Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 323 | Junio 2008



The Struggle for a New Media Law: Who Owns the Airwaves?

Televisa and Televisión Azteca control Mexico’s entire television audience. The long, arduous struggle to break this “duo-poly” and defend citizens from the media’s unfettered rule hit a major stumbling block in April, but there will be another decisive moment in September.

Jorge Alonso

Pablo González Casanova has said that the government is defending its agenda through the “expropriation of reason, rights and words.” He charges that the art of deception has reached extraordinary proportions, making “Tartuffe seem like an amateur” at tricking and influencing people with lies. This Mexican intellectual’s opinions have been proven more than accurate in an episode that has deepened Mexico’s polarization even more.

The Broad Popular Front (made up of the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party, Workers’ Party and grouping of parties known as the Convergencia) took over Congress in an attempt to block approval of President Calderón’s decision—made in the shadows by the highest leadership levels and never opened to public debate—to privatize the oil industry. After 15 days the government was forced to agree to a period of public discussion on its oil proposals.

“Monstrous campaign”

The takeover of Congress infuriated the governing National Action Party (PAN) and the powers that be in the worlds of big money and major media, and the dirty war reappeared. This time, using methods learned from fascism, the ultra-Right tried to discredit former presidential candidate Anrés Manuel López Obrador, one of the most tenacious defenders of Mexican petroleum, by taking out paid TV ads comparing him to Hitler, Mussolini and Pinochet. The Mexican state institution in charge of elections, waited several days before applying the law and ordering this privately-paid political message off the air.

Bishop Raúl Vera declared that if the Secretariat of the Interior didn’t put a stop to and investigate “the media’s lynching campaign” it would be viewed as complicit. The president of the Federal District’s Human Rights Commission warned that the messages spread hate and intolerance. The National Center for Social Communication—an organization that has worked on the side of the voiceless for decades—said the campaign was unethical, increasing polarization rather than encouraging dialogue. Many academics commented on the harm these messages did to democracy and the right to information, going beyond freedom of the press. Writer Carlos Monsiváis called it a “monstrous hate campaign, product of defamatory arrogance trying to pass itself off as freedom of expression.”

This behavior by the wealthy, particularly by the owners of the two Mexican television stations with national coverage, put the urgent need for a new media law back on the public agenda.

The long struggle for information

Many groups have been involved in a long struggle to make the public’s right to information a reality. Although the Mexican student movement of 1968 faced violent repression and jail, it set off a wave of grassroots mobilization in the years that followed, to which the political class saw the need to respond through political reforms that included recognition of this right. But while spaces were opened to new parties in the political sphere, the owners of big media outlets ensured that the right to information would remain a dead letter. Later, with the advent of neoliberal policies, the main public media were privatized—in a corrupt manner. Thus Televsión Azteca was born, in imitation of Televisa.

With the change of government in 2000 that ended the 70-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), civic groups that had been struggling to promote the right to information thought a propitious moment had arrived—especially since the new government convened a working group on media reform during the first months of its administration.

Two parallel processes ensued: a civil society working group and an official one in which the civic organizations had representation. Progress was thus made on discussing the issue and some agreements were reached. But after 14 months, the ambition of President Fox’s wife put an end to the effort. In the belief that pleasing the media would ensure her own presidential candidacy, Martha Sahagún convinced her husband to give up most of the state’s airtime, which shrank from 12.5% to just 1.5%. Time previously allocated for socially-oriented public communication thus became a little gift to the private media owners for their own commercial purposes.

Intellectuals, journalists and other communicators left the official working group in protest over the government’s abusive and unilateral action. But civic groups took advantage of the work that had been done to present their proposed legislation to a group of sympathetic senators. This bill to democratize broadcasting, open up Televisa and Televisión Azteca’s duopoly to new voices and strengthen public and social broadcasting made its way through the Senate, but the television stations had their own people in the legislature and bought others, preventing the legislation from reaching general discussion in the Senate.

The abusive “Televisa Law”

Meanwhile, Televisa’s legal team was quietly putting together another legislative proposal. Just days before the presidential campaign began, it was pushed through the House of Representatives in a seven-minute transaction with no discussion. It was a moment when all parties wanted to ingratiate themselves with the media, in hopes of good treatment during the campaign. This bill, which became known as the Televisa Law, was the opposite of the one that had been put together in the Senate. It gave television broadcasters privileged treatment and violated citizens’ right to be informed.

