stations, set up thanks to recently implemented public policies and the 2002 Telecommunications Law. After the failed attempt, the private press remained extremely critical of the Chávez government, as well as of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, interpreting events in the vein of the American-backed opposition party.

The media takeover in Brazil

Although they receive significant advertising funds from the government, the major Brazilian media groups have, over the last decade, clearly pitted themselves against the governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff. They thus played a decisive role in the impeachment process that removed Dilma from power in 2016.

“The time has come for good Brazilians, tired of a president that does not honor the position she holds and who is currently the main hindrance to national recovery, to say in a single, loud and clear voice: enough!". There was no doubt about their standpoint in the editorial published by the Estado de S. Paulo, one of the country’s leading newspapers, on March 13, 2016. They were clearly in favour of ousting President Dilma from office, a viewpoint shared by practically all mainstream Brazilian newspapers, according to Intervozes [2] and projects such as Manchetômetro, initiated by the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

Once the Senate approved impeachment proceedings against president Dilma, who was accused of financial mismanagement, and which led to her removal from office, the three main Brazilian newspapers (O Estado de S. Paulo, Folha de S. Paulo and O Globo) published, editorials on May 12 attempting to justify the coup d’État. They all depicted the Workers’ Party as a “stale” and “doctrinarian” left-wing party associated with Stalinism.

The editorials reflected an orchestrated positioning, which, for more than a year, attempted to sway the Brazilian public against the government. The media provided extensive live coverage of protests against Dilma, repeatedly encouraging people to take to the streets, and yet there was almost no coverage of protests against her impeachment. On March 13, 2016, for example, Fantástico, TV Globo’s main program on Sundays, broadcast 35 minutes of demonstrations against PT, and less than 5 minutes of protests against the impeachment.

Media concentration in Brazil, fundamental for consolidating the coup, is still playing a key role in manipulating public opinion under the new Michel Temer government. They work together to defend a reform agenda that takes social and labour rights away from the population. While the official government propaganda takes up significant time during breaks in radio and TV programming, there is hardly any space given to independent journalism and voices that oppose the reforms.

Even if certain media outlets have taken a stance against the government after recent reports of corruption against Temer, most commercial media outlets, grouped under several communication companies, continue to defend the current policy and the economic interests of the big press. The directors of Globo have no qualms about meeting political leaders in order to define the country’s future, which remains uncertain.

Under the 1962 Brazilian Telecommunications Code, and a chapter in the 1988 Federal Constitution which has yet to be regulated, Brazilian broadcasting has only been able to find counter positions in the open media, particularly the Internet, where bloggers and digital activists are able to publish pieces that criticize these attacks on democracy.

Defending diversity

To prevent a situation like the one described above, western democracies have adopted regulation mechanisms to prevent excessive media ownership concentration. This has been the approach of the United States and several European countries such as France, the United Kingdom and Germany, among others. It is obviously not about censoring the press or preventing companies from operating, but about ensuring a minimum degree of diversity and plurality in the media.

In South America, new laws aiming to prevent concentration and promote diversity have been adopted in countries such as Argentina, Ecuador and Uruguay. The challenge was reverting media ownership concentration and forcing companies to sell assets and shift out of an oligopolistic landscape. In these countries, attempts to democratize the media sector required two inextricable factors in order to succeed: the government’s commitment to ensuring a democratic regulatory framework and social mobilization.

Different sectors of Argentine society came together in support of communication as a human right and variety in the public space, and developed 21 guidelines for a new law in the media sector. The guidelines were discussed in seminars and public consultations over five years. President Cristina Kirchner’s decision to support the proposal and send it to Congress was key in keeping it alive. The Argentine Media Law (Ley de Medios) was approved and enabled the government to support and subsidize popular and community media, as well as public media services. However, the country’s biggest news conglomerate Grupo Clarín, which has monopolized the media landscape, appealed to the Supreme Court against current regulations. The legal process continued until 2013. In a single voting session, more than 50 thousand people marched to Court Palace in support of the law.

