Lessons from Media Coverage for the Right-to-Know in Latin America

19 June 2009

By Greg Michener

In the last year or so, Latin America has been abuzz with news on right-to-know campaigns. But some countries have been buzzing louder than others. Uneven media attention to transparency policy is a global phenomenon with serious implications for institutional effectiveness, especially given the significant connection between news coverage and the strength of right to information laws.

Last month’s feature examined three Latin American countries that enacted laws in 2008-Chile, Guatemala, and Uruguay-in addition to Brazil, currently in the midst of its enactment process. Assertive reporting helped Chile and Guatemala raise public awareness and advance moderately strong laws in spite of years of political and administrative foot-dragging. In contrast, sparse coverage in Uruguay and Brazil led, respectively, to a law and congressional proposal whose legal standards have been questioned. This article draws on these countries to illustrate the intricacies of media coverage. The supply and demand of media coverage for the right-to-know depends on myriad factors, but perhaps most crucial of all is the independence of the news media from the government.

When it comes to the supply and demand of media coverage for right-to-know issues, persuasive demand can be decisive. Not infrequently, NGO-led right-to-know movements seem to believe that media coverage will gravitate toward their cause through kindred laws of attraction. Yet little do they realize that the media they seek is not one lumbering mass, but a loose assortment of business, journalistic, and technical professionals who may have little to no interest in right-to-know laws. Hence, the media require extensive and targeted courting.

GUATEMALA
Acción Ciudadana forges close ties with media outlets.

For example, Guatemala’s right-to-know campaign languished for years with only marginal media coverage. Finally, the country’s national chapter of Transparency International, Acción Ciudadana, assumed leadership of the movement andforged alliances with the owners of leading news publications. El Periódico, for example, provided Acción Ciudadana with two free advertising spots for every one purchased, and Prensa Libre provided on-demand coverage for congressional discussion of the law. [1]

The tenor of campaigns will frequently determine media responses to demands for coverage. Monotonous or contentious messages are turnoffs. For years the discourse associated with right-to-know movements in Uruguay and Guatemala revolved around human rights. Well-known public sector resistance to human rights issues discouraged greater media coverage. When the media finally took up the right-to-know banner in Guatemala, they wisely framed it as a measure that could help prevent corruption. This strategy did much to allay the fears of a potentially decisive opponent of openness-the country’s armed forces.

MEXICO
The broad coalition Grupo Oaxaca makes a scandal out of leaked draft right-to-information bill.

As more than one successful media campaigner has revealed, convincing the media to supply coverage requires strategic thinking, diversity, sex appeal, and relevance in order to attract support. Mexico’s Grupo Oaxaca convinced its media allies [2] to make a scandal out of a leaked government access to information draft and used various news issues-human rights, state reform, access to social services, instances of corruption, police abuse, and media rights, among others-to apply pressure and highlight the public relevance of disclosure. To some extent, Brazil has also diversified its approach, but coverage has been too infrequent and the tone too docile to produce corresponding political support among opposition parties or a wider spectrum of civil society.

CHILE
Proacceso and other NGOs educate journalists on the importance of the right to know.

Strategies to promote education of the media and to provoke their interest are also crucial. A major challenge is overcoming the idea that laws are too bureaucratic or that they poorly serve journalism’s tight deadlines. Beginning in 2006, Chile’s Proacceso worked in conjunction with several organizations, such as the Centro de Investigación e Información Periodística (Center for Investigation and Journalistic Information / CIPER) to showcase the use of right-to-know legislation for journalists and editors. [3] These efforts have been complemented by those of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas,which has trained journalists on how to leverage disclosure laws throughout the region.

URUGUAY & BRAZIL
National press associations push for right-to-information laws, but media coverage is sparse.

 

But training and education can only go so far; efforts must be backed by media outlets willing to supply coverage. The Uruguayan Press Associationstood among the earliest and most consistent proponents of a law. But Uruguay’s media provided sparse coverage for the right to public information. Similarly, Brazil’s Associação Brasileira de Reporteiros Investigativos (The Association of Brazilian Investigative Reporters / ABRAJI) and the Associação Nacional de Jornais (Associação Nacional de Jornais / AJN) have led this country’s right-to-know movement, yet media reports on the right to information are strikingly infrequent.

Perhaps the most surprising challenge in securing coverage is allaying the suspicions of media professionals. The right to information is often viewed as a threat, especially when ownership is concentrated and media markets centralized. The idea of democratizing information generates little enthusiasm among some media professionals. Informational jealousies tend to arise when journalists rely heavily on informal or familiar sources; media professionals erroneously believe right to information laws will somehow level the playing field and take away personal advantages gained through the cultivation of inside contacts. Owners may sense that laws will spur new competitors. As a senior manager at Argentina’s Clarín newspaper avowed, the absence of an access to information law is thought to accentuate competitive advantage. Such informational jealousies are particularly pronounced in centralized markets where government is in constant, personal contact with relatively exclusive collection of media outlets. Argentina and Uruguay represent prime examples.

