The Central American Media’s Turn On the Democratization Agenda
The Central American agenda of the 1990s was dominated by crucial issues related to governability, such as decentralization, citizenship, sustainable development and transparency. In this new decade, it’s the media’s turn.
Carlos F. Chamorro
The peace and demilitarization processes of the past 12 years in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala have changed the political face of Central America. Electoral democracy and the alternation of power are now the norm in a region in which Costa Rica was for a long time the only exception to a pattern of political violence and infringement of democratic liberties. Freedom of expression and the vigorous development of the mass media as a counterbalance to the public powers are characteristic features of what are called Central America’s "incomplete democracies." Parallel to the political transformations, the media have been undergoing their own transition. New innovative media and old renovated ones, a new generation of journalists and visionary entrepreneurs are among the main protagonists in a dizzying and contradictory process.
At a crossroadsThe balance of the past decade shows that the media have found a niche among the democratic institutions most trusted by citizens in the face of the cumulative discrediting of political parties and state institutions. In certain cases, they have become democratic political actors of the first order, but they have also revealed their own limitations. The growing power and pressure of private economic groups on the one hand, and the demand by new social actors and an embryonic civil society for greater participation in public debate on the other, are placing the media at a crossroads. At a time when democracy is in danger of stagnating or backpedaling, the media are shaping up as one of the reserves for building democracy, if, that is, they can become democratic institutions.
Despite the wealth of practical experience, virtually no information or systematic analysis is available on the evolution of the press in each respective country in Central America. Nor do we have any regional view of the problem. In fact, though the issue of the media has been common currency during informal exchanges among journalists, is does not occupy a central place on the democratic transformation agenda in Central America. To cite a recent example, the excellent "Report on the State of the Region in Sustainable Development" (1999), which presents an exhaustive agenda on the region, does not even mention the contribution made or challenges faced by the media in the process of consolidating democracy.
More autonomous, During the nineties, Central America’s media underwent extraordinary transformations. The convex of change for both the old media that re-launched themselves and the new media that emerged is associated with the economic opening and political liberalization that created a favorable climate for developing more plural and independent media. The general result is that the media are playing a more autonomous and critical role in their mediation with the state and society. This is reflected in the improved role they are playing in their three basic functions: their informative function, their capacity to monitor those in power and their promotion of pluralism and public debate. The scope of this process varies according to the particular experience of each country involved.
more critical, more pluralist
In the area of information and investigative journalism, the informative space for previously prohibited issues was gradually broadened. The press started to play a more critical role in different issues of national life such as corruption, the malfunctioning of democratic institutions, impunity, the power of the military, land tenure, indigenous participation, etc. However, this broadening of the thematic agenda did not solve the problem of the quality of information required to offer citizens the chance to participate in public policy formulation. During electoral periods, the media became a great arena for public debate and the struggle for power, and in theory sought to represent the citizens to broaden their opportunities for political choice. But in practice, the traditional party alignments continue to predominate, albeit in a more subtle form.
Given the deficient performance of other democratic institutions, the communications media have played a crucial role in overseeing public power. In particular, this has involved fighting against corruption and the abuse of power and demanding that the democratic system function as it should. However, the media reflect a complex contradiction in the dichotomy between their nature as commercial businesses and their function as public service institutions. As a result, their progress in providing a public service has been impeded by the fact that they are an interdependent part of the economic-political power structure.
One of the more visible advances in the democratic role of the press allowed by the political opening has been the gradual establishment of a more pluralist regime of opinions in the media; it is becoming a permanent characteristic of the Central American press. Political sectors that, due to the politically repressive climate, had no place in the press during the seventies and early eighties started to be interviewed and express their opinions and ideological positions. Thus, the media started to provide a new function as arenas for debate, criticism and dissent, an invaluable contribution toward the establishment of a basic climate of tolerance in defiance of authoritarianism. However, there is evidence that not all of society’s critical voices are expressed in the media, and as the transitions are institutionalized, the media are starting to be co-opted by traditional opinion leaders.
Honduras lags behindLeaving aside Costa Rica, which has long experience in matters of media freedom and independence, the most notable changes are seen in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In these countries, the leading media have made considerable progress in distancing themselves from and developing a critical capacity toward power. In Guatemala, these features are concentrated in the written press, while television remains subject to government interests due to commitments derived from a quasi-monopolistic system.