Once the bill was approved in the lower chamber, it needed Senate approval. The senators who had been working on the democratic media law opposed it, but they were a minority. The new law contained many unconstitutional elements, however, so over a third of the senators—from several parties—proposed filing a complaint with the Supreme Court that it was unconstitutional. These senators weren’t alone; they were backed by a wide range of civic groups that were demanding the Court’s intervention to throw out the abusive Televisa Law.

One of these groups was the Mexican Association for the Right to Information (AMEDI), which argues that all citizens should be able to exercise this right, although in practice it is conditioned by the market and the power of the media owners. AMEDI insists on the need to update the legal framework to reflect the fundamental harmony between freedom of expression and the right to information.

The necessary agenda

AMEDI is supported by a variety of civic organizations with shared experiences and goals. Its position is that freedom of information means any person’s real and effective right to investigate, receive, produce and disseminate information of any kind by any means. This, it explains, requires a full guarantee of the right to information, understood as any person’s faculty to solicit and receive accurate, timely, diverse and sufficient information on any matter of public interest.

AMEDI’s proclaimed mission is to promote the recognition of information as a good and a public right; guarantee respect for journalists’ free exercise of their profession; guarantee access to information on public administration; guarantee the right of reply to all media as a civil defense mechanism; promote an explicit and public definition of media codes of ethics linking the exercise of free expression to social responsibility parameters; demand transparency in the government’s exercise of its social communication function to benefit society at large; promote the rights and duties of the state, users, communicators, owners, and licensees of the media; demand transparent and equitable use of state time in radio and television (legal, fiscal and electoral); demand access for all citizens to information of public interest of any kind, in both public and private entities; promote the salvaging and preservation of the historical memory as part of the right to information; and promote the formation of plural organizations, with social participation, to oversee the norms related to the media.

AMEDI has declared that, as it is a social right, the right to information must be promoted and monitored by society itself.

An historic decision

The Supreme Court first rejected the executive branch’s petition to ignore the charge of unconstitutionality made by a multi-party group of senators completing their terms in 2006. Examining the case a year later, however, the Court resolved that the Televisa Law reduced state decision-making capacity regarding the broadcast spectrum (the information transmitting waves used for television, radio and cellular phones). The Televisa Law also gave Televisa and Televisión Azteca privileged status with respect to automatic license renewal. The Court ruled that this was unconstitutional, since the state has the right to review the use of the broadcast spectrum, which is public property.

Groups defending the right to information saw the Supreme Court decision, which threw out most of the Televisa Law, as an historic event that obliged the legislative branch to reform telecommunications and broadcasting. An all-party working group was formed in the Senate to draft the reform.

That group conducted various public consultations from October 2007 to January 2008, in which the Chamber of the Radio and Television Industry—representing the owners of the big media outlets and the Secretariats of the Interior and of Communications—gave the government point of view. The National System of Higher Education Institutions, the National Telecommunications Association, the International Association of Broadcasters and the representative of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico were heard, as was AMEDI and a number of other civil society groups.

Profit, privelege and power

During its presentation to the Senate working group, AMEDI emphasized that it was struggling for a reform that would reflect Mexicans’ democratic aspirations. It asserted that the reform would be meaningless unless it contributed to building an authentic information society. It charged that the big media outlets had been captured by a handful of licensees and that the privilege of radio and TV broadcasting had been subordinated to the whim and convenience of political power. It showed that the content of many stations was being defined by profit rather than social responsibility and that an inability to deal with controversy and diversity had led the most influential media corporations to oppose militantly any opening that would encourage competition, especially open-access television.

The concentration of communications resources in a few hands had reinforced the power conferred by the privilege of access to a radio or television concession. That capacity for influence had made the main licensees into powers that were sometimes parallel to the state, and they had tried to set themselves above the legal institutional framework.

Public and community

AMEDI pointed out that in their desire for control, the communications consortia had managed to push through a reform that expanded the privileges they already had. It also denounced their attempts to subordinate important elements of the political class to their designs. The Supreme Court’s intervention had stopped them, and it was time to proceed with genuine reform.

AMEDI noted that recent technological progress had made new information resources available, but their development in Mexico was limited and unequal. There had been no public policies broad enough to provide the majority of Mexicans with open, constant and quality access to these resources. The digital divide had added to other factors of social exclusion. AMEDI called for socially inclusive legislation, with rules to ensure equity and participation. The new legislation had to be based on citizens’ rights and define the public service function of radio and television. The broadcast spectrum must remain national property, taking advantage of information technology as much as possible. And finally, there should be an autonomous regulatory agency.

