Democratizing Media in Latin America: An Interview with Carlos Ciappina

Carlos Ciappina, secretary of the Journalism and Social Communication School of the National University of La Plata, Argentina, explains why the school decided to award Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez a prize for popular communication in 2011, and discusses democratisation of media in Latin American more generally.


On March 29, 2011, the Journalism School of Argentina’s National University of La Plata awarded Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez its Rodolfo Walsh Award for Popular Communication. The decision to honor Chávez drew a storm of criticism. Héctor D´Amico, editorial secretary general of the Argentine daily La Nación, called it “a joke.”

“It’s like giving a human rights award to Gaddafi,” he said.1

Ernesto J. Tovar, a journalist with Argentina’s Diario el universal said that instead Chávez deserved an award for “populist communication.”2

The criteria for the Rodolfo Walsh award prioritizes individuals whose journalistic work contributes to the social development of Latin American lives. The school’s decision to honor Chávez was in recognition of the support of the Venezuelan government for the democratization of popular media and the struggle to dismantle long-standing media ownership consolidation. UNLP’s School for Journalism also cited the Chávez administration’s support for community television and radio and the creation of initiatives for alternative media like the regional news network TeleSUR, which the school pointed out as an important alternative to an uncontested hegemonic discourse in Latin American media.

In 2005, Venezuela announced that it had fulfilled UNESCO’s requirements as a territory free of illiteracy after educational missions helped to reduce the number of illiterate Venezuelans to less than 1% of the populace. However, [some] human rights organizations and media freedom watchdog groups claim that the Chávez administration’s sanction of private networks allied with the opposition and the transfer of media concessions to community outlets are a propagandistic pretext to stifle critical voices in Venezuelan civil society.

The confrontation between supporters and antagonists is part of a larger context of reactions to a regional shift to reform the unbalanced privatization of media in Latin America. Measures like government subsidy of community media, a more active role of the state in public media, and government efforts to ensure that educational and multicultural content has a space on TV and radio have generated controversial competing narratives by supporters, who consider these steps to be an improvement in media plurality, and antagonists who claim that any form of control of the media market poses a danger to the preservation of unbridled freedom of expression.

Carlos Ciappina is the secretary of the Journalism and Social Communication School of the National University of La Plata. This interview took place in La Plata on June 18.

Can you explain why you decided to award Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez your Rodolfo Walsh award in March 2011?

There are several reasons. First, Venezuela supports the creation of community radio, and this is very important because at the community level, social organizations and people who are able to come together and create a community radio can communicate precisely what the large mainstream channels don’t communicate. It’s an attempt to democratize the spoken word. Second, we awarded it to Chávez for everything that the Venezuelan government has done to eradicate illiteracy. For us, literacy education is really important for popular communication, because if you don’t know how to read or write, you can’t read the newspaper or the Internet. And Venezuela has done the best job in Latin America of eradicating illiteracy in recent years.

Third, communication was included as a right in the constitutional reforms in 2000, which were proposed by Chávez. That’s very important, because it means that all of us have the right both to free speech and to express ourselves freely through the media. For example, how many Iraqis have you heard talking about what’s happening in Iraq? Exactly, none. They have a right to communicate, but their opinion doesn’t count. So the idea of communication as a right is that you don’t just have free speech, but that you have access to the means of communication.

Fourth, Venezuela’s passed the Organic Telecommunications Law, which established the legal concept of community radios and community televisions in Venezuela, and as a public service or nonprofit. This meant that the state would support the construction of television and radio stations that did not have the goal of being a business, but rather, they have the goal of being a medium for social communication.

What were the international reactions to the award?

The reactions of the large television networks or the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), which are, in reality, large communication businesses, were negative. But what is at stake is power. These large communication businesses see any law that tries to democratize communication as a threat to their own power. Because besides power, they are disputing the consciousness of the people. If I have a law, like in the case of Venezuela, that protects and enables the growth of community radio, listeners are no longer going to listen to only one radio station. They’ll listen to several. And if they listen to several, they will hear different voices. So if CNN is against this, that’s fine, because they are not exercising the freedom of expression. Rupert Murdoch, in Great Britain, is against a law like this, because [News Corp.] is a monopoly: It controls 35% of the British communications market. Or in Argentina, of course, the Grupo Clarín opposes this type of legislation.

The IAPA has been a vocal critic of media democratization in the region. What is it?

The IAPA is an organization composed of the owners of the daily newspapers in the Americas. Or rather, in reality, it is a “union” of newspaper owners. It is not a press society. There are no journalists. It it does not represent journalism. It represents only newspapers, the largest ones. And so, of course, the IAPA complains about the countries where they want to democratize media and modify the legal status of these media monopolies.

And they say there’s no freedom of speech in Venezuela. What do you think of that?

I think that the IAPA confuses the freedom of speech with the freedom of business. The IAPA has supported every military dictatorship in Latin America. And they never said there wasn’t freedom of speech there. Since they already have control of the media, they see any attempt to democratize media as opposing the freedom of the press, when in reality it’s the other way around. When the IAPA says that there’s no freedom of the press, I think they are just starting to see the freedom of expression, because the IAPA is a monopoly and when you try to change a monopoly, it complains.

So, I would say the opposite. Today, in countries like Venezuela or Argentina, there has never been so much freedom of speech. There is no censorship, so everyone can say what they want. Now there are a lot of people that were never able to express themselves before, who are beginning to speak. That is what the IAPA sees as a risk.

