The Federal Communications Commission’s (“FCC”) recent conditioned approval of the Univsion/Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation merger threatens serious harm for the 38.8 million Hispanics residing in the United States, as well as for media diversity overall. As the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit stayed the new FCC rules that relax the Radio/TV Cross-Ownership Rule due to widespread concern over media monopolies, the agency managed to slip the Univisión/HBC merger through the cracks. They tiptoed around the current Radio/TV Cross-Ownership Rule by claiming a “Spanish-language media market” does not exist, but rather Spanish-language stations should be treated as competitors within the English-language media market. This vision fails to take into account that more than 47% of U.S. Hispanics (18.2 million people) are predominantly Spanish-speaking in the home, and 40% speak little or no English.
While the FCC order claims that the Univisión/HBC merger will not monopolize Spanish media nationwide, they fail to explain how this new conglomerate, aptly named Univisión (“One Vision”), and already the nation’s leading Spanish-language network reaching 97% of Hispanic households, is in the public interest. Furthermore, there is no mention whatsoever of Univisión’s largest shareholder, the Cisneros Group, which is one of the largest privately held broadcast, media, technology, consumer products and telecommunications organizations in the world, and has been charged with violations of international human rights conventions, unethical practice of journalism and violations of the constitutional rights of millions of Venezuelan citizens for its participation and instigation of the April 2002 coup d’etat against President Chávez.
In fact, Venezuela is currently in the process of approving new legislation that will tighten the regulation of radio and television media, raising the standards of their social responsibility and enforcing their adherence to constitutional provisions ratified in the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Articles 57 and 58 of the Constitution guarantee the right to “true and objective information” and freedom of expression, as well the universal protection from war propaganda and discriminatory and intolerant messages. These new regulations come at a time when the media in Venezuela have assumed a powerful political position as the leading opposition force to President Hugo Chávez.
Gustavo Cisneros, President of the Cisneros Group of Companies, has been a key figure and financial supporter of the oft-undemocratic opposition movement in Venezuela. He bankrolled the failed April 2002 coup, and was a driving force behind the December 2002 nationwide strike, which instead of ousting President Chávez from his elected office, drove the Venezuelan economy into the ground. During that period, he utilized his mass media power to yank regular programming from his station, Venevisión, the number one broadcast television channel in Venezuela, and instead aired round the clock coverage of the Venezuelan opposition calling for an illegal removal of the President along with highly crafted commercials that manipulated images and facts about Chávez with the goal of destabilizing Venezuelan society and creating a climate of violence.
But his use of media power to advance his political agenda didn’t stop there. Cisneros utilized his ownership of Univisión Communications (which includes Telefutura, another U.S. network reaching 75% of U.S. Hispanics and Galavisión, the country’s leading Spanish-language cable network), AOL Latin America, DirecTV Latin America (which broadcasts more than 300 video and audio channels to 28 countries), IARC Chile and Venevisión Continental to broadcast highly slanted information about the situation in Venezuela worldwide. The news reports coming out of Venezuela, and primarily from his station, Venevisión, were often so openly biased, that ethical questions were raised around the world about the state of journalism in Venezuela.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Organization of American States and other international watchdog groups have expressed concern over the Venezuelan media’s open role in the violent opposition to President Chávez. Furthermore, after the recent confession of a Venevisión journalist admitting he manipulated a widely circulated video of Chávez supporters firing on “peaceful protesters” and therefore provoking the April 2002 coup, eyebrows are being raised around the world about the veracity of Venezuelan reporters and media outlets. In fact, the same journalist won one of the most prominent awards in Spanish-language journalism for this now-professed manipulated video, the Premio Rey de España, which is now under consideration for revocation.
The mere fact that Univisión reaches 97% of U.S. Hispanic households should set off red lights nationwide. It’s primary owner, Gustavo Cisneros has questionable ethical practices that should concern journalism organizations and viewers around the world. Now, the FCC has given him the green light on creating an even bigger media monster that will control the majority of Spanish language television and radio stations in the U.S.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has stated that monopolies or oligopolies in the ownership and control of communications media “...conspire against democracy by limiting the plurality and diversity which ensure the full exercise of people’s right to information.” In Venezuela, the monopoly in the ownership and control of the communications media has threatened democracy and constitutional order. And now, the FCC has opened our doors to these same unethical practitioners, and invited them in to spread their “one vision” throughout the U.S. Spanish-speakers in the U.S. will now be denied access to a diversified, objective media and will be subjected to the political agenda of an extremist, conservative Venezuelan opposition leader. It is a sad day for democracy in the United States.