AMEDI came out in favor of genuinely public media. In the case of indigenous communities and peoples, it proposed granting rights according to constitutional principles under a transparent and simplified system. It emphasized that community media are the closest to citizens, responding to specific needs in the immediate environment and based on self-management in formation, operation and maintenance, characteristics the Mexican state ought to recognize.

No to monopoly

Since the Chamber of the Radio and Television Industry was recommending that the legislature ignore the Supreme Court justices’ decision on the unconstitutionality of the Televisa Law, AMEDI argued that the Senate was obliged to respond to the Supreme Court decision.

The new legislation should regulate the administration of the airwaves, which are the property of the nation, and deal with the issue of content. Pluralism and prevention of media monopoly were important. There should be more channels in the hands of a variety of actors with diverse perspectives. If citizens had a number of information options, they wouldn’t be able to distinguish between broadcasters that intentionally distort and manipulate events—as Televisa and Televisión Azteca habitually do—and those that behave professionally. AMEDI charged that according to the current regulations, commercial advertising was not supposed to occupy more than 18% of television’s total broadcasting schedule and 40% for radio, but that, especially in television, broadcasters were not adhering to those percentages. The new legislation should have effective enforcement mechanisms. AMEDI made concrete proposals for sanctions: fines and loss of concessions.

A national coalition is born

Many elements for new legislation emerged during the discussions, but the powers that be exerted strong pressure to impede any new legislation. In February of this year, about fifty civic organizations decided to form the National Front for a New Media Law. When this coalition was formed, AMEDI called on the Senate to keep its word and deliver the new media legislation by the end of February. It claimed that legislators with ties to broadcasters were trying to delay the debate.

Meanwhile, broadcasters ridiculed the electoral reforms and ran paid political propaganda disguised as soap operas, special programs or interviews. The coalition stressed the obligation to comply with the Supreme Court ruling, not only to rectify the existing laws but also to provide new legislation that incorporated the 23 recommendations made in the discussion and the ruling itself. It stressed that the real threat to liberty of expression was in the media’s concentration in few hands.

Televisa: A unique case

Televisa is unique in the world for its control of so many frequencies. It owns four network television stations in the national capital and has the band space for four other national channels; it owns 56% of the country’s commercial stations, 100% of its satellite television, 35% of fiber optics television and 38% of cable. Two companies, Televisa and Televisión Azteca, virtually control the entire national audience. There are 461 commercial TV channels in Mexico, 94% of which belong to these two corporations. Two thirds of advertising spending benefits Televisa and the rest goes to Televisión Azteca. The major electronic media have become enormous unelected powers that set themselves above constitutional powers, commercializing and denigrating politics and setting the public agenda with no accountability to anyone.

Given the behavior of these two companies, which refused to comply with the new electoral law, it was obvious that they weren’t prepared to cede on any point, and that sanctions for failure to comply would be ineffective. The members of the new coalition agreed on a number of actions, including bombarding the legislators with emails and letters, and calling and visiting them. They also decided to prepare a questionnaire for legislators, asking their position on a new media law. There were even plans to collect signatures from the public.

Salvaging democracy means democratizing the media via legislation that guarantees the public interest and makes organized citizens a counterweight to the de facto powers. There can be no democracy unless citizens can fully exercise their right to be well informed. And that cannot happen if the current invisible censorship and distortion of facts by television continues.

April: the time is now

Those involved in the civic struggle called on legislators to make use of the historic opportunity to promote a new media law, underlining the urgency of legislating soon, before the session ended in April, since waiting until the September session would bring things too close to the federal election campaign for 2009, making it even harder to reach agreements. According to AMEDI, if the legislation didn’t follow the solid proposals already put forward by civic organizations, citizens would continue to suffer the despotism of powerful media and the political class now fearful and obsequious towards them.

It was time: either things would continue to be dictated by the big media corporations, which would get even stronger, or there would be progress toward democracy. The legislators had to decide if they were going to help recover democracy or carry the shame of having been accomplices and slaves of the opprobrious dictatorship. But while the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) was working on getting the new broadcasting law passed during the April session of congress, the PRI member heading the Radio, Television and Cinema Commission decided there was no time.

In early April, the National Front for a New Media Law met, in the belief that April would be decisive. It designed a strategy in which each of its members “adopted” a senator to lobby on everything related to the media law. In mid-April, it decided to commit the legislators publicly, inviting them to forums and events where they would have to state their positions. AMEDI, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Senate Radio and Television Commission organized an international forum on media reform.