Despite resistance, securing commitments from progressive media directors and owners is no less crucial. Advocates should be mindful, however, that media management do recognize political opportunities when they see them and may be reluctant to devote coverage when they do not. Opportunities typically arise when presidents are weak or legislatures fall into disrepute, in other words, during periods of legislative gridlock or following major shocks, such as systemic corruption scandals. A significant embezzlement case in the Guatemalan Congress in June 2008 led to an explosion of coverage. The Guatemalan case provides a clear example of media forcing the political hand under a legislatively weak president and disgraced Congress. In Chile, it was a two-blow knockout: first a damning Inter-American Court ruling in September, then the full impact of Chiledeportes and Publicam corruption scandals in October.

Whereas Guatemala’s and Chile’s moderately strong laws emerged under scandal and politically compromised leaders, Uruguay’s weaker measure and Brazil’s questioned proposal (now in the Chamber of Deputies) were elaborated under the absence of salient political opportunities. Neither Brazil nor Uruguay has recently experienced standout corruption scandals. Moreover, majority governments and high public approval ratings have fortified presidential policy prerogatives against external pressure. Clearly, opportunities to advance strong laws depend as much on political factors as circumstantial ones.

But the importance of clear political opportunities for media coverage is perhaps overstated. For better or for worse, there is a good deal of audacity involved in creating political opportunities that justify coverage. Over the last thirty years or so, Latin American governments have increasingly grown to accept media denunciation of corruption as routine. Yet it is quite audacious for media to impose upon the policy agenda of governments. Heavy treading on government’s policy turf can cost news outlets government advertising and access to officials, among innumerable other forms of censorship. Carrot-and-stick approaches to ensuring unthreatening coverage are commonplace in emerging democracies, albeit frequently undetectable. Hints from officials are typically sufficient to guarantee self-censorship. The well-known abuses of the media under Guatemala’s President Álfonso Portillo contributed to silencing the media during the 2001-2003 attempt to enact an access to information law.

Stronger governments imply bigger risks for audacious media coverage. For one, policy prerogatives of strong governments cannot easily be influenced or disputed; second, there are fewer checks to restrain their abuses. Guatemala’s Portillo administration (2000-2004) enjoyed a majority in Congress, which led to few checks and numerous abuses of power. Uruguay has experienced consistent majority governments. And despite its reputation for strong institutions, Uruguay was recently singled out as one among a handful of countries in the region [4] that uses the give-and-take of state advertising to ensure favorable treatment in the news media.

Respecting media independence can do wonders for media’s willingness to devote coverage to contentious issues, such as failures of transparency. Although within Latin America Guatemala ranks second to last in media freedom, [5] President Colom’s early promises to respect the press freed the media to pursue a vitriolic campaign for the right of access to information with apparent peace-of-mind.

An historical lack of media independence provides a powerful causal explanation for weak media support at all levels. It is no coincidence that when the concentration of government power has been perennial (dictatorships and majorities), media independence has been the historical exception, ownership is most concentrated, and a government carrot-and-stick approach toward the media most pronounced. Under these conditions, media owners seek to maximize market position and minimize punishment by remaining within government’s good graces. They view legal measures that concern the media as possible incursions upon their market and regulatory advantages. Some owners have even expressed the fear that access to information is a veiled attempt to limit freedom of expression, which is often used as a clever euphemism for freedom to maximize profits unhindered by government regulation that might somehow jeopardize market position. Witness the difficulty of undertaking media reform in Latin American legislatures.

When government challenges to media independence are pronounced, journalists find it harder to convince editors and owners to publish the issues they investigate and end up seeing less benefit in professional tools, such as disclosure laws. A lack of independence also diminishes esteem for the profession, which weakens the solidarity needed to assert collective rights. Brazilian journalists tend to rank professional solidarity at a mere 5.4 out of 10. [6] An historically conditioned lack of independence can play out in a vicious cycle.

While we advocate policies that require an independent media to prosper, just maybe we should be addressing the independence of the media itself.


Greg Michener is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin. He plans on defending this fall 2009. For more information, please contact Greg at gregmichener@mail.utexas.edu.


NOTES

[1] Interview with David Gaitán of Acción Ciudadana.

[2] Most saliently, Grupo Reforma, El Universal and its affiliates, and La Jornada.

[3] For example, in December, 2007 Proacceso hosted a seminar entitled, Access to Public Information: A Tool for Investigative Journalism.

[4] Open Society Institute and Asociación de Derechos Civiles, The Price of Silence (New York: Soros Open Society Institute, 2008).

[5] According to Freedom House’s 2008 rankings. See http://www.freedomhouse.org/template.cfm?page=16.

[6] Based on responses from 182 journalists at the annual ABRAJI (Association for Brazilian Investigative Reporters) conference, April 2008 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

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