The election of the right-wing candidate Mauricio Macri in 2015 was fuelled by the media’s fierce opposition to Cristina Kirchner. One of the first things he did was dismantle the regulatory bodies established by the Media Law, as well as reinstate economic privileges to private media groups.

In Ecuador, private media outlets are historically aligned with the financial sector. In the early years of the millennium, they took part in fierce disputes of banks in Quito and Guayaquil. Public resistance has triggered a credibility crisis in the media, a popular mobilization against the institutions and led to a law established by president Rafael Correa’s government. Its opponents, mostly private media outlets, have labelled it a “gag law”.

But the Congress has approved the new law, dividing the spectrum to 33% for the private sector, 33% for the state-owned public sector and 34% for the community sector, and has prohibited financial institutions from exercising any direct control over mass media. Yet deconcentrating media ownership still remains a challenge. Community radio stations resent the fact that the 34% allocated to them has not resulted in new licenses, and private media outlets only give a voice to the opposition.

In Uruguay, the process of building a new regulatory framework started in 2010 and was coordinated by the National Telecommunications Directorate (Dinatel). The initiative involved government representatives, social movements, media professionals, media business associations and international experts. The main goal was to establish a law that would ensure a democratic media system that was in line with current technologies.

In 2013, President José Mujica sent the bill to the Uruguayan Congress and it was approved. Private media outlets contested the law, but Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) considered it an example of media democratization, and it was also endorsed by the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in the Organization of American States.

International standards to put regulations on concentration

In order to draw attention to this issue, on May 3rd 2017, Unesco published a report, entitled “Concentration of Media Ownership and Freedom of Expression: Global Standards and Implications for the Americas.” Based on the principle of dual protection of the rights to freedom of expression (of the speaker and the listener), the study illustrates why regulations to mitigate concentration of media ownership has been a central issue for at least 70 years.

The research illustrates the main ways in which undue concentration of media ownership affects the free flow of information and ideas in society. And it asserts that countries have an obligation to encourage diversity in the media. The document presents an overview of key international standards and the anti-monopoly measures relating to the media that have been adopted by certain countries.

These include: the legal acknowledgement of the existence of the three types of broadcasters (commercial, public, and community); frequency spectrum reservation for community and non-profit actors; clear competition rules; measures that ensure new actors are involved in the sector; the end of automatic renewal of licenses or the denial of renewal of licenses in concentrated media sectors; the prohibition of cross-media ownership; local, regional and independent content production quotas.

According to Unesco, undue concentration of media ownership may be determined by different metrics, such as audience share, overall revenue or advertising market share. In order to counter this concentration, the State must establish public policies that promote media diversity.

In Germany, for instance, once a media outlet reaches a nationwide average viewer rating of 30% per year, the state may not issue any further license nor grant it permission to acquire shares in other media outlets. In France, no one may own more than two TV channels with audiences that exceed 4 million viewers or radio stations with audiences that exceed 30 million listeners. And a single entity may not control more than 30% of the circulation of daily national newspapers.

However, as highlighted in the Unesco report, despite the recent positive changes in South America, countries are still struggling to prevent political and commercial interference in the implementation of new private sector rules. That’s why one of the key UN recommendations in this field is the need for independent regulatory bodies which ensure transparency of media ownership.

It is also important to encourage as much community, free and alternative media as possible. Free media is both about cultural resistance and about political action in order to achieve media democracy. It is essential that other voices and vantage points are heard and seen in the social fight for democracy.


[1A set of 10 economic policy prescriptions considered to constitute the "standard" reform package promoted for developing countries by Washington–based institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

[2Intervozes is a Brazilian organization that works to safeguard freedom of expression and communication rights and is one of the founders of the WFFM process.


Translated from portuguese by David Haxton Jr., Hilde Stephansen and Iano Flávio.