It was an extremely important moment for Mexico; modern, democratic plural reform that would encourage diversity and make the most of technological innovation was in the offing. During the forum, the situation of the public media in various countries was compared. There were discussions of broadcast media pluralism, market concentration, competition and community media.

It wasn’t to be...

Just at that moment the opposition staged a takeover of Congress to halt immediate approval of the oil privatization reforms. The oil issue took precedence, despite AMEDI’s calls not to let the media hubbub over energy reform drown out the issue of the new media law. AMEDI found itself facing a challenge as the media question got caught up in the controversy over PEMEX, the new focus of all major national debate.

April drew to a close without the passage of any media legislation. AMEDI charged that the Senate had failed to fulfill its promise. Meanwhile, together with the National Front for a New Media Law, it worked out a new strategy to continue pushing for the legislation.

More lobbying was done, reiterating the senators’ obligation to pass a new law. Flyers warned that the television company owners, not satisfied with the power and wealth they’d already acquired, were continuing to pressure Congress for more, and had managed to delay the new legislation again until September. They demanded that the guarantee of the right to communication not be postponed indefinitely.

We own the air

They also explained why the new law is required. Almost 100% of commercial channels are in the hands of the two companies. Commercial broadcasting forgets that all Mexicans own the “air,” broadcasting space that—like the forests, ocean and petroleum—is part of the national territory. While Mexican airspace is used only for business purposes, the most Mexicans have nowhere to express themselves and can’t hear each other. Parents worry about the inappropriate content broadcasted during children’s programming hours (violence, consumerism, discrimination, pornography). Advertising—much of it false—is increasing at the expense of programming. Mexicans have the right to form opinions and influence the type of information and entertainment they want and need. What Mexico thus needs is a national and local public radio and television system that respects audiences and offers them pluralism in education and information, and a space for genuine citizen communication.

The true face

The government’s true face on the media legislation issue was demonstrated in another incident. As a member of the International Documentation Mission on attacks against journalists and the communications media, the vice president of the World Association of Community Radios (AMARC)—a Mexican woman who among other things defends indigenous people’s right to install, operate and manage their own media—visited the Public Prosecutor’s Office. When she touched on the issue of the killing of two indigenous communicators, the deputy prosecutor tried to discredit them by saying that the murdered women weren’t accredited journalists, but mere housewives. When the AMARC vice president took issue with the deputy prosecutor’s insulting statement—which came just as the women were being recognized elsewhere through the posthumous award of the National Prize for Journalism—he argued that the station where they worked was unauthorized and accused his interviewer of being an “enemy of the state.”

Difficult times

It’s a grim situation. The powers that be have tried to prevent passage of legislation that favors citizens’ rights and the government is under the control of these powers. Only firm pressure from citizens can push legislators to approve the new legislation proposed by civic groups.

In a meeting in Paris in mid-2007, Jacques Juillard called for resistance against the “plutocratization” of society. He offered the electronic communications media as an example: a formidable concentration of power that has nothing to do with journalism. He said it isn’t the power of money that needs to be fought, but money’s exercise of power in arenas where it doesn’t belong: in science, art, education, religion, sports and information. “Our spirit isn’t merchandise,” he concluded.

In an interview granted by semiologist Fernando Buen Abad in May 2008, he argued that we’re suffering from the commercial mafia’s kidnapping of the tools for producing communication. We need to expropriate them, because they’re used to censor and kill the rebel spirit through an alienating aggression that benefits capitalism. These are the media troops of the oligarchies, armed with calumny, lies and corruption. Their intention is not to inform, but to win more promoters in their ideological war. A form of media terrorism is deforming our minds, so we have to take the territory where meaning is constructed.

The legislative debate has been carried over into a very difficult period for achieving agreements: the budget issue may use up all the legislators’ energy. But all is not lost, because some legislators from all parties have been made aware of the issue and citizens’ groups continue to work actively to raise awareness both among legislators and in society. Mexico needs a new media law like the one these groups propose.

Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS West and the envío correspondent in Mexico.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


Nicaraguans Squeezed on All Sides


We Need More Action and Less Talk About the Food Crisis

Climate Change: We Can Already See What Our Future Will Be Like

Deportation from the USA: An “Illegal” Guatemalan’s Tale

The Struggle for a New Media Law: Who Owns the Airwaves?

América Latina
Strawberry Fields and Undocumented Workers Forever?
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development