Unlike in the rest of the region, the media system in Honduras is still closely inter-related with the political parties and economic groups, and is more vulnerable to governmental pressure and the allure of corruption. While the media’s limitations in El Salvador and Nicaragua tend to be reflected during election campaigns or situations that push the limit of their relations with the state or big private economic groups, the Honduran media, with a few notable exceptions, constantly act as the instrument of different pressure groups. As a result of this system, the degree of autonomy in Honduras’ editorial offices is much smaller, while governmental influence and the tendency toward press corruption are more pronounced.
A temptation and a responsibilityAccording to the United Nations Development Program’s Central American Barometer, based on a survey conducted by Borge and Assoc. in 1997, the media in Central America enjoy the greatest credibility of any institution after the Catholic Church. In Nicaragua’s case, a survey by the organization CINCO (2001) revealed that the media occupied first place in terms of confidence (67%), even beating the Catholic Church (63%). This perception of the media, obviously laden with ethical and structural deficiencies, suggests not so much an indicator of quality as a view by the citizenry that they serve as an "escape valve" through which to express discontent with the poor way other institutions are functioning.
This raises the need for the media to shake off the temptation to take the place of political parties and democratic institutions and for journalists to stop trying to use their position as a trampoline from which to launch themselves into party politics. It is still common to see journalists’ names on party parliamentary slates in Honduras and Nicaragua or for the press to have an obvious party bias. It is not the media’s mission to replace institutions but rather to help transform them. After all, when other institutions—justice, congresses, comptrollers and the like—are not working properly, the only way the media can fulfill their role as watchdog of the public and private powers is through opinion debates. It is thus in their own interest to help modernize the democratic institutions, not try to replace them. To complement this, the relationship between the media and political power should be put forward anew as a two-way process, putting an end to the utilitarian view of the media that predominates among governments, political parties and private business.
The development of an independent and democratic press requires recognizing that the media are open arenas for political struggle and at the same time democratic actors in their own right.
Technological or At least four simultaneous processes have converged in the process of modernizing the media: the political opening; business competition and a trend toward greater concentration of ownership; access to technological modernization and new technologies; and both journalistic and managerial professionalism. This process has been incomplete, uneven and contradictory.
It is uneven because of its different expressions in radio, the written press and television; incomplete because there have been advances, reverses and limits in democratically institutionalizing the media; and contradictory because the media are commercial profit-making companies while their internal codes profile them as forums for public debate. Behind this contradictory process of being both forums and actors whose own political and economic interests tend to predominate over their public function, a certain tension can be detected between the mass media’s increasing rhythm of technological and business modernization and their slower modernization as democratic institutions.
The dailies in the vanguardTechnological modernization means that newspapers have the technological capacity to reach a larger audience, and are supporting it with more highly-skilled human resources and improved business organization. This is expressed in various processes:
* The dailies have automated their printing and graphic design systems and adopted modern concepts of journalistic and business organization, supplements, marketing, etc., expanding the business into the area of commercial printing. Although newspaper circulation is not massive in all countries and tends to be concentrated in the capital cities, the influence of the dailies by far outstrips the coverage provided by their circulation. Newspapers are the main source of general information for the countries’ opinion leaders and decision-makers. Some have investigative journalism units or are in the process of creating them, which provide more inputs for enriching the national informative agenda and have a decisive influence in setting the electronic media’s journalistic agenda. In this sense the dailies are clearly in the journalistic vanguard, leading the way for other media.
* TV is fast entering the digital age, bringing its signal up to standard and expanding its technical coverage. Its main vocation is entertainment, and it is highly dependent on foreign production. Partly due to the excessive concentration of ownership and lack of competition, television in some countries tends to be underutilized as a forum for public debate and a medium for investigative journalism. On the other hand, where competition exists among television channels, news, opinion and debate programs have gained widespread social recognition for contributing to democratic development.
