By Alejandro Martínez
After the purchase of more than half of editorial group Epensa's shares, which gave Grupo El Comercio control over almost 80 percent of the newspaper market in Peru, the topic of media concentration has become ubiquitous -- and volatile -- in the country. It dominates the public debate with virtually a new article or opinion piece every day, and last week, the opposing sides of the debate over the potential negative effects of the transaction were illustrated by the disagreement between award-winning Peruvian writer and former presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa and his son Álvaro.
In an interview with investigative news site IDL-Reporteros, the Nobel Prize laureate said that any group's control over most of the country's national newspapers would affect the plurality of information and "could have a catastrophic effect for democracy in the medium- and long-term."
“My opinion is the one that I consider to be normal and natural within a democratic understanding of public life: That it is absolutely important that freedom of the press exists, as well as freedom to criticize, which is why it is very important that media outlets reflect the diversity of points of views and opinions," Vargas Llosa said.
His son Álvaro, on the other hand, said the transaction is valid because it's a free-market issue. He criticized newspaper La República, which also tried to purchase Epensa's shares and is now spearheading a lawsuit against El Comercio for media concentration.
“The danger is that they're confusing a lot of people who may believe that in fact there is in Peru a media group that is overtaking the market in an incorrect and disproportionate way, which is not true. In the newspaper market one earns the consumer's preference every day. The only valid issue is not to have any entrance barriers," he said in an interview with El Comercio.
But the discussion regarding media concentration has had a second level: the role of the government. Both Vargas Llosa and his son opposed the creation of new laws to intervene and prevent media monopolies.
Earlier this month, reactions exploded online when several observers interpreted President Ollanta Humala's comments criticizing the purchase of the Epensa shares as a glimpse to his wishes to push for a new bill to regulate the media.
“The fact that the president said so publicly awakens legitimate suspicions that his real intentions are to intimidate the press and control it," Álvaro Vargas Llosa said.
After receiving several criticisms, Humala's political party, Gana Peru, quickly issued a clarification in which it said it is not preparing a media bill and the president stated that creating legislation on the topic is not a priority.
Nevertheless, a few days later, congressman Manuel Dammert with the Acción Popular-Frente Amplio coalition said he would promote a bill to guarantee the plurality of information.
Other members of the Peruvian Congress have warned that media concentration could have an adverse effect on democracy since there's a risk it may affect regional media outlets and create an unbalanced coverage of this year's elections that gives disproportionate space in the press to certain candidates.
"Media concentration could affect the plurality of information, which is one of the main elements of democracy (...)we have to make sure that the electoral campaigns of 2014 and 2016 are fair and don't exclude anyone," said José León, spokesman for political party Peru Posible.
In an opinion piece for Spanish newspaper El País, Mario Vargas Llosa said the country's judicial branch is the correct entity to weigh and resolve the issue of the legality of the purchase of Epensa's shares. Any new law to regulate media concentration would be, he said, "a cure that is worse than the disease" since "it would give the political class a weapon that would allow them to limit freedom of expression and even abolish it."
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.