They also say that the media are now politicized and that the community media are like clients of the state that just reproduce its ideology, because they receive funds from it.

It’s important to analyze this. First, what does it mean for media to be politicized? I would switch the question around. What media is not politicized? If you tell me that CNN is not politicized, I will tell you that it is super-politicized, because its whole perspective is rooted in politics. If a CNN newscaster tells me that democracy is being threatened someplace, I ask, What democracy are they talking about? Liberal, representative, North American democracy? Is that the only type of democracy that exists? No, there are others. So this newscaster has a political discourse, a political line.

Imagine that they are looking to hire newscasters. Ten people are interviewed, and one of them says he believes Cuba is a democracy. Will CNN hire him? Of course not. In the private sector, in the large private companies, there exists a political discourse and there is a political connection. Sometimes, it has to do with a direct dependence on its sponsors. It is very difficult for a private news network to investigate and criticize its own sponsor. That’s the private sector. So I think we need to challenge this idea that the major media networks and private media don’t have politics. On the contrary, they are full of politics.

Now, the community radios, the alternative media that receive support from the state, do they run the risk of being mere reproducers of the state role? Yes, that risk exists, but on the other hand, we would have to investigate if this happens in practice. I don’t think so. Not in all cases do they repeat only what the state wants them to say. Because then it would be like diminishing the critical and creative capacity of the people. In reality, in Latin America the state sustains a lot of media that don’t agree with it and that confront it. Many radio stations, for example the indigenous stations, have an agenda that is sometimes in agreement with the state, sometimes not. It is a weak argument to say that simply because they are sustained by the state, they are like clients. Because it would be like thinking that teachers or professors are clients of the state, just because they are paid by the state. And that’s not the case. People do not reproduce only what the state wants.

What are the Argentine media like, and have they changed as in Venezuela?

In Argentina the media are changing, but Argentina has a legal advantage over Venezuela: a national law that modifies the status of Argentine media, called the Law of Audiovisual Communication Services. This law was approved in 2009, and it establishes that across Argentina there should be three major areas in relation to those who possess the media. Thirty-three percent of the media must be private, 33% must be state-run, and another 33% must be community or social. It also prohibits media monopolies. And for those monopolies that already exist, they must sell the signals, radios, and channels that break the anti-monopoly law.

Were there many critics?

There were many, and there still are. And what we saw is that communication is not only a question of the media, but also a strong political question, and a question that is related to other powers of the state, like, for example, the judicial branch. In Argentina there are various monopolies, but in terms of communications there is one monopoly, the Grupo Clarín, that stands above all the rest, owning newspapers, radios, and television channels. The new law restricts this, so they have pressured their influential political and judicial connections—which are not few—and these have blocked the effective implementation of the law. And of course they have transformed themselves into the greatest opposition to the current government, which is a big change from Grupo Clarín’s traditional political line.

So has the new Law of Audiovisual Communication Services and Grupo Clarín’s political shift more greatly polarized society?

If by polarization you mean what happens in Venezuela, then no. Argentina is not divided into two. The Argentine society is more complex: It has another dynamic, not better, not worse, simply more complex. What is polarized here is that there is a united landowning, financial, and transnational capitalist elite. Then there are sectors of the middle class, upper middle class, popular sectors that are sometimes with the government and sometimes not, but neither are they with the elite. And that gives a much less rigid dynamic to Argentina’s polarization. There are government positions that support the majority of the population and others that don’t. But this sharp division doesn’t exist here like it does in Venezuela.

What do you think is the role of media in a democracy? Should it be like a government watchdog? Can it ever be in line with the government?

Clearly the first role is that of informing, investigating, and communicating. That is where the question of democracy appears. If democracy is the government of the people, the media must investigate, communicate, and inform, keeping in mind that the greatest interest is that of the people. Beyond that, they can think or say what they want. That is more a question of intellectual honesty, of transparency of resources, and that there are no media monopolies.

Democracy and media monopolies are two things that simply cannot go together. There is no true democracy if the media is not democratized. Because if the media are not democratized, very few speak. And those who speak have an enormous influence, but nobody voted for them. For instance, in the United States, nobody voted to elect the Fox network. It is always saying bad things about President Obama, but Fox is not the people’s representative; Obama is.

Suppose that only one media source existed and there was a democratic government. That democracy would be incomplete because there wouldn’t be a diversity of voices. So, media monopoly and democracy don’t go together. For there to be a true democracy, there have to be other voices, and that even includes voices from the state. The state also has to have media that enable other voices.

Now, does this means that they’re automatically going to repeat what the state says as though they were parrots? Obviously not. But suppose that the indigenous peoples in Argentina wanted their own radios. They wouldn’t be able to do it alone, because they don’t have the resources. So, the state has to contribute so that it can happen. So I believe that it depends on every society. There are societies where the role of the state is important, where it has to contribute, while also respecting the freedom of expression.

The right to communication means that you don’t just have free speech, but also access to the means of communication.

Alexandra Hall is a master’s candidate at Columbia University’s Institute of Latin American Studies. She currently researches press freedom and media democratization in Venezuela and is a regular contributor to NACLA Radio. This interview was translated by Leisha Reynolds-Ramos.

1. TN, “Con críticas a los medios, Chávez recibio el premio Rodulfo Walsh,” March 29, 2011, avilable at tn.com.ar.

2. Ernesto J. Tovar, “Un polémico premio a la comunicación populista,” La Gaceta (Buenos Aires), March 29, 2011, available at lagaceta.com.ar.