How Chile is losing the battle for a free, independent media.
Two weeks ago, Jason Suder, a multimedia reporter and photographer for The Santiago Times, was detained during a protest for “identity control,
” although he displayed clearly visible press credentials. Chile’s national police, the Carabineros, placed Suder in a holding cell in Santiago’s Tercera Comisaría without telling him why he was detained.The Carabineros detained photojournalist Jason Suder at Parque Almagro in Santiago during a protest in support of Aysén. (Photo by FEFP)
Suder was released after several hours and was not injured during the process, but the scandal is not so much that his incident occurred, but that journalists facing harassment, assaults, and arrests has become common practice in Chile. His detainment reflects dark implications that go beyond Chile and extend throughout Latin America.
This trend, if unchecked, will continue threatening independent media and democratic progress in the region as a whole.THE STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM
Despite the dramatic shift in Latin America over the last few decades from despotic dictatorships to civilian democracies, many governments in the region continue to struggle to provide for a free press.
Venezuela remains one of the most poignant examples of this, with President Hugo Chavez’s National Telecommunication Commission (CONATEL) repeatedly “democratizing the airwaves
” by revoking the licenses of private broadcasting companies.
In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa’s personal libel lawsuit against independent media outlet El Universo (on the grounds that a controversial op-ed constituted “aggravated defamation of a public official
”) recently ended with a conviction worth US$40 million in damages and two three-year prison sentences for the newspaper directors.
Even the government of Argentina, which has been a stable democracy since 1983, has had periodic bouts of media censorship, liberally applying defamation laws and excluding various news sources from press conferences on the grounds of being “too aggressive
” against the government.
For the most part, Chile has avoided this type of direct conflict. The Chilean press has consistently been ranked among the freest in the region by both Reporters without Borders (RSF by its original French acronym) as well as nonpartisan think tank Freedom House. In 2010, the two indexes respectively ranked Chile first and second for press freedom among other South American countries.
Lately, however, Chile has regressed in this area. In 2011, Chile fell 47 places in RSF’s ranking
and Freedom House told The Santiago Times that their next annual report (due this May) would most likely classify Chile’s press freedom as only “partly free.”A CHANGE IN COURSE
The threat to free press in Chile has historically had a different face than in the aforementioned countries.
“A lot of the restrictions to the press don’t come from the government but ownership structures and media concentration,” Freedom House’s Karin Karlekar said. “Two newspaper consortia (El Mercurio and Copesa, which publishes La Tercera) currently own 95 percent of Chilean newspapers, which consequently deters a diversity of viewpoints,” according to Freedom House’s 2011 press freedom report.
“In Chile, you can find one of the most concentrated presses that you can find in the continent,” Benoît Hervieu of RSF’s Americas desk said. “There is a conflict of interest in Chile- media owners are also landowners and industry owners.”
To make matters worse, El Mercurio and Copesa receive US$5 million every year in government subsidies, creating conflict of interest between the press and the government as well.
Still, an independent media restricted by a corporate monopoly, or duopoly in this case, is far preferable to a media directly restricted by the government, as is the case in countries like Ecuador and Venezuela.
The government’s disposition toward the media is what had historically earned Chile a more respectable regional position in terms of press freedom. This is also precisely what changed over the course of last year.
As a series of massive protests rocked the country--first in objection to the construction of a hydroelectric dam on national reserves in Chilean Patagonia, then as a call to reform Chile’s education system, and now again as an attempt to call attention to the socioeconomic situation of citizens in Chile’s most peripheral regions--the government began to take a more active stance in cracking down on both the protests themselves and members of the press that documented them.
The accounts of abuses began during the height of the student protests in late August. Omar Iturrieta, an international correspondent for Hispanoamerican Newspaper and Reuter’s photographer Cristobal Saavedra were physically attacked by carabineros during their coverage of a national strike on Aug. 25. Security forces also threatened to “open fire” on freelance photographer Ivan Alvarado on Sept. 1 for his presence among a group of students that had occupied the Education Ministry. The very next week, Carabineros detained online magazine editor Raúl Flores, who was covering a march by secondary school students, and erased all his photos and sound recordings.
The antagonistic attitude toward the press exemplified in these incidents was culminated later in the year, with the government’s proposal of what became known as the “Hinzpeter Law,” so named after Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter, who sponsored the bill. The law would have allowed security forces to “request the voluntary transmission of recordings, film or other electronic media material that may serve to substantiate the existence of crimes or participation in crimes, without a prior order from the state prosecutor,” which RSF denounced as a measure to turn journalists into police informants.MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY
In spite of this seemingly grave trend, Chile is not likely to find itself in a situation similar to Ecuador or Venezuela anytime soon. Chilean citizens have consistently held its public servants accountable for abuses against the press--the media clause of the Hinzpeter law was ultimately abandoned due to widespread protests.
The situation in Ecuador serves as an excellent contrast. Press freedom is in particular danger in Ecuador because it appears that President Correa is able to continue his media crackdown without significant consequences from other government institutions or the general population (Correa’s approval rating was at 80 percent as of January, according to private firm Perfiles de Opinión
). On the other hand, Chile’s Sebastián Piñera administration, whose actions against the press have been mild by comparison, is suffering from a historically low 33 percent approval rating, according to the latest Adimark poll
“There were a few more instances (of cracking down on the press), so it’s potentially the development of a worsening trend, but it’s not at the same level of other countries,” Karlekar explained. “We haven’t seen the development of the sort of negative rhetoric that can feed into an environment of restriction in the government and the police.”
Still, the recent changes in Chile are certainly disconcerting. They serve as an example of how a biased media can facilitate a sense of impunity and contribute to an atmosphere of repression.
One answer, as suggested by Freedom House, may be reforms to the press ownership structure (eliminating the government subsidies would be a first step), which would theoretically give rise to a more pluralistic media. As long as Chile cannot depend on an unbiased media to portray the full story, the threat of a crackdown lies just around the corner.
By David Pedigo (email@example.com)
Copyright 2012 – The Santiago Times