Does Latin America have "public media" or government media labeled "public"? (First article of a series)

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  • August 17, 2016

By Heloisa Aruth Sturm and Paola Nalvarte

The recent episode of government interference in the Brazilian Communications Company (EBC) has rekindled the debate about the need for independent systems of public media in Latin America, instead of traditional state-owned broadcast at the service of governments and ruling parties.

This old problem became more explicit during the attempt by the interim president of Brazil, Michel Temer, to fire EBC's president Ricardo Melo. The Brazilian Supreme Court ordered the president to respect EBC's statutory autonomy and forced him to return Melo to his job.

But Brazil is not the only Latin American country struggling with true implementation of public media. In this first article of the series that will address public media in Latin America, experts talked about its importance – and struggles – in the region.

In Peru, for example, information that is broadcast by public television is biased because it adheres to the interests of the political party of the current government, according to the authors of the book Guidelines for the development of public television in Peru, published in June.

According to the study, an independent model of public television in Peru would contribute efficiently to the formation of a civil democratic society.

To qualify as "public," media must have “programming that meets the necessities and expectations of viewers, recognizing the cultural, social, ethnic, linguistic diversity with political, ideological and religious plurality, among others,” says Peruvian sociologist and television critic Fernando Vivas, cited in the study.

In Argentina, journalists recently took to the streets to protest against the delay in the transfer of government resources that should fund community media and alternative non-profit projects, Telesur reported.

According to Silvio Waisbord, professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University in the United States, “Latin America has a long, fractured, and ultimately failed history of public media.”

In an article published on the World Bank’s website, Waisbord defined public media as a space where quality content is provided “in the service of multiple public interests”. But in Latin America, he added, “so-called ‘public media’ typically functioned as government-controlled institutions for spurious goals - propaganda and clientelism.”

But Waisbord also highlighted some successful examples in the region, such as Channel 11 in Mexico and National Television of Chile, which "have produced successful programs without giving up on public ideals."

In Chile, public television was reformed in 1992, shortly after the end of the government of dictator Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). Since then, it has a politically independent board whose members are elected by both the Executive Branch and the Legislature, and for a determined period of time.

It also has greater stability than its counterparts in Latin America, as it has a self-financing system based solely on advertising. As a media outlet, the National Television of Chile (TVN) has credibility, according to the Peruvian study.

The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas interviewed experts on the subject about the role of public media in a democratic context, the obstacles to its effective implementation and measures to be taken to ensure financial autonomy, management and publishing.

In this first article of the series that will address public media in Latin America, researchers talked about the fundamental characteristics of a media system targeted to citizens and on its importance to the strengthening of democracy.

"The public broadcaster is important in opening the possibility of debate, to allow the release of new content, new productions, new points of view, and give voice to all social centers so that they can express themselves”, said Brazilian researcher Décio Júnior, an expert in executive production and management of public television. “It is a matter of human rights."

The best strategy to ensure greater plurality, according to Júnior, is to allow independent producers of different regions the space to present the material they produce.

He said that public broadcasters must be independent of any government and political party influences, but pointed out that the government's participation in the process of consolidating such stations is fundamental.

"The government can not interfere in programming, will not set all the rules or determine every production and journalistic content, but it must provide the impetus. If there is not government will, there will be no public media," said Júnior, a researcher at Fundação Perseu Abramo.

According to Eugênio Bucci, journalism professor at the school of Communications and Arts at the University of São Paulo, independence from the government is one of the most important premises for public broadcasters to be able to play a democratic role.

"The closer to the government, the less it reflects the debates and aspirations of society. The public broadcaster is only useful, it only has reason to exist, if it contributes to the empowerment of people in relation to the forms of established power," according to Bucci, who chaired Radiobrás for five years before the public company was merged into EBC in 2008.

Also, Fernando Vivas told the Knight Center that national public television should be divorced from successive governments and have directors appointed by third parties.

“Private universities could help,” he added.

Another aspect of this “divorce” between public television and government that Vivas mentioned is related to content. For the Peruvian sociologist, public TV should be a mixed space that, in addition to its traditional educational role, handles the same genres as private television. "It must be a space for alternative experimentation, (...) competitive, [and] supplemental to private broadcast TV," he said.

Researcher Heloiza Matos e Nobre, senior professor of the graduate program in Communication Sciences at USP, said that a public media system is not a system merely attached to the government, but actually concerned with society as a whole.

"If the public media is considered just to be state-owned, it will reduce the possibility of discussion instead of increasing it. There are many actors within society who are engaged and monitor the state’s measures and public policies, and they can not drift and be left without a space for expression. Civil society could fulfill this role of public media if it had space."

She also pointed out that the ratings are not a suitable thermometer to measure the success of public broadcasters. For Nobre, the important things are "the effectiveness of programming and the discussions that are generated in that space and reflected in other media."

In spite of these setbacks, plans to strengthen public media systems in Latin America have gained momentum and researchers have met in international forums to discuss the issue.

Professionals from nine Latin American countries and the United States met in Chile in June 2016, during the 7th International Forum of Public Media in Latin America, to discuss the matter and make proposals to strengthen public media on the continent.

During the opening of the forum, president of the National Television Council of Chile, Oscar Reyes, said that the main objective of public media should be the expansion of democratic deliberation and access to cultural social, economic and political rights.

“Media concentration threatens democracy, and freedom of expression ought to be understood as a human right. What matters is that public media, and above all, public television, are committed to quality of information and content that is broadcast in democracies,” Reyes said.

Additionally, public broadcasters in Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Mexico, Paraguay, Costa Rica and Colombia signed an agreement to create a network of content distribution and programming on the continent, which should be in operation in 2018, according to the organization Public Media Alliance.

In the next article on public media in Latin America, the Knight Center will address what is said to be one of the major challenges to the establishment of an independent and quality public media system: financial autonomy.

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.