Does ideology matter for mass media democratization in Latin America?
Author: Mariateresa Garrido Villareal
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 08/25/2015
Philip Kitzberger’s article ‘The Media Activism of Latin America’s Leftist Governments: Does Ideology Matter?’ argues that recent political movements experienced in the region are changing the relationship between the government and the media, and that, therefore, more attention should be payed to ideology in media analyses. Specifically, he suggests that ‘government discourse on and understanding of the media’ – including who controls it, who has access to it, and how information is presented – be factored into media analyses of leftist countries such as Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, and Argentina (Kitzberger, 2010, p. 7).
According to Kitzberger, left-wing governments have used examples of the misrepresentation of certain social groups in the privately owned mass media in order to gain public support for its policies of media democratization. In this setting, ideology has being presented as a tool to indicate how mass media control can lead to problems of misrepresentation in a democratic society. However, as will be demonstrated in this paper, Kitzberger’s claim is not exclusive for left-wing governments.
This article will compare Kitzberger’s ideas with those of Gomez Garcia & Terré, and Sartoretto, in order to demonstrate that the ideal of media democratization in Latin America has been evoked by different groups in almost every country of the region.
Governments’ Public Media Discourse
Kitzberger starts his article by presenting the difference between left-wing governments and right-wing governments in Latin America. In his opinion, what characterizes left-wing governments is that they publicly criticize the biases of the press and the private media in an effort to build up their own public legitimacy and introduce legal changes (Kitzberger, 2010, p. 7).
In this regard, the author brings the Venezuelan example and different strategies adopted by the Chavez government. Firstly, he mentions the closing of one of the most famous TV Channels, RCTV, as a direct measure to challenge media elites. Secondly, he refers to the creation of state media and broadcasting of TV programs that allow for the participation of a variety of groups that used to be misrepresented. And finally, he discusses the legal changes introduced by the government to control media activities (Ibid, pp. 17-19).
For Kitzberger, one of the most important characteristics of the Latin American left, in its widest sense, is discomfort with mass media and a discourse that challenges media landscapes traditionally dominated by big corporations (Ibid, p. 32). After an analysis of the discourses, he indicates that leftist governments, besides challenging the “neutrality” of the media, are also presenting mass media and journalists as allies of the upper classes, elites, and/or powerful corporations.
However, as Kitzberger also acknowledges, following Ruiz’s ideas, ‘all political and social actors in the region have come to perceive the media as increasingly influential and have developed some practical responses’ (Ibid, p. 8) in order to build public support for their legal and political policies. One of these responses is the use of direct-communication channels such as regular television or radio programs. Kitzberger compares how the presidents of Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, and Bolivia produced this types of programs to communicate with the people.
Nevertheless, this strategy is also used by right-wing governments in Latin America. In fact, as indicated by Erica Guevara during her lecture at the 2015 UPEC Summer School, the first Latin American president who made use of this strategy was Alvaro Uribe in 1995 with his program ‘Consejos Comunales’.
Moreover, Gomez Garcia & Terré indicate that the lack of democracy within media systems is present in many Latin American countries, not limited to those following a specific ideology. To show this situation they rely on the Mexican case of the #YoSoy132 movement, who among other, were calling for the democratization of the media within the context of the 2012 Mexican electoral process. It is important to bear in mind that in Mexico there is a monopoly of the media, with the most important groups being Televisa and TV Azteca. In the 2012 electoral process, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador was a representative of the left-wing parties and he was running for his second mandate. The #YoSoy132 movement was primarily made up of university students from private universities, leading people to believe that they were ‘“allied to mainstream media” as a condition of their class alignment’ (Gomez Garcia & Treré, 2014, p. 5) and tagged them as right-wing militants. However, while they may have been rightist activists, it was not true that they were necessarily aligned with the mass media. In fact, they were specifically calling for for the democratization of the media in order to ‘guarantee transparent information, plural and impartial, to foster critical consciousness and thought’ and to ensure ‘that access to the Internet is a constitutional right’ (Ibid, p. 5).
