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Chile at a crossroads

On 17 January, Sebastián Piñera won the Chilean presidential elections. He has now formed a government which includes businessmen, a former adviser of the IMF and a posse of Pinochet’s followers.

And while losing candidate Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle of the centrist Coalition for Democracy (which had ruled the country since the end of the Pinochet dictatorship in 1990) had promised that the media would be democratized if his party won, Piñera’s victory puts paid to any such hopes for change.

The new political coalition will control the media for the next four years. To the right-wing duopoly of media conglomerates El Mercurio and Copesa may be added The Nacion (which has an uncertain future), and national television station TVN. The President already owns Chilevisión – the country’s third-oldest channel. A document issued by Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle on 12 December said that the state should promote ‘the establishment of media nonprofits that allow all political sectors to have a means of communication. Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN) should be an instrument of free access to cultural content and artistic space for all’ These possibilities, which are materializing in other Latin American countries, such as Argentina, are nonexistent in Chile. 

There are currently two major corporations in print journalism: El Mercurio SA and Copesa. According to a Fucatel Media Center study from 2005, they together control more than 90 per cent of the written media and receive 77 per cent of state advertising. This economic backing by the state makes it hard for new media to enter the market and encourages a consistent government-friendly editorial line. Punto Final, an independent Left magazine, has initiated complaints to various courts on the grounds that money from the state should be distributed equitably. Until now the magazine has always been denied access to advertising placed by government agencies. Punto Final has a long history: it was closed by the dictatorship and is one of the few publications that have reappeared. 

Maria Olivia Mönckeberg, author of The Press Barons, teaches at the University of Chile. She explains that ‘the communication policy of the Coalition has been a major disaster for some 20 years. Their adherence to the neoliberal ideology that Pinochet imposed led them to privatize a state radio channel (Radio Nacional) and eliminate the Office of Information and Radio (OIR), which had existed since the 1950s.’ 

According to the Association of Journalists, the complicity of la Concertacion (the centre-left coalition which ruled 1990-2010) with the conservative business press has curtailed the real freedom of expression that was absent in the 17 years of military tyranny. Both situations contrast with the true media democracy that prevailed during the three-year presidency of Salvador Allende (1970-73).  

This ideological monopoly, explain Stephen Geoffrey and Guillermo Sunkel in Economic concentration of the media, is that the Chilean businessman is ‘ideologically homogenous, educated in a neoliberal economic matrix and moral conservatism’. The authors conclude that this model of entrepreneur is not limited to the owners of newspapers but also applies to advertisers, who generally favour media related to its ideology to promote their products. 

Marcelo Contreras, president of the Media Observatory Fucatel, wonders ‘how the media which supported Piñera’s campaign can play the essential role in democracy, that is to monitor and report to the authorities comprehensive, accurate and timely information’. Contreras explains that the media voice will shift to the Right ‘because they (the Right) control all private and commercial channels and will now have greater control of the state channel (TVN) by appointing the chairman of its board’. In the case of La Nacion, the Contreras recalls that Piñera threatened to close it down but that now ‘there is the possibility of it being transformed into a government mouthpiece’, as in the times of Pinochet, when The Nacion spread the regime’s propaganda. 

Mönckeberg adds: ‘We are facing a wall that affects freedom of expression’. The same people who control the media have control of economic and political power.

The owners of media giants Copesa and El Mercurio had an active role in the dictatorship. According to Mönckeberg, who has carefully studied them, ‘Alvaro Saieh (acting chief executive officer of Copesa) is an economist who was adviser to Pinochet and encouraged the privatization of state enterprises during the dictatorship’. Better known is the role played by El Mercurio newspaper in the same period. ‘If El Mercurio had not existed, the Chicago Boys (a group young Chilean economists who were trained at the University of Chicago by free-market advocate Milton Friedman) would have had to invent it to give them a way to promote their neoliberal ideology,’ explains Mönckeberg. 

Even after the return of democracy in 1990, four successive Concertacion governments failed to address the issue of media democracy. According to Farid Zerán, director of the school of journalism at the University of Chile, the problem is that ‘four governments did nothing to promote pluralism, diversity or the existence of independent media. The issue of media in Chile is serious. The high degree of economic concentration is an ideological attack on our democratic strength, and must be addressed through public policies that foster freedom of expression.’ 

Chilean society now stands at a crossroads: it can either strive for media democracy by seeking to create a debate on the issue, in order to generate new media, or it can cede to the Right bloc as it wholeheartedly follows the steps of the new president.

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