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February 03, 2006

Latin American -- Live-Blog V
Posted by Michael Signer

Now we're back in the conference room for a panel on the press, called "What Media Stake in Latin Democracy?"

Tina Rosenberg, a member of the Editorial Board of The New York Times, is moderating.  Her basic question -- why is the press so bad in Latin America?  A lot of the stories are single-sourced, the outlets have mysterious and manipulative owners, and the reporters are easily cowed.  Why?

Paolo Satero, the lively, mustachioed Washington Correspondent for O Estado de Sao Paolo, explains that it's very simple -- you had horribly oppressive, dictatorial regimes in many of these countries.  So the press became very poor, through lack of practice and through sheer subjugation.  But Brazil was luckier -- there wasn't as much oppression there, so the press has been healthier.

Rafael Santos -- a sober man with yet another pair of wireless glasses, and another mustache -- is the Director of El Tiempo in Colombia.  He comments that what really destroyed Chilean journalism wasn't so much oppression (by which I take it he means active hostilities) as them voluntarily getting into bed with Pinochet.  The journalists who didn't flee the country involved themselves with the regime -- and they're still recovering. 

Mexico had the same problem -- a concentration of political power, where decisions couldn't be made without approval of the political branch. 

Satero then starts talking about the process of becoming a journalist in Brazil.  Basically, you have to be licensed.  In my naive, gross ignorance, this comes as news to me.  Really?  Yes.  The original journalism school in Brazil was developed by the military with the corporatist union.  Today, there are many school, and they give 30,000 journalism degrees.  It's treated as a profession, not a craft, in Brazil.  He argues that "anyone ought to be able to be a journalist."

So, you'd have to be licensed to be a blogger in Brazil?  Scary.  I'm trying to think of a piercing insight about the fact that my professional training for blogging (if this is journalism) is approximately zero, but I don't want to diminish the rough-hewn charm of the product you're reading here. 

Santos chimes in and says there's a split between journalism schools and the media.  Colombia actually has no professional organization for journalists.  In 1975, the legislature ruled that only J-school graduates could be journalists, but that law was overturned by the courts (itself a good sign, for judicial review at least).  So anyone can be a journalist in Colombia -- a strange grace note of liberalism for a country that, from all accounts today, is on the tipping point of outright paramilitary rule.

Rosenberg notes that in Chile,  every single newspaper other than La Nacion is owned by someone who's promoting a center-right ideology.  Only La Nacion is the government's voice -- everything else pushes from the right. 

Santos explains that concentration of ownership of the media isn't so much the problem.  The problem is when the same corporation that owns a newspaper also owns a major corporate entity.   Further, the pressure on free expression isn't coming from the government.  It's corrupt politicians, narco-traffickers, paramilitary, and guerrillas.  A significant number of journalists have been murdered by corrupt politicians.  Satero agrees that most violence against journalists is related to their reporting on drug trafficking.

Rosenberg:  restrictions on the press from violent groups.  It's much better than when Latin America was governed by dictatorships.  But it's still dangerous in some places, like Colombia. 

Sotero explains that the papers are dependent on publicity, which is dependent on the economy.  So the quality of papers tracks the quality of the economy -- something I've never thought of before, and obviously deserves some concern.  The news becomes more important when the economy tanks, right?  A terrible irony that the press become most precarious when it's most necessary.  Yet again (and this is the theme for the day), fundamental issues (the economy, freedom of the press, constitutionalism) are actually dependent on the strength and robustness of society itself.


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