Latin America’s new leftist leaders may try to portray themselves as good news for the press, using the rhetoric of liberal democracy. But political and media analysts say these recently installed left-wing administrations are deeply rooted in the region’s longstanding culture of authoritarianism.
Independent journalists had hoped that the new breed of populist political leaders that emerged over the past six years would herald greater press freedom. Many ordinary people in Latin America had become disenchanted with traditional politics after the failure in the 1990s of free-market policies, promoted by the United States and the International Monetary Fund, to deliver improved living standards. In Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador, citizens elected reformist presidents who are redefining domestic and foreign policy.
The new leaders, some of whom are stridently anti-American, are a mixed bag of leftists, populists, social democrats, and liberal progressives. Yet they share one thing: intolerance of a critical press. Independent journalists have found themselves labeled enemies of the people in Venezuela, and they have been denied access to official news and events in Argentina. This has not prevented the media from unearthing facts that governments would prefer to keep buried, but it has made for a bruising relationship between presidents and the press.
“A number of leaders in Latin America consider the media to be powers that are dangerous for democracy, but they forget that the press is a form of popular representation for citizens,” said Fernando Ruiz, a professor of journalism and democracy at Austral University in Argentina.
For their part, leftist leaders point to the concentration of media ownership in the region and contend that transnational conglomerates skew coverage in favor of business or other special interest groups. In the past 15 years, in fact, some large corporations have consolidated control, particularly in broadcasting. These include Grupo Cisneros in Venezuela, Televisa in Mexico, Globo in Brazil, and Grupo Clarín in Argentina.
In other Latin American countries, media outlets are often controlled by a small number of family-owned companies, some of them tied to political parties or corporations. An example is the Bolivian television station Unitel, based in Santa Cruz, the center of Bolivia’s conservative opposition. Unitel’s owners also have interests in banking and agriculture, and they enjoy close ties with opposition political parties.
Bolivia and Venezuela provide the starkest examples of confrontation between leftists and the press. Presidents Hugo Chávez Frías in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia have railed against the private media, accusing them of aligning with antigovernment forces. Some media proprietors in Bolivia and Venezuela have indeed dropped the pretense of objectivity to assume the mantle of the opposition. The day after Morales took office, news shows on Unitel described inauguration celebrations in terms that Morales supporters found discriminatory. Remarks such as, “in Congress, Aymara is the only language,” and “booze during the celebrations at Evo’s house” were used on the air. By adopting opposition rhetoric, media outlets became easier targets for intolerant leaders.
“In some Latin American countries there is a highly negative situation,” said Eduardo Ulibarri, a former Costa Rican newspaper editor who is the president of the press freedom group Instituto de Prensa y Libertad de Expresión. “Alleged independent media are putting narrow interests above basic professional and ethical standards, while supposed democratic governments are manipulating freedom of expression through all sorts of pressures, both open and subtle.”
Chávez and Morales have taken the frontal approach. Having survived a coup attempt, crippling strikes, and a recall effort since taking office in 1998, Chávez consolidated power with his re-election on December 3. He has introduced legislation to counter his opponents and silence his critics in the press. Changes in the penal code, introduced in 2005, and provisions of the Law of Social Responsibility in Radio and Television contain vaguely worded restrictions that severely limit freedom of expression. One provision of the social responsibility law, for example, forbids “graphic descriptions or images of real violence” on the air from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., except when the broadcast is live and the content is either “indispensable” or emerges unexpectedly.
Morales, an Aymara Indian and former coca farmer, has borrowed from Chávez’s script. “The number one enemies of Evo Morales are the majority of the media,” he said in September, a day after his government published a list of Bolivia’s most hostile media outlets. The list provided names and affiliations of hard-line opponents in television, radio, and newspapers. Morales claimed the media were biased against his administration and participated in an “anti-Evo campaign.”
Instead of demonizing the media Chávez-style as “coup plotters” and “fascists,” Argentine President Néstor Kirchner and Uruguayan President Tabaré Ramón Vázquez Rosas refer to the press as the “unelected political opposition.” Journalists in Argentina and Uruguay, in turn, accuse their governments of deliberately blurring the lines between opposition and critical press.