This situation is also affecting social movements in Brazil. As presented by Sartoretto, ‘rural and indigenous populations have sub-standard access to communication and do not have the opportunities to raise questions that are relevant to them in the media’ (Sartoretto, 2015, p. 4). She presents the case of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, MST) to illustrate the situation. This group is one of the biggest social movements in Latin America, and their main objective is the redistribution of land in Brazil. Even though they create their own newspaper and radio programs, they realize the importance of mass media to present their ideas to a bigger audience.
Sartoretto indicates that the concentration of the media, and their relationship with the most important actors (landowners, politicians, and agribusiness corporations) was affecting their access to mass media. Therefore, they have been calling for the democratization of the media in Brazil. For them, ideology does not play a key role in this situation. What it is relevant for the discussion is the exclusion suffered by the group from the main media sources in the country. In this regard, Sartoretto explains that what it is important is to have communication rights that allow everyone to participate in the mass media (Ibid, 2015).
Even though the communication policies of leftist governments appear to be different from other governments based on ideological differences, this is not really true. As was demonstrated above, right-wing governments are making use of the same strategies to challenge mass media and to disseminate information. It seems that what is relevant for Latin American governments is to be represented in a positive way in the media. As Kitzberger rightly indicates, all governments recognize the power of the mass media and journalists, and take an active role in the production and dissemination of information.
This is also true for the people. As presented in the Mexican case of #YoSoy132 or the Brazilian example of the MST, once a group feels misrepresented or that it does not have the same opportunities to present their concerns as other actors, they will make use of available mechanisms to raise their voices. In this regard, Internet-based platforms are playing an important role for the development of alternative communication systems. People are making use of social media platforms to organize social movements, to spread information, and to challenge power structures. These changes in communication patterns are not restricted to a single ideological group.
One thing that we can agree on is the difference between the actors. What changes between right and left wing governments are the people or groups calling for the democratization of the media. When the ruling party is closer to left-wing ideas, it is more likely to be the government itself leading the campaign on media democratization. When the ruling party is closer to right-wing ideas, it is more likely to be the affected people who raise their voices and call for the change.
Taking into account the above mentioned examples, it is possible to affirm that ideology does not matter for mass media democratization, at least not in the sense that Kitzberger claims. What is relevant for the people is to have the opportunity to be represented in the media when they feel excluded. What is important is to develop a legal framework that allows access to everyone. Once communication rights are guaranteed, and minority groups can have access to mass media to present their claims, democratization of the media can be achieved.
Moreover, in order to have a better understanding of the Latin American context it is necessary to take into consideration other issues. Exclusion has been a systemic problem in Latin America, therefore, anyone can easily use it as an argument to denounce situations, and also to create political bonds. Traditional social struggles are playing an important role in the development of government’s communication strategies because they continue to be part of the social concerns. For this reason, it is possible to observe an increasing number of governments claiming for media democratization, but as noted, exclusion does not depend on ideology but in traditional exclusion from access to mass media. There is a need to study Latin American issues with an historical and political perspective to have a better understanding of what is happening in the region.
As new challenges are deriving from the use of Internet-based platforms, the claim for democratization of these platforms is also being made by several groups. Social movements have new struggles and concerns about the use of these technologies and they are presenting them in a variety of forms. They are making use of digital platforms and alternative media to present their ideas, and as result, the form in which communication policies are developed is also changing. Therefore, we might see in Latin America in the near future more people claiming for democratization of the Internet without taking into account the ideology behind it.
Guevara, E. (2015). Media Systems and Politics in Latin America. UPEC Summer School Paris. Impact Program.
Gomez Garcia , R., & Treré, E. (2014). The #YoSoy132 movement and the struggle for media democratization in Mexico. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, 1-15.
Kitzberger, P. (2010, 11). The Media Activism of Latin America’s Leftist Governments: Does Ideology Matters? GIGA Working Papers(151), 1-36.
Sartoretto, P. (2015). The circumstantial media activist – an analysis of the relation between media and political representation.
Bio: Mariateresa Garrido Villareal is a doctoral student at the UN mandated university for Peace.