Shackling the Media to “Protect” Free Speech

Argentine Vice President performs at a concert wearing a shirt that says "Clarín miente (Clarín lies).

Argentine Vice President, Amado Boudou (left) performs at a concert wearing a shirt that says “Clarín miente (Clarín lies)”.

In preparation for next year’s presidential election, Ecuador’s Consejo Nacional de Elecciones (CNE) is set to release guidelines for how the media is allowed to report about the candidates pursuant a law passed last year with the intention of limiting the ability of the media to influence voters. According to the president of the CNE, the rules are a “call to neutrality, impartiality and a real independence from the media so that citizens can have the direct, objective information as presented by the political organizations.”* Specifically, during the campaign, media outlets should refrain from making any sort of value judgments or presenting opinions that are favorable to one candidate over another.

This sort of law is absolutely horrifying from a free speech perspective. The idea that the state gets to decide whether the coverage presented about a candidate is impartial or not opens the door to so many avenues for abuse and intimidation that it’s essentially a de facto ban on any sort of journalistic coverage of the election. What constitutes favoring a candidate is exceptionally vague. Even simply presenting the facts about the candidates platforms could be interpreted as favoring one candidate over another and essentially gives the government the ability to define what gets reported and how.

The electoral coverage law is hardly the only recent example of a sitting government in Latin America trying to defang a feisty opposition media. Venezuela has been systematically breaking down private, opposition media outlets through the Chávez era and Hugo Chávez and other officials openly speak about seeking an information hegemony. Right now, in Argentina, there is a similar debate going on about the Ley de Medios, which while passed three years ago, has not yet been implemented due to challenges in the courts. The controversy revolves mainly around a provision that limits holdings by a single firm across different platforms (i.e. print and television). This provision is widely perceived as being directly aimed at the Clarín group; a massive media conglomerate that shifted from being a strong supporter of Néstor and then Cristina Kirchner to being its most ardent foe. Cristina Kirchner defends breaking up Clarín as a means of democratizing access to information that, in her view, is monopolized and distorted by Clarín.

While this sounds like an ideal goal, the practical effect of “democratizing the media” as such in Latin America, is to shift the balance in favor of official media outlets. Whereas in the United States, laws limiting the size or scope of media outlets simply means a lot of smaller, competing voices, in Latin America, where official media is larger and more prevalent, it simply increases the ability of the sitting government to control the message. It is not good for Argentina that Clarín is so dominant, but breaking it up won’t open up the market to competitors so much as it will make the web of state media outlets more pervasive and dominant. Similarly, while the large private media outlets in Ecuador are rabidly opposed to the Correa government and far from objective, mandating that they refrain from any sort of endorsement of a candidate at all, especially in such vague terms, gives the incumbent a massive communication advantage beyond the one they naturally enjoy simply by being in the public eye. And that is before one considers the potential for abuse (anti-government media being sanctioned while pro-government, and public media are not).

There is certainly a lot of room to improve the quality and variety of media in most countries in Latin America. Unfortunately, most laws passed with purported aim of doing that are really ploys by sitting governments to limit the ability of critical or dissenting voices to be heard. And in a region where incumbency is a better electoral predictor than any other factor, a closed media is a major step backward.

* un llamado a la neutralidad, a la imparcialidad y a la real independencia de los medios para que los ciudadanos tengan la información objetiva, directa de lo que plantean las organizaciones políticas

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