Uruguayan civil society goes to IACHR to ask the government to fully implement and enforce 2014 communication law

Civil society representatives from Uruguay called on their government to effectively implement the Law of Audiovisual Communication Services (SCA for its acronym in Spanish) and involve them in the development and implementation of the guidelines regulating it.

The representatives, from the Coalition for Democratic Communication (CCD) of Uruguay, made the demand at the 162nd period of public hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), held from May 22 to 26 in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

At the hearing, government representatives said that the law has been applied since its approval by Parliament in December 2014, but the CCD maintains that key components are still missing.

On behalf of the CCD, which is made of more than 30 civil society organizations involved in communications and human rights, researchers Paula Baleato and Gabriel Kaplún asked the three powers of the Uruguayan government to account for the delay in the effective application of the SCA law.

Baleato noted that 120 days after the law was voted on, the executive branch should have appointed a committee composed of nine members of the General Assembly to create a communications regulatory body. However, 800 days later, this body has still not been created, according to Baleato. "This is a major absence that also hinders the application of the law," she said.

The Honorary Advisory Council of the Audiovisual Communication Service (Chasca) has also not been created, the implementation of a hearing ombudsman has not been carried out and a national education plan for media has not been developed, the CCD reported.

For Kaplún, these agencies "recover and enhance the mechanisms of civil participation in the processes of implementing communication policies." Chasca, above all, must intervene in the regulation of the law, in anticipation of the norm, Kaplún said.

These concerns were exposed in the wake of the government's recent announcement of a prompt publication of the regulation of the law, the rules by which the law can and will be applied. These would be developed without the participation of civil society, according to the CCD.

"The law also provides for the creation of a fund to promote national audiovisual production. Especially because the law aims at diversity in content, pluralism, and Uruguay, more than other countries, has major difficulties in sustaining its own audiovisual production," Kaplún explained.

Government representatives attending the hearing, Fernanda Cardona, general director of the Secretary of the Ministry of Industry, Energy and Mines, and Nicolás Cendoya, with the Regulatory Unit of Communication Services (Ursec), said that the State applied the law as soon as it was enacted.

"Agencies like the Council and Chasca are not essential for the application of the law," Cendoya said.

The representatives said that from February 2015 to May 18, 2017, the Ursec commission adopted 54 resolutions in which it directly applied the law, without need of regulation. According to Cendoya, there currently are 80 case files in progress that require its application. "In total, the law has been applied 134 times, in 30 months, which gives an average of 4.47 times per month," he said.

After the law was enacted, 29 complaints of unconstitutionality were submitted by communication companies. Many of these lawsuits continue their course to this day, according to Cendoya.

The state could not endorse a law with so many questions, due to the need for legal certainty, Cendoya said. Therefore, until the judgments are known, a regulation cannot be approved, he said.

However, Kaplún considered this delay in the development of regulation as a "failure of government". According to the Supreme Court, most of the articles of the law are absolutely constitutional, so the conditions to implement the law have been given for a long time, the researcher said.

In their presentation, Cardona and Cendoya affirmed that at the end of the bulk of judicial proceedings against the law, a working group of 16 professionals was formed to develop an initial regulation of the law. In May, after 19 working sessions, a draft of 103 articles was submitted to the President of the Republic, Tavaré Vásquez, for evaluation.

In turn, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the IACHR, Edison Lanza, said that both the Commission and the United Nations considered the development process of the law in terms of content pertaining to freedom of expression.

"It is a law that respects the editorial independence of the media ... and is an example of promoting the diversity and pluralism that the region lacks in all areas of communication," the Rapporteur said.

However, the Rapporteur asked Cardona and Cendoya if they intended to call on civil society for what is left of the process of implementing the regulation of the law.

"What was attempted and the law states, is that those who hold those positions, are elected by a special majority of Parliament, that they are suitable, are not influenced by the powers that often influence communication. Therefore, this remains very valid for the commission and that is why we called this audience," Lanza said.

Much of the law has not been implemented, the key agency, regulator of communications such as the Audiovisual Communication Council still does not exist, said Baleato, one of the civil society representatives.

"We want to generate a dialogue in relation to this and to look ahead, and generate a commitment of work. The non-compliance with the law affects not only Uruguay but also the region, on issues of good practices," he said.

However, Cardona did not give a concrete answer to these questions. Nor did he give a date for the resolution of the process of implementation of the regulation of the law nor did he comment on the possibility of civil participation. "The work is done," he said referring to the regulation in question, and its publication could be a matter of days or weeks, he concluded.

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.