Book examines role of social movements in communication policies in Latin America

How can you explain the process of transformation of public policies of communication promoted by the initiatives of civil society in Latin American countries in recent years?

That was the initial question that gave rise to the book Media Movements: Civil Society and Media Policy Reform in Latin America, released this year by English publisher Zed Books.

This book examines the contribution of citizen movements on communication issues - or social movements, as the authors say - during a “single and intense” period of policy reform in public communication in Latin America from 2000 to 2015.

In Latin America, there has been “a process of citizen mobilization, unprecedented, quite important and remarkable, with socio-cultural demands (...) The process is very similar, in the sense that it starts from civil society in all countries” of the region, said Argentine sociologist Silvio Waisbord, one of the authors of the book and professor at George Washington University, to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

In this context, the book analyzes the social movements that tried to modify the process of public policymaking to redistribute opportunities for public expression and to make them more democratic.

The three lines of analysis of the book are: laws of broadcasting, of public access to government information and of freedom of expression.

“Until now, there has been very little work on the role of civil society in the reform of communications policies in Latin America in recent years. In general, the reforms, especially those of broadcasting, often appear in the countries of our region as disputes between governments and the large media groups in each country,” said the other author of the book, Argentine social communicator and professor at the National University of Córdoba and Conicet, María Soledad Segura, to the Knight Center.

The book studies the case of this transformative process in several countries of the region, focusing mainly on Ecuador, Argentina, Mexico and Uruguay. According to the authors, these countries were chosen because they presented similar levels of citizen activism on various communication policies, and had leaders of various political character.

“We look for different, but comparable cases (...) to be able to make a regional picture,” Waisbord said. According to the author, they chose Ecuador and Argentina, because both countries have governments with populist characteristics, and Mexico and Uruguay because they have very different governments, in ideological terms.

For both Segura and Waisbord, in all processes there was unprecedented social participation in the history of the media policies in the Latin American region, which was not studied much by the academy and had little media impact.

As examples of this process, the book quotes in its third chapter some of the cases in which civil organizations promoted media reform in the countries of the region.

For example, in 2014 in Peru, civil society organizations like Otro Mirada, Calandria, Ideele, National Coordinator of Radio and the National Association of Journalists, participated in public hearings, led and represented by Congressman Manuel Dammert, in order to discuss a bill whose purpose was to reduce the concentration of media ownership.

In Paraguay, there were also public hearings on this matter that were conducted by Frente Guasú, with the collaboration of former president and Senator Fernando Lugo.

In 2007 in Mexico, civil organizations also participated in public hearings of parliamentary committees where they discussed legal reforms in the country’s broadcasting industry. Later, in 2014, these organizations participated in a public consultation on the law of broadcasting and telecommunications.

“It is difficult to think that any of these changes had arisen from the political class, from the business sector of from one linked to the media industry. In all the cases, we believe that the initiatives emerge from civil society and that eventually what emerges is a coalition within civil society in favor of changes, which forms broad alliances within political society, and in some cases, within the business sector,” Waisbord said.

Segura explained that the impacts of social organization and social participation in public policies on broadcasting are not limited to their objectives. “In the book, we demonstrate that they effectively have an impact on each of the stages of public policymaking, in debate, in parliamentary discussion and in implementation,” she added.

Although, another relevant finding of the book, Segura said, is related to the accumulation of institutional capacities of the civil society organizations, both within civil society, as well as in the State. This is, she added, based on the work done by these organizations to promote participatory institutions of communications policies within the State.

Given the institutional instability in Latin America, the reforms proposed and achieved by civil society can be easily changed by the new governments, if there is no solid and broad support base for these public policies, Waisboard explained.

Another of the difficulties pointed out by both authors in their analysis is the implementation of the reforms proposed, and often achieved, by the mobilizations and citizen organizations. According to one of Waisbord’s statements, the State continues to be a determining actor in the design of public policies.

This statement in the book was verified by what happened in Argentina, the day after Mauricio Macri assumed the presidency. The new president modified, through decrees, the Law of Audiovisual Communication Services with regards to aspects like the limits on concentration of media ownership.

However, in this regard, Segura explained that given the institutional capacities developed by Argentine social organizations, they regrouped and reacted quickly to face these changes. In some cases, they managed to curb some of the changes imposed by the new government.

For example, she also said that in the last months of 2016, they managed to reverse some of the policies being implemented, such as those referring to popular, alternative community media, which are a relevant actor in Argentina, among others.

“This mobilization arose without having political allies in the government,” she said.

There are still no firm dates, but there are editorial plans, to translate the book from English to Spanish, the authors said.

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.