One Argentine analyst finds a basis in both views. “There is nothing wrong with a media outlet having a position of empathy or opposition toward a government, but it is wrong to adjust the reality of the information to a certain ideological profile. And that is what’s happening today in Argentina,” Nelson Castro, a renowned broadcast journalist and ombudsman for the weekly Perfil, said in an interview.
Government tolerance of criticism has worn thin. Kirchner’s administration has orchestrated state advertising, a vital source of revenue for all of the country’s media, in ways that punish critical news outlets and reward supportive ones. Argentine leaders who feel targeted by critical journalists block access to official sources and events; politicians angered by news stories make hostile calls to reporters and editors.
“Sometimes Chávez, Kirchner, and Morales want to eradicate critics,” said Ruiz, the Argentine professor. “In order to build consensus, these leaders use strong state media at the service of their governments, and they control private media that support their policies by funneling official advertising. It is an attempt to strangle the critics. This represents a step backward in terms of democratic quality in the region.”
In Brazil, scandals at all levels of government haunted President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, known popularly as Lula, and strained his relationship with the press. The print media in particular harshly criticized Lula’s failure to respond to allegations of corruption. Lula declined to give any interviews, alleging that press reports were excessive and unproven. After Lula won re-election on October 29, some officials in his Workers’ Party affirmed their commitment to press freedom in an attempt to ease tensions with the print media. But during victory celebrations in São Paulo, signs along the major artery Paulista Avenue read, “The people defeated the media.” In Brasília, Workers’ Party militants shoved and insulted journalists covering a victory party.
The landscape is not yet clear in Nicaragua and Ecuador–both of which elected left-leaning leaders in November–but some conflict emerged during the campaigns.
The press divided along party lines in Nicaragua’s presidential race, won by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Ortega enjoyed the support of a few media outlets, but the influential Managua-based daily La Prensa and other news outlets favored conservative challenger Eduardo Montealegre. The newspaper ran columns and commentaries by U.S. officials, including the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul A. Trivelli, that criticized Ortega and the Sandinista party. Ecuadorian Rafael Correa, the self-described Christian leftist who won a presidential runoff, had a contentious relationship with the press during his campaign, asserting that reporters were uninformed and needed to be enlightened.
In polarized situations, some leftist leaders have used state-owned media to further their political agendas, journalists across the region said. This is often in violation of the law, many contend, since state media were created to serve the public, not the interests of a particular administration.
In Bolivia, Morales was blunt in saying that state radio and television were the weapons of his government in thwarting what he saw as private media distortions. In Argentina, officials cancelled two independent shows on public broadcast stations, then failed to respond to allegations of government censorship and editorial interference.
Critical journalists said that Chávez frequently relied on state media during the 2006 campaign; his simultaneous, nationwide radio and television broadcasts sought to overshadow private news coverage. The Venezuelan government owns three television stations: Telesur, Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), and ViVe. Launched in July 2005, Telesur is a 24-hour Spanish-language satellite station controlled by Venezuela (the state owns 51 percent) and financed by the governments of Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Cuba. Chávez promoted Telesur as an alternative to U.S. networks such as CNN and Fox News; the station’s president, Andrés Izarra, said that the Latin American network was “looking for greater diversity and deeper views on subjects.” Telesur General Director Aram Aharonian went further, proclaiming in an interview, “It is the first time in Latin America that the state has returned to projects that serve the citizenry.” But critics say Telesur should really be called “TeleChávez,” as the government funnels public funds to finance a network that is bound to give leftist leaders supportive coverage.
Using resources from his nation’s oil profits, Chávez is exerting regional influence as well. Venezuela will finance a network of dozens of community radio stations across Bolivia, Morales said in September. The Bolivian leader also revealed plans to launch in 2007 his own version of Chávez’s weekly radio show, “Aló Presidente,” during which the president answers listeners’ questions.
Leftist leaders’ intolerance of criticism in the media stems from a culture of authoritarianism that, whether masked or submerged, is still alive in many Latin American democracies that were ruled by military regimes not so long ago, analysts said. This helps explain why one of the only conservative leaders still popular in the region, Colombian President Àlvaro Uribe Vélez, reacts in a similar way. Uribe, who won re-election by a landslide in March, has frequently attacked the independent media and, at times, treated critics as traitors. “Dishonest” and “harmful” to national interests Uribe labeled one recent report about his country’s intelligence service. It’s not so different, as it turns out, from the “enemies” that leftist leaders find in Bolivia and elsewhere.