Transition to free-to-air digital television an opportunity to create regulations that promote pluralism: IACHR hearing

The new challenges to the implementation of free-to-air digital television in Latin American countries, and its impacts on freedom of expression in the region, were discussed on April 5 during the 157th Period of Sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

During the audience titled “Right to freedom of expression and regulation of audiovisual media in the Americas” the non-governmental organizations International Association of Broadcasting (IAB) and the Observatorio Latinoamericano de Regulación, Medios y Convergencia (Observacom) participated.

For both organizations, the transition from analog television to free-to-air digital television could have a positive impact on the right to freedom of expression by addressing the concentration of media in Latin American countries. They said that the migration to a digital platform would make it possible for more operators to have access to radio broadcasting space—currently characterized for being limited and scarce—therefore contributing to a plurality of voices and to the diversity of content.

Gustavo Gómez, managing director of Observacom, asserted that the process of migration to the digital format has a very important impact over a resource that is “scarce and valuable, that is the heritage of humanity,” referring to radio broadcasting space. The savings that this “compression of airwaves” makes possible for the governments, he added, becomes a key political issue in the region.

One of the objectives of the transition to digital television that Gómez highlighted during the hearing should be the ability to have a media system—with new operators from community, public, and commercial media—that will be more diverse and plural than the current system under analog technology.

However, the results of a study carried out by Observacom at the beginning of 2016 in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay, to see if the transition to digital television was being implemented according to the standards proposed by the IACHR in a 2014 report, found that those that benefit from this process continue to be existing actors. This study highlights Brazil and Venezuela as countries with “highly concentrated” media models.

One of the conclusions of Observacom’s analysis is that the transition to the free-to-air digital platform in Latin American countries continues to be very uneven. The emphasis continues to be economic, the organization said, without considering the issue of freedom of expression in terms of the diversity and plurality of contents.

Regarding commercial interests, the majority of States in the region, according to Observacom, are yielding the new space in radio broadcasting—made possible through the transition to free-to-air digital television—to mobile broadband, taking space away from radio broadcasting.

Gómez also highlighted that the States have not held an open discussion with society, but rather with the companies, which he identified as a flaw to consider in the analysis. “In most of the States there is very little citizen participation regarding public policies and technical definitions,” he asserted.

Also, in the report from the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR that the organization refers to, the member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) are asked to “ensure that respect for freedom of expression, including diversity in the airwaves, is ensured in the digital terrestrial transition process.”

Among the standards that the Office of the Special Rapporteur establishes in this document, the adaptation of the governments’ legal frameworks to implement this migration to a digital platform is also proposed, so that this modification to public policy may generate pluralism of content and prevent consolidation in radio broadcasting.

The managing director of IAB, Juan Andrés Lerena, asserted that ownership and control of media should be subject to anti-monopoly laws and added that those laws should not only apply to media outlets exclusively.

Although it would be desirable to not have monopolies or oligopolies, Lerena highlighted that “media corporations should have the possibility to be [economically] strong so that they may fearlessly face any powerful entity.” As examples, he referred to WatergateFifagate, and Lava Jato investigations in Brazil.

During the hearing, the representatives from IAB also expressed to the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza, their concern over the establishment of expiration dates for licenses awarded to media outlets and the unclear mechanisms for renewing them that exist in Latin American countries.

According to the organization, this leads to an “arbitrary and illegitimate management by the governments in power,” in this way, applying pressure over radio broadcasters to change their editorial line in favor of the State.

“Today in Venezuela, hundreds of radio stations have expired licenses and are awaiting the renewal of their frequency. This also happens in Ecuador and Bolivia,” Lerena said.

The granting of licenses for indefinite periods with the possibility of preferential renewal for those radio stations that have behaved responsibly during their tenure, “is the best guarantee for the exercise of freedom of expression,” asserted Edmundo Rébora, a representative from IAB and president of the Association of Private Radio Stations in Argentina (ARPA by its initials in Spanish).

But for Observacom, the automatic renewal of concessions consolidates and perpetuates the media concentration that already exists in the region. The bidding process, they said, could not be one of the few mechanisms to access a license since “that implies that only those who have more money can have access to establish a media outlet.”

Aleida Calleja, advocacy coordinator for Observacom, said that the concentration of media cannot be managed like any other market because freedom of expression is at stake. “Pluralism cannot always be implemented with laws that ensure economic competition,” she highlighted.

After both organizations had made statements, Lanza asserted that any kind of media regulation becomes a “complex and sensitive” issue given that these are “the vehicles through which freedom of speech is practiced, [and] give space to public debate and collective broadcasting.”

Responding to the request made by Observacom to the Special Rapporteur to assist Latin American countries which are beginning to implement free-to-air digital television, or those who are in the midst of this process, Lanza reiterated the Office’s commitment to building the best standards which may guarantee the continuity of the traditional radio broadcasting sectors, the commercial sector, and those sectors which have felt excluded—making reference to community radio and television stations.

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.