An overview of Uruguay’s proposed media law, the most recent in the region

  • By
  • September 23, 2013

By Travis Knoll

Uruguay is the most recent country to propose a comprehensive media law to update for the 21st century the norms and regulations overseeing its communications. In May, President José Alberto “Pepé” Mujica sent the proposed bill to the Uruguayan legislature. The Senate is expected to vote on it by the end of the year.

The bill, which has received the praise of several journalism and freedom of expression organizations, is not as controversial as the one recently approved in Ecuador or as contentious as the one currently in the hands of Argentina’s Supreme Court.

However, it is not without its critics. While it has been lauded for its intention to set limits to media concentration and guarantee spaces for independent content, critics say some of its provisions are broad, ambiguous and overreaching.

The law’s national quotas of production and its anti-concentration measures are its most prominent features. The law would mandate that 60% of audiovisual content be nationally produced or coproduced, 30% of all content must be aired by independent producers, and 40% of that independent content cannot come from the same source, according to Ecuador’s El Universo. The law would also require programs to accompany parts of their transmissions with subtitles or sign language translations.

According to the crafters of the bill, the law is intended to “support general educational purposes” including art, science, history, and culture that promote the “integration of socially vulnerable groups.” Supporters and drafters also claim that the law will “facilitate democratic debate” by “guarantying a variety of information and opinions” that “stimulate the production of national artistic, professional, and cultural content.”

The Uruguayan newspaper El Espectador reported earlier this month that Frank La Rue, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Expression and Opinion, expressed his support for the law, although La Rue asked that the legislative branch – not the executive one – is made responsible for appointing the majority of the members of the new regulation agency that the law proposes to create.

Freedom of speech groups such as Reporters Without Borders and Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) are optimistic about the law's measures. IFEX recognizes similarities in the law’s structure in comparison to its neighbors in its regulation of media concentration, but also believes the law's implementation will be smoother in Uruguay due to the lack of an antagonism between media and government like the one that dominates the discussion in more polarized countries such as Ecuador and Argentina.

Nevertheless, there has been some tension between some media outlets and the government stemming mainly from questions over the law's application. The law’s broad categories and ambiguities have also caused backlash among some commentators such as El Pais’ Herbert Gatto, who criticizes international organizations and officials  like UN Rapporteur La Rue, who, in his opinion, overlook the “statist” language of the law and local context. Gatto continues on to criticize the vagueness of the law’s aspirations asking “What is national development? What does it include, and who determines it[s] [scope] of implementation?”

The head of the Committee on the Liberty of Expression in the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) Claudio Paolillo and editor of the Uruguayan paper Búsqueda, called the measure “confusing and contradictory.” He agrees with the principle of “plurality and non-discrimination” it purports to follow and he believes there are more safeguards than in neighboring countries with similar laws. However, he is not sure whether the Council, appointed mainly by the government, should be the main interpreter of the law.

Some press advocacy groups like Reporters Without Borders do not see the government, but rather media interests, as overreaching. In a July statement the organization said “The defense of a broadcast or print media company’s business interests must not be confused with the fight for freedom of expression or information. It is regrettable that the bill’s opponents are trying to confuse the two.”

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.