UNESCO urges countries to rely on independent regulatory bodies to protect against media concentration

Considering the concentration of media ownership that has historically existed in Latin America – which threatens diversity and pluralism in that sector – UNESCO has recommended that States seek a balance between the rights of broadcasters and the audience.

On World Press Freedom Day, held on May 3, UNESCO published the report "Concentration of Media Ownership and Freedom of Expression: Global Standards and Implications for the Americas," written by media regulation experts Toby Mendel, Ángel García Castillejo and Gustavo Gómez.

In the report, the organization analyzed how the factor of media ownership directly influences the content, plurality and perspective of the messages being disseminated, which could go against the human right to receive a variety of information and opinions to make better decisions.

"In other words, undue concentration of media ownership limits the free flow of information and ideas in society, to the detriment of everyone,” the authors of the report said.

In countries like Argentina, Brazil and Mexico, where media monopolies or duopolies have existed almost since the birth of the radio and television industry in those countries, the audience has not fully exercised freedom of expression and information, according to Gustavo Gómez, Uruguayan professor and consultant on regulatory issues and public media policies, and one of the authors of the report.

"There is no complete freedom of expression in a country if there is no pluralistic and diverse media system," Gómez told the Knight Center. "In the case of media monopolies or duopolies, such as the case of television in Mexico, to quote the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: 'monopolies or oligopolies in the ownership and control of the communication media (...) conspire against democracy by limiting the plurality and diversity which ensure the full exercise of people’s right to information.’"

Gómez added that freedom of expression can be affected without the direct intervention of state action, in the case of the existence of monopolies and media oligopolies.

UNESCO noted in its report that in most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, a process of revision and reform of media laws is being carried out, both because of political changes and by the introduction of new technologies, such as digital television .

Most of these reforms, the report said, take into account the problem of concentration of media ownership. Even in countries like Brazil, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, provisions are included that prohibit media monopolies. However, there are problems in the way these laws are being implemented, mainly due to the intervention of political and commercial interests in those countries.

“In most cases, oversight or regulatory bodies are not sufficiently protected against interference, be it political or commercial,” the report said.  “This is in most cases exacerbated by the more-or-less overtly political way in which these laws have in fact been applied.”

The conflict of media ownership concentration is compounded by the phenomenon known as "cross-media ownership," in which the owners of a media company also own other companies in different industries such as shops or banks, or even in other branches of the media.

Faced with these problems, UNESCO noted various recommendations for striking a balance between the rights of the audience to a free circulation of opinions and diversity of voices and the right of media companies to commercial development.

Among the recommendations mentioned in the report is that media companies periodically report on their ownership structures, operations and revenues to a regulatory body. Also, the report said, governments should adopt rules to limit undue concentration of ownership and control by a single person or entity in a media market.

The organization also recommended that systems be set up to guarantee respect for these rules and transparency on the part of the media by an independent body with no political or commercial influence.

“The application of clear and fair limitations on concentration of media ownership by independent administrative bodies whose decisions are subject to appeal in the courts can cut through this and create an environment in which the freedom of expression rights of both speakers and listeners are protected,” the report concluded.v

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.