Media in Latin America: Rise of a new watchdog
Interview with Mario Diament by Louise Corradini, of the UNESCO Courier

August 02, 2001 - Latin America has been through quite a few profound political transitions over the past two decades. What part has the press played in this process? Is there a kind of regional model that defines its relationship with political power?
You can't really talk about a "regional model," but of similar experiences. According to conventional wisdom, the more democracy you have, the more press freedom there is, but this still varies from one country to the next. In the past, a sizeable part of the Latin American press had close ties to political and economic interests through its owners. Those interests routinely took precedence over journalistic impartiality. But during the 1970s, journalists became very politicized. Many became subversive and partisan writers, distorting the role of the press and badly undermining its credibility. However in the 1980s, as democracy spread across the region and a new generation of journalists less marked by past events came to the fore, a very refreshing and positive change took place.

Can you give a few examples?
Mexico and Guatemala are two of the most interesting cases. The Chiapas uprising in Mexico had the effect of cutting short press allegiance to the ruling party, the PRI, which went hand-in-hand with rampant corruption. Chiapas came on so suddenly that the government of President Carlos Salinas didn't have time to put together a media strategy to deal with the situation. As a result, part of the Mexican press began reporting very openly on events. I think it's safe to say that to a large extent, this new attitude on the part of the press sounded the death knell of one-party domination and opened the way for Vicente Fox's victory in the presidential elections in 2000.
In Guatemala, during the short-lived seizure of full powers by President Jorge Serrano on May 25,1993, censorship was imposed and the press defied the government for the first time. The newspaper Siglo Veintiuno (21st Century) renamed itself Siglo Catorce (14th Century) and ran black columns in the place of censored material, exposing the government's attempt to stop the press from reporting on events. Colombia should also be mentioned: many journalists have and continue to risk their lives there reporting amid threats from guerrilla forces, paramilitary groups and drug-lords.

In the past, the Latin American press has often been submissive and engaged in self-censorship, sometimes to the point of complicity with the powers in place. Why has this changed?
In my eyes, the two most important factors are the return to democracy and the revolution in technology. The South American dictatorships of the 1970s created a spineless and obliging press, but as these regimes began to crumble, the media became more independent. With the return to democracy, journalists became even more daring and inquisitive.
In some places, such as Argentina, the press' credibility and influence grew as political parties became discredited. During the 1989-99 rule of President Carlos Menem, the Argentine press published a remarkable series of investigations into corruption and money-laundering that shook the government. At one point, opinion polls showed that the public trusted the press more than any other institution in the country, including the Catholic Church.
The revolution in technology, which began with photocopies and faxes and moved onto satellite TV and the Internet, has diversified information sources to the point that nobody can seriously hope to impose any kind of control. The relative cheapness of the technology has made the spread of information more democratic than ever before.

Mario Diament is an Argentine journalist and playwright living in Miami, where he is professor of journalism at Florida International University.

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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