* Radio stations have technologically modernized and are tending to regroup into business networks and chains. Radio is still the predominant information source outside the main cities, particularly on local issues. Its impact varies by country, but it is still generally the main provider of services, information and entertainment in rural areas. The accumulated experience of local or community radio has been important, promoting a participatory form of programming that favors local cultural identity.
* There is an incipient media development via Internet, focused on the urban middle classes. In most cases, Internet offers a complementary vehicle of dissemination for the written media and its main users are Central Americans living abroad who want to know what is happening in their country. There are still few experiences of truly interactive media based around their communities, however. As communication instruments, the new technologies have extended the possibilities of networks created by civil society as a way to share information within and outside of their countries, gather their demands and influence the public debate.
Limited modernizationModernization of the media as democratic institutions is expressed through a general improvement in the supply of information and the pluralism of opinions. The stage in which governments and the military tightly controlled the media has given way to a new process in which the media share a general commitment to democracy and pluralism. The scope of this institutional modernization, however, remains limited by various factors.
* The predominant emphasis in the media’s highest decision-making levels is on their business and commercial nature rather than their mission as public forums. This limits the professional autonomy of newsroom editors, news writers and columnists.
* The media’s democratic commitment is limited when covering issues that affect certain interests of the dominant economic powers. This in turn limits the quality of public debate and the media’s capacity to monitor the public and, above all, private powers.
* Despite the overall progress in shaping a nonpartisan media, a tendency toward party alignment predominates during electoral campaigns, to the detriment of the public’s rights.
* No real culture or practice of being accountable to society has accompanied the strengthening of the media. There are no effective self-regulatory mechanisms—codes of ethics, a readers’ ombudsman, etc.—and certain sectors share the view that a culture of impunity surrounds media abuse.
Insofar as the media fail to complete their transformation into democratic institutions that guarantee an autonomous space for the exercise of professional journalism with clearly established ethical rules inside the companies that are shared with the public as a form of contract and commitment, their contribution to democracy will also remain incomplete. Some media in Central America have already taken certain important steps in this direction, but in most cases, there is still a long way to go.
Innovative media and the Members of the business elite have headed up these changes in the media, supported by a new generation of professional journalists. The nature of journalistic businesses in the region ranges from family businesses to big and medium corporations, with a marked tendency in both cases toward concentration of ownership.
power of competition
The new spaces opened up by political liberalization have favored this media modernization by the business elite, but intra-media competition has spurred it on. A direct relationship between economic competition and better and greater communication supply has been the general tonic in the case of the dailies and radio stations where competition among two, three and sometimes even more actors stimulates continuing attempts at journalistic innovation. A case in point is El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica in El Salvador, which ten years ago were considered to be among Latin America’s most backward dailies. Competition between them has notably transformed and modernized their offices. In Nicaragua, competition between the daily papers La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario along with Channel 2’s audience ratings and influence leadership in competition with six other channels seem to confirm this tendency.
A variant of this process is found in the dailies, television channels, radio stations, community radios, and radio and TV programs that fulfill a role of professional leadership and journalistic innovation but are not commercial leaders. Such is the role played over time by the magazine Crónica, then Siglo XXI and now El Periódico in Guatemala, the space that Channel 12 opened up in Salvadoran television journalism, or even the frustrated Nicaraguan experiment of turning Barricada into a nonpartisan newspaper (1991-1994). The work of these innovative media has been important in promoting investigative journalism, a diversity of informative sources and a pluralism of opinions and civic participation, in some cases stimulating professional renovation of the traditional media. The existence of innovative media in each country, whether in a market leadership position or simply as a benchmark for professional excellence, has been crucial in driving the journalistic modernization process and stimulating the values of a new culture among journalists in the region.
The vicious monopoly circleThe oligopolistic nature of Central America’s media industry creates an economic barrier that makes it hard for new actors to break into the market. The high investment costs involved in setting up a new newspaper or television station mean that small and medium sectors cannot invest in this field without the support of other economic stakeholders or outside financial sources.
A particular problem is the tendency to concentrate television ownership. An extreme case in point is Guatemala, where one private joint venture consortium with a Mexican entrepreneur controls the four open-band TV channels in a quasi-monopoly. This case has been widely documented and referred to in various reports on freedom of expression in that country. Less studied is Honduras’ case, where one corporation dominates the country’s three main TV channels, though unlike in Guatemala, there are other options and a limited degree of competition. El Salvador is similar with a strong corporation running the three channels with the greatest coverage and audience, but there are even more options as well as greater diversity and competition than in Honduras. Nicaragua and Costa Rica offers more competition among the different television options than the other countries.
