On November 15, the Latin American Program co-sponsored with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (OAS) a conference on The Role of the Media in the Consolidation of Democracy.
Eduardo Bertoni, OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, identified both traditional and non-traditional threats to freedom of the press in the Americas, including judicial harassment of and physical aggression against journalists, economic pressures faced by publications, media dependence on government-sponsored advertising and subsidies, and ethical self-control. Cynthia Arnson, Deputy Director of the Wilson Center's Latin American Program, noted that respected polls carried out in the region reflected high public trust in the broadcast media, even though the public continued to believe that de facto powers, including the media, rather than the public interest, drove economic and political systems throughout the region.
The first panel, moderated by Julia Preston, The New York Times, examined the role of the media in the transition and consolidation of democracy.
Carlos Eduardo Lins da Silva, PATRI, Inc., argued that the role of the media in democratic consolidation should not be overestimated given that, for the most part, they lacked economical independence and political autonomy. He expressed concern that a decline in newspaper readership is not being replaced by an increase in ‘quality media' consumption; internet blogs, radio talk shows, and entertainment masquerading as news will not suffice to fill the gap. This decline in quality is being exacerbated by the decline in ownership of media outlets by long-time "media barons" who were dedicated to journalistic integrity. The rise of "adventurers" who will stop at nothing to increase ratings and circulation, including the lowering of standards, also threatens to discredit journalism more broadly. Lins da Silva concluded that a media dependent on the support of political leaders and groups could not support real democracy.
Pablo Halpern, Halpern & Compania, described three phases in the role of the media and Chile's transition to democracy. During the democratic transition between 1988 and 1994, the media functioned as an important and active stage for public debate. Increased economic growth between 1995 and 2000 facilitated an expansion of media outlets and hence, competition; such competition unleashed more extremely liberal and conservative viewpoints, and the media became a factor in political strategies, reflected particularly in the debates over social values. A crisis of public confidence in the media erupted as journalists aggressively investigated official corruption and other scandals, at times appearing excessively and even erroneously to target public figures.
The second panel, moderated by Joel Simon, Committee to Protect Journalists, looked at the challenges faced by the media in the consolidation of democracy.
Alejandro Junco de la Vega, Grupo Reforma, of Mexico's Grupo Reforma emphasized the immense growth in press freedoms and journalistic ethics over the course of the last generation. A decade ago, for example, ethics and integrity were virtually unknown concepts in Mexico's compromised system of journalism. He described the role of community leaders in serving on editorial boards of his paper, arguing that such boards help ensure that the public sets the agenda for the newspaper, not the other way around. Reporters and editors are never invisible players in the community, he said, and balanced coverage helps citizens make future choices.
Peter Eisner of the Washington Post expressed his dismay over the loss of what used to be a central ethic of journalists in the United States: that their role was to serve as public ombudsmen and stand up to power and report on its use. Today, by contrast, to publish a photograph of the dead in Iraq is considered a controversial or political statement. He said that many journalists from Latin America did not understand the distinction between reporters and editorial opinion writers at newspapers such as the Post, although he agreed with Latin Americans who argued that minimal press coverage of the region reflected the political priorities of policymakers in Washington. Citing polls that showed that some 40 percent of the U.S. public continued to believe that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, he argued that newspapers have minimal influence on public opinion and democracy in the United States.
Darian Pavli, Open Society Justice Initiative, addressed media/government relations and their implication for press freedom. He said that the less repressive governments become, the more likely they are to revert to less obvious forms of control, such as the withholding of government advertising. Unlike U.S. newspapers, which rely heavily on private advertising, some Latin American newspapers depend on government advertising for up to 60 percent of total advertising revenues. Governments can thus punish unfavorable opinion or coverage by refusing to place ads, and reward media outlets that do just the opposite, thereby heavily influencing coverage.
Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, addressed press freedom in the United States, arguing that it was largely an invention of the 20th century, and more specifically, of the last 40 years. He recalled World War I-era legislation that made it a crime to criticize the war, citing the conviction of even a presidential candidate. He cited the 1964 Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan as an important benchmark in the effort to define constitutional limits on press freedom. These time frames are important to keep in mind when thinking about transitional democracies in Latin America, he argued. Academic research within universities, meanwhile, has become too abstract and theoretical, he said, making journalism an important vehicle for bringing outside issues into an academic setting. Universities can contribute to the quality and character of journalism, just as they do in any other profession. However, journalism schools have spent too much time on ‘skills' training, to the neglect of training that gives students a deeper understanding of the issues they will be covering.
- President and Publisher, Reforma and El Norte