by Marcela Valente
(IPS) BUENOS AIRES -- Civil society organizations in Argentina have joined together to draft a proposal aimed at replacing the country's broadcasting legislation, which dates back to the 1976-1983 military dictatorship and basically serves to maintain the sector as a business for a small few as opposed to a service for the public good.
The Coalition for Democratic Broadcasting has outlined 21 principles that should be included in a new law on broadcasting. The group's name alludes to the fact that although December marks 21 years since democracy was restored, the Argentine government has done nothing to democratize the radio and television industry through a change in legislation.
In the project, which is still open to changes and new signatures, the participating organizations demand the freedom to disseminate information and opinions on radio and television, stressing that broadcasting should be viewed as a right, rather than a business.
They also emphasize the need to ensure freedom of expression, and to bring an end to the unfair allocation of lucrative official advertising contracts.
"If the flow of information is controlled by only a small few, then democracy isn't possible," the proposal states, in reference to the media monopoly currently exercised by a handful of major syndicates.
The document further states that there should be a space for public broadcasting, although it should not be government-run, and that there must be a clear differentiation between programming content and advertising, which is currently not the case.
In addition to drafting this alternative project, the coalition of community radio stations, cooperative radio and television service providers, trade unions, human right organizations, universities, Native groups and churches has launched a campaign to press for a new law on broadcasting.
"After almost 21 years of democracy, we still have a law enacted by the dictatorship, which gives exclusive control of the media to companies that use communications to do business, and prohibits the participation of non-profit organizations that view communications as a service," Sergio Lucarini told IPS.
Lucarini is a representative of the Argentine Community Radio Federation (FARCO), which groups together 60 community radio stations. He describes the stations as "alegal," as opposed to "illegal," since community radio stations are not eligible for official licences, but are allowed to operate with "temporary and precarious permits."
As a result, non-profit radio stations -- many of which emerged in the mid-1980s -- are legally allowed to provide service. They pay taxes and have access to both official and private-sector advertising contracts, but they have no legal status.
Moreover, no broadcasting permits have been issued to community radio stations since the late 1990s.
"The majority of us are not illegal, because we have permits authorizing us to operate. And we aren't illegitimate, either, because we aren't operating with licences granted by the dictatorship, like many of the supposedly 'legal' radio stations," Lucarini said.
He believes that the failure to enact a new law recognising the right of non-profit entities to provide, receive or disseminate information and opinions by radio and television is a response to "resistance from the big media operations."
The handful of conglomerates that control the media in Argentina have pressured successive administrations and the Congress to delay the adoption of new legislation that would entail greater competition for advertising revenues, currently estimated at around one billion dollars, said Lucarini.
One of the largest media groups is Clarin. In addition to publishing the major daily newspaper of the same name, it owns the open-access television channel Canal 13, the Multicanal cable TV service provider, television stations in the provinces, an AM radio station and several FM stations, as well as shares in the satellite TV business.
Other major players, which similarly encompass various sectors of the media, include Grupo Vila (also a telecommunications giant) and TyC, the leading cable provider of sports programming.
"Our outlets are small, and it is them (the big media) that impose the agenda for public debate," which is precisely why the need for a new law like the one promoted by the alternative media has been ignored by the mass media in Argentina, Lucarini argued.
"Cooperatives can run hospitals, daycare centres, hotels and even banks, but they can't run media operations," complained Lucarini. Because of their non-profit status, cooperatives are officially banned from the radio and TV broadcasting business, in accordance with the law adopted by the military regime in 1980.
Similar views were voiced to IPS by Malena Santecchia from the Argentine Chamber of Cooperatives, Mutual Societies and Community Broadcasting Operators (CARCO), which links numerous radio and TV service providers in the provinces, particularly in the cable TV industry.
Santecchia explained that most of the chamber's members operate without a license, through which cooperatives create a parallel limited company to provide television service.
A number of cooperatives managed to obtain licenses this way until 2000, when the Federal Broadcasting Commission (COMFER) ceased to issue new permits, under the pretext that a new law was being drafted -- a law that has not yet appeared.
Lucarini and Santecchia said that both COMFER and the lawmakers on the Congressional Committee on Communications maintain that new legislation is being drawn up, and deny that they are being pressured by the major media groups to stall the process.
In late August, Secretary General of the Presidency Oscar Parrilli met with a group of representatives from the Coalition for Democratic Broadcasting and acknowledged that the lack of a new law for this sector is "a debt owed by democracy."
Parrilli assured them that the matter would be resolved by the end of President Nestor Kirchner's term in 2007. "We can see that there is a different balance of powers and a changed atmosphere, but I've been waiting for a new law for 21 years, and until I see it enacted, I won't believe what anyone says."
Santecchia reported that in 2000, a "test case" was taken to court by CARCO, involving the application made by a public service cooperative to provide cable television service in Santa Rosa, in the central Argentine province of Cordoba. The application had been turned down by the pertinent authorities, namely COMFER.
When a lower court decided that the cooperative had the right to provide this service, COMFER appealed. The case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in late 2003 that the article of the law banning cooperatives from the broadcasting sector is "unconstitutional."
But by then, COMFER had suspended the granting of permits for cable TV providers and radio frequencies, so the application was never fulfilled. "They've stopped selling licenses to protect the existing media from competition," Santecchia said.
While there are currently three large cable TV companies in Argentina, there are also 300 public-service cooperatives that are prepared to provide this service but unable to obtain licenses. Half are already broadcasting, either outside the law or through the creation of a parallel limited company.
October 15, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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