These oligopolistic tendencies in Central American television contribute to the under-utilization of the medium as a democratic forum for information, debate and public discussion. One direct consequence of the lack or limited level of competition is the limited development of a critical, watchdog form of television journalism that would facilitate civil society’s access to the public debate. This is reflected in the terrible quality of television journalism in Guatemala and its only slightly better quality in Honduras. In Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica, however, the greater competition makes for considerably better quality, critical capacity and plurality of television journalism.
A second problem associated with television monopolies or oligopolies is that they tend to become obliging allies of the government of the day, in the interest of preserving the frequency concessions that allow them to maintain their privileged economic positions. The television oligopolies’ power is particularly obvious during electoral campaigns and is one of the greatest challenges to democratizing communications in the region. Their power is further locked up by a tendency toward collusion of interests between the ad agencies and the monopolies, making it even harder to break this vicious circle.
A new generation of journalistsDuring the last decade, the region has witnessed the emergence of a new generation of journalists who are much more qualified than their predecessors and more committed to professional journalism. Unlike the previous generation, which ranged between party alignments and submission to the authority of the traditional powers, this new generation—between 20 and 35 years old—has grown up in a democratic climate offering more tolerance and greater incentives to develop a more professional form of journalism.
This generation has been shaped mainly in the journalism and communications schools of local universities, which have made certain basic improvements in quality, though they are still dominated by a theoretical orientation and lag behind the media’s demands for both practical preparation and general education. These university departments also have certain common problems, including the fact that their academic curricula have not been adjusted to the media’s new demands and they lack a systematic relationship with the media that could institutionalize the journalistic practices of their students. Moreover, a good proportion of their lecturers have too little professional experience and their equipment and laboratories cannot provide practical training in the electronic media and the new technology.
Journalist training programs involving various international cooperation agencies and organizations have bombarded the region. Two regional programs stand out in particular for their scope, systematic nature and investment amounts: the Central American Journalism Program (PROCEPER) financed by USAID, and the Radio Netherlands Program supported by Dutch cooperation. An evaluation of PROCEPER’s program in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador shows that, despite the generally positive impact of this form of training and its extensive coverage, with more than 2,000 journalists participating in its seminars, its results were limited by dispersion, lack of follow up and specialization, and above all, the absence of conditions needed to strengthen journalistic autonomy due to adverse factors in the media’s business and political environment. This appraisal is particularly valid for Honduras, where the amalgam of political, business and press interests limits any positive advances in journalistic training.
Meanwhile, the region’s journalist associations tend to be a hybrid between trade unions and colleges, dividing their energies between negotiating trade rights for journalists and training initiatives, with limited influence on the groups of young professionals. Neither the colleges nor the associations are exactly centers of journalistic innovation and in some cases, such as Honduras, are seen as part of the press’s problem rather than as its solution.
Investigative journalism The region’s new generation of journalists is much more open to learning from international experiences and particularly to taking advantage of informal exchanges with their regional colleagues. The region’s more qualified journalists are now demanding greater writing autonomy and better opportunities and working conditions—time, economic resources and the political will of the media owners— to develop investigative journalism. As in other parts of Latin America, Central America’s investigative journalism initiatives have centered on the fight against public corruption, denunciation and correction of abuse of power, historical reconstruction of human rights violations, the demand that the democratic system function appropriately and the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime.
is a vocation
This has been encouraged by the new international trend, promoted by multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank, in support of information transparency and the fight against corruption. It is worth noting, however, that the very organizations promoting press training and specialization initiatives tend to practice the same vices of informational secrecy and concealment of information in their own relations with the region’s countries that they are seeking to correct in the national institutions.
