September 11, 2014 | by NATÁLIA MAZOTTE
Chile’s media is highly concentrated. With two groups – El Mercurio and Copesa – dominating the market, pluralistic public opinion is constrained. Hopes now rest on the new president, Michelle Bachelet, who has promised to reform the system.
Few media markets in the world are as concentrated as the Chilean. The country’s mass communication sector is dominated by two media conglomerates: Agustín Edwards’ El Mercurio S.A.P. and Alvaro Saieh’s Copesa. These two groups are largely the owners of Chile’s media. They have the ability to determine which topics are of general interest, what should be said and what should be omitted.
The censorship on Chilean free TV of “El Diario de Agustín” – a documentary which questions the editorial line of the El Mercurio group – or the sparse media coverage about the financial crisis of the retail chain SMU, of which Alvaro Saieh is president, are just two examples of how the right to information in Chile is subject to influences which often do not coincide with the public interest.
Among the group controlled by Agustín Edwards there are El Mercurio, one of the oldest newspapers in Chile, the newspapers La Segunda and Las Ultimas Noticias, as well as 21 regional dailies. The conglomerate also includes Metropolis Intercom TV which holds a monopoly in Chile’s cable TV market, the radio stations Digital FM and Positive FM, some printing companies and a joint venture with the Spanish group PRISA, the Aguilar-El Mercurio. El Mercurio’s last acquisition in the media field was in 2006 Diario El Sur S.A. which publishes El Sur and Cronica.
Copesa, the Consorcio Periodístico de Chile S.A., is currently the largest Chilean media group. It includes the newspapers La Tercera, La Cuarta, La Hora, Pulse, Diario Concepción, and the magazines Qué Pasa, Paula, and Hola. Moreover, it comprises six radio stations (Carolina, Zero, Beethoven, Paula, Duna and Disney), the TV station Más Canal 22 and a variety of websites.
Over 90 percent of Chilean newspaper titels today belong to one of the two groups. The public access to information, the watchdog role of the press and the freedom of expression and opinion of Chilean citizens remain at the mercy of this duopoly. Moreover, the two media conglomerates keep close relations with and receive advertising money from major economic groups with similar influence and power in Chile.
Unfair distribution of government money
However, the main investor in the El Mercurio group and Copesa is the Chilean State. A recent report on human rights released by the U.S. State Department expresses concerns with Chile’s media concentration, "whereby most media outlets are in the hands of two major family companies, Copesa and El Mercurio, and the unregulated distribution of government funded advertising.” The report adds that “no legal framework exists to guarantee fair distributions of frequencies to different broadcast media”.
The latest edition of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Sustainable Governance Indicators confirms this and highlights the detrimental effects on Chile’s democratic quality. The country experts Klein and colleagues write in their report that “Chile has an oligopolistic media system that shows strong biases in the representation of different political, social and economic opinions, thus constraining pluralistic public opinion and public debate on certain topics… 23 years of democracy have not changed this situation.”
In 2013, 19 million U.S. dollars were spent in government advertising, of which the two conglomerates received more than 13 million U.S. dollars according to the magazine El Mostrador. The lack of detailed rules to regulate this kind of investment allows it to be used arbitrarily by the public authority. This ultimately makes it possible to use advertising contracts as means to influence the editorial line of media companies.
The legacy of the military dictatorship
The relations of the Copesa and the El Mercurio conglomerates with the Chilean State stem from the time of the military dictatorship when both supported the Pinochet regime. Before the 1973 military coup, the Chilean media landscape represented the political pluralism and social diversity of the country. But the military coup completely changed this. Radio stations which supported Salvador Allende's government were bombed and newspapers were shut down. Several journalists were persecuted and had to go into exile. The regulation model established during the 17 years of dictatorship did not set any limit to the concentration of media ownership and it is still in place today. It was crucial for the El Mercurio group and Copesa to consolidate their disproportionate influence.
With the transition to democracy the right to free expression was restored and the communication apparatus built to support the military regime was dismantled. However, the plurality of the media was left in the hands of the market which was not very welcoming to voices that had opposed the dictatorship. Many of the latter had to close down for lack of support and advertising revenues.
"This must be one of the few countries in the world, at least in the democratic world, where a ruling coalition is not editorially represented by a national newspaper, a commercial TV channel or most of the radio stations,"explains Marcelo Contreras, President of FUCATEL Media Observatory.
The regulation challenge
None of the governments after the military period undertook any reform of the regulatory system of Chile’s media sector. And the reason is exactly the power it has amassed.
"Today the owners of the big media companies turn on the alarm lights before the timid attempts to put this issue – democratization of communications – on the public agenda, using rude caricatures and trying to discredit a necessary debate about the true role of communication and media pluralism that the country needs," emphasizes Contreras. In the current regulatory landscape, the communications industry wins and the citizens who are restricted in their right to diversified sources of information lose.
Juan Ortega, member of the Chilean branch of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), explains that “most of the nonprofit and collectively run community radios, which are representing the discourses of communities, are outside the law. In the absence of a model for public radio in Chile, almost the entire FM spectrum is held by commercial radio, which creates a very important content gap. The college radio stations are very little developed and have trouble taking on a community role.”
Although the development of digital media gives hopes for greater media pluralism, until now the information obtained via the Internet – or other forms of direct communication based on new technologies – could not replace the decisive influence that the mass media have on public opinion in Chile. Mass media companies are still largely responsible for setting the agenda topics and for deciding which information and opinions should be addressed and discussed by the Chilean population.
Will Chile’s new president “democratize” the country’s media system?
With Michelle Bachelet winning the presidential elections in November 2013 and assuming office in March of this year, hopes of finally implementing the necessary reform of the Chilean communications system have been renewed.
Bachelet's electoral program envisaged "the right to a plural, truthful and transparent information, which leads us to strive to establish the conditions to democratize the current communications system that enabled the concentration of the control of the mass media by a few people or companies". According to the document, "it's also necessary to encourage, in the traditional media companies, a genuine pluralism both in content and ownership".
If these proposals are put into practice, it will be an important step towards a developed, transparent and more open media system, ending one of the current biggest obstacles in Chile for the construction of a just and inclusive democracy.
Natália Mazotte is a Brazilian journalist and an activist for freedom of information. She blogs for the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas and is a fellow in the Graduate Programme of Culture and Communication at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.