There is also a proposal to simultaneously undertake the challenge of overseeing the private powers with the same zeal and rigor the media use to oversee the public powers. One of the gray areas of Central American investigative journalism is this minefield of commercial interests, but in recent years financial information has stopped being a no-go area for the dailies and increasingly become a target of political and financial investigations. The relation between money and power has started to form part of the agenda of investigative journalism in our region. The underlying problem continues to be the strong press dependence on economic business groups, which apart from being powerful advertisers occasionally even hold shares in the media. Examples exist of leading regional media challenging the power of the advertisers by publishing investigations that could affect their own commercial interests, but cases also abound in which orders from above led to the shelving or mutilation of investigations, thus imposing censorship and even self-censorship on the newsrooms.
New forms of censorshipOver the last decade, physical repression ceased being the state’s main form of relations with both media and journalists and the main way to violate the right to information in the region. Various factors have contributed to this positive change, including the peace processes, the demilitarization of politics, reduction of the military’s power, the development of greater political tolerance and the spaces created by strengthening the press.
Violence against and intimidation of journalists and the media are thus less frequent and occur in areas increasingly removed from the decision-making centers, but threats still come from groups outside the control of political power, such as drug traffickers, money launderers, arms traffickers and certain power groups within the state. On the legal level, no censorship laws exist anymore, but instruments within existing legislation are still used to penalize journalists. More recurrent than physical repression of the press is the state’s non-regulated informal intervention: control of information, which is still tight and arbitrary; economic pressure and legal instruments used as reprisals.
These new forms of repression are much more sophisticated. They include use of state publicity to reward and punish different media; tax repression mechanisms to punish or encourage changes in the editorial policies of certain companies; pressure on private advertisers to withdraw publicity placed with independent media; and economic pressure on other businesses belonging to the owners of the media involved. Then there are the conditions on granting and/or renewing licenses and concessions to electronic media; control of state information to the detriment of independent media; the passing of laws requiring journalists to join professional associations to co-opt independent journalism; and use of the penal code to punish journalists and restrict the scope of investigative journalism.
In April 2000, the annual report produced by Santiago Cantón, the Organization of American State’s special observer on Press Freedom, drew particular attention to problems related to press freedom in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua based on intimidation, economic pressure, obligatory membership in associations and application of contempt laws. With this range of different pressures, the government and powerful private corporations are continuing to impose limits on access to public and private information. Access to public information and right of petition are not regulated and public information is still administered in a discretionary manner to the detriment of transparency and investigative journalism. The power of private corporations, including the recently privatized utility companies, and the influence of advertisers impose additional limitations on the democratization of information in highly concentrated markets.
New authoritarian forms, The Central American press enjoys greater freedom at the beginning of the 21st century than during any period of its history, but its overseeing of public power is sparking hostile reactions from freely elected governments whose efforts to subdue the press reveal authoritarian inclinations. Examples of obsessive confrontation with the media include conflictive relations by the governments of Presidents Alvaro Arzu in Guatemala and Arnoldo Alemán in Nicaragua. Both cases are representative of the current tendency to blame the media for all national ills and display an exceedingly hostile power relation toward them that leads to new forms of pressure and coercion to limit them as a counterweight. There have been charges in Honduras in particular of a "paid off" press, influence peddling with the government and collusion of interests among media owners, the companies linked to them, the government and political parties, leading to corrupt press practices. This extreme case in Central America deserves special attention and investigation
The struggle for freedom of expression in the region is less and less the solitary action of journalists. Nowadays there tends to be a convergence of interests among journalists, media bosses and representatives of civil society. A more self-critical attitude is needed from the media, however, to reduce their distance from and incite the solidarity of the citizens so they assume the causes of the press as their own.
Greater pluralism Modernization of the media is also expressed through the fact that there is now greater pluralism, more openness to different opinions, than in the previous decade, and the informative agenda is broader. Civil society sectors in general and emerging groups in particular still have limited capacity to influence the media’s agenda, however.
with missing voices
Various factors explain this imbalance. One is the competition among the government, the media—also actors with their own interests—and civil society to establish the media agenda, in which the first two have considerable advantages in the field of communications. A second factor is the limited capacity of the emerging sectors—indigenous movements, women, peasants, human rights activists—to influence the media, in part due to a lack of knowledge, political relations, strategies and official spokespeople. Third, there is a limit to the media’s pluralism, particularly once the basic stage of opening up has been completed and issues come up that question their own editorial agenda. A prime example of this is the debate on abortion.
On balance, the media tend to be dominated by traditional actors to the detriment of emerging groups. From civil society’s point of view, certain media have systematically blockaded social protests, but many existing opportunities are wasted on a day-to-day level due to a basic problem in the capacity of the emerging groups to put together media advocacy strategies. In general, these groups tend to concentrate on linking up with the media only to disseminate events, communiqués and press conferences without understanding the media’s news dynamic.
In addition to their lack of communication strategies, these groups often tend to lack attractive messages and proposals, as well as credible, prestigious representatives. In the best of cases, certain voices from civil society have been incorporated into the informative dynamic to provide contrasting views, but they have little influence in defining the issues. One civil society group that has demonstrated a great capacity to influence the media is the Guatemalan Myrna Mack Foundation, which combines three minimum elements: a media strategy, proposals of interest to the press and a prestigious spokesperson.
Women, indigenous peoples The women’s movement in the different Central American countries has shown a greater capacity than other emerging groups to influence public discourse and the media agenda. On the one hand, the gender equity discourse now forms part of the public agenda, which is influenced by the commitments the governments have made with international donors and organizations. On the other, each country has an important number of female communicators and journalists who are particularly sensitive to promoting this agenda. Even so, newspaper offices are still dominated by a commercial formula aimed at women and centered on fashion, health and beauty, which gets imposed over a focus that incorporates women into the challenges of development.
and the rural world
The situation is far more complex in the case of indigenous communities, above all in Guatemala, partly because the written media has a limited scope and the radio stations that broadcast in indigenous languages suffer from technical problems, limited resources and programming deficiencies. Few communicators and journalists in indigenous communities are professionally trained to work in both indigenous languages and Spanish, and those professionals who are aware of the marginalization suffered in the indigenous world recognize that they do not have the capacity to influence such an enormous cultural gap.
The backdrop to media modernization is a high degree of illiteracy in rural zones and the excessive concentration of the media in urban centers in general and capital cities in particular. The national agendas tend to be saturated with a vision based around the capital city that under-represents the development challenges in the interior of the country. The ethnic question and conditions of rural poverty that limit the media access of a large proportion of the most vulnerable sectors aggravate this breach or lack of information. The communications gap is even greater in Guatemala: in a country where over half of the population speaks an indigenous language, the media disseminate almost exclusively in Spanish, ignoring the country’s multiethnic reality.
No communications policiesNone of the Central America states has a communications policy or any plans to develop one. Guatemala is the only country that has passed certain specific communications laws, and it was a result of the Peace Accords signed in 1996. In those agreements, the state promised to facilitate the access of indigenous peoples to the communications media through reforms to the Radio Broadcasting Law and abolition of legal dispositions that discriminated against indigenous peoples. It also pledged to place a television channel formerly controlled by the army at the disposal of civil society. Five years after the signing of the accords, however, these commitments have still not been honored. On the contrary, the reforms to the Radio Broadcasting Law passed in 1997 established a commercial bidding system for radio frequencies that left the indigenous peoples and other emerging sectors with almost no possibilities of obtaining them. Nor has there been any real transfer of the television frequency, which was assigned to the Ministry of Education. Following a visit by OAS representative Santiago Cantón, President Alfonso Portillo promised to suspend the auctioning of frequencies until some satisfactory formula could be found, but there appears to be no easy legal solution, particularly since the powerful lobby for the interests of Guatemala’s commercial radio companies is openly opposed.
Guatemala is the only case in which some form of communications policy has even been attempted, albeit not applied. There is also no state interest in promoting communications policies in El Salvador, Honduras or Nicaragua.
The potential of community radioWith respect to alternative media, recent decades have seen the creation of various publications, magazines, supplements, local radio stations or programs and some television programs associated with emerging sectors. All played an important role in strengthening the identities of the sectors they represent and making those identities known at a time when there was a structural blockade on public opinion. But the alternative media have found it difficult to adapt as the press climate has changed and opened up. Some have managed to survive thanks to subsidies from foreign cooperation, but they do not represent a real alternative given the general communications pattern. They have lagged behind the technological and journalistic modernization process experienced by the commercial media and their audiences are quite small. They are not economically sustainable and depend almost exclusively on international aid.
The exception in this area is the regional experience of community or local radio. Community radio is low cost and operates on a small scale, varying from 20 watts to 2 kilowatts, but it is defined less by its scale than by its commitment to develop participatory practices and preserve local cultural identities. The development of community radio has been systematically supported by the regional training program promoted by Radio Netherlands. Between 1987 and 1993, the Radio Netherlands Training Center based in Costa Rica made an important contribution to developing community radio in Central America.
This development has been uneven. In El Salvador, community radios managed to transcend the survival stage and are currently undergoing a complicated transition and market insertion process. In Guatemala, they are still struggling for legal recognition, while in Honduras and Nicaragua they are forming a national network. In none of the countries has the concept of "community radio" been legally recognized, but the more these radios group together the more they strengthen their legitimacy and their own voices as important communications actors. Although publicity agencies still do not recognize these small stations as important economically, some governments admit that they are important for their government communications, because community radios tend to represent the main communication option away from the peak hours dominated by the national radios with the biggest audiences.
Community radio is at a crossroads now, debating how to preserve its identity at the same time that it enters the market in search of self-sustainability. The key to developing its enormous democratic communication potentiality lies in solving this dilemma. Community radio’s main strength is its programming, which is geared toward participatory programs that involve the community in discussing and proposing solutions to its local problems and in preserving its cultural identity.
Public accountabilityDespite its many advances, the Central American press has not escaped the main vices demonstrated by the world press. Due to the very nature of competing for exclusive stories, the regional media have a shared tendency to simplify the debate, personalize problems and avoid complex issues. In extreme situations, this can lead to an impoverishment of public discourse, in which gestures and postures replace proposals and arguments, and the concept of politics as a spectacle or mere struggle for power supplants the concept of civic participation in public affairs. In addition, the public continues to perceive the media as political actors that in some cases openly operate as instruments of political parties, economic groups or pressure groups. Such interests tend to be more evident during electoral campaigns. Nor can it be concealed that certain media frequently use the freedom of expression argument to act unethically against certain people and institutions.
A certain civic demand that the media’s democratic obligations should include being accountable to society is thus understandable. Journalists everywhere tend to evade the press accountability issue, and Central America is no exception. When the issue is raised, it is frequently alleged that the aim is to restrict press freedom. The traditional response to any such demand is that the media is subjected to a daily selection process in which citizens decide whether to buy a certain newspaper, or whether to tune in to a television or radio program or turn the set off.
This argument, however, only holds up in conditions of perfect competition, when many different media are on offer. When the competitive framework is deficient, the market is not the best way to assign communication "efficiency." Furthermore, the existing offers tend to lack diversity and any real framework of differentiation.
Many mechanisms can be derived from existing international experiences of media accountability to society, including the following:
* Self-regulation and codes of ethics. Through this mechanism the media establish their own rules and publicly announce them to their audiences or public. Self-regulation benefits the media themselves, although up until now only a few companies have discovered that professional ethics and quality journalism can be highly profitable.
* Placing an audience’s ombudsman or defender in newspaper or electronic media offices. The ombudsman is a noted journalist contracted by the company involved to represent the reader, listener or viewer. There are no such experiences in the Central American media, with the single exception of Radio Reloj in Costa Rica.
* Public debate on the role of the media. This implies opening permanent arenas for debating the media role that are open not only to specialists, but also to the citizenry in general. It is a mechanism for permanently overseeing the industry through the media themselves. This is perhaps one of the most important mechanisms that could help maintain a vigorous connection between the media and the democratic process. The level of media debate on the media could become an additional indicator of their degree of openness and an additional reference on the quality of the democratic process.
* The conducting of media studies that go beyond just doing quantitative audience measurements for commercial ends. In other words, these are studies on qualitative aspects of the media and their audiences—such as credibility, influence and impact on different social sectors—that allow the media’s role in constructing democracy to be debated. This implies creating discussion forums to debate media proposals in civil society.
Despite the defensive reaction that the demand for media accountability normally generates among journalists, we think that this issue has to become one of the great democratic challenges of this decade.