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Latin American Journalists Blocked From In-Depth Reporting

by Diana Cariboni

Local polical news not connected to bigger picture

(IPS) MONTEVIDEO -- Even though they directly affect millions of lives, it can be difficult to get stories about development issues like poverty, education, health, the environment and gender equality on the front pages of newspapers or radio and TV newscasts.

Latin American journalists at a seminar organized by the international news agency IPS (Inter Press Service) in Montevideo cited everything from governmental control of their publications and broadcasts to understaffing from cost-cutting.

Taking part in the event were reporters, editors and news chiefs from large and small print and on-line media outlets in major cities as well as small towns in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Uruguay.

One problem is that, at first glance, the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to which the international community committed itself at the September 2000 United Nations General Assembly involve issues that are difficult to link to the local news covered day to day by reporters, which tends to follow local political issues, according to several of the participants.

Television and radio journalists from small towns in Uruguay say broadcast outlets insist certain issues must be ignored if the journalist does not want to be sacked or the station does not want to have its program taken off the air.

In Peru, after a decade of severe restrictions on freedom of the press under the regime of Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), the media now enjoy freedom. There are also sunshine laws allowing public access to public documents.

Nevertheless, "the quality and image of journalism is in continuous decline," said ngel Paez, the head of the investigative reporting unit of the Peruvian daily La Republica, citing a survey carried out in Peru in which eight out of 10 respondents said they did not trust the media.

In Paez's view, that is because the competition between newspapers for readership has left owners cutting costs by reducing the wages of journalists and pushing for increasingly superficial news coverage.

Problems with media outlets being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands and the homogenization of news coverage were described by a representative of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC), Gustavo Gomez.

He also complained that the only free-to-air TV channel available in Uruguay's provinces rebroadcast a summary of the newscasts from the capital, in the middle of programming that mainly consists of programs from neighboring Argentina.

"Where is the space for local news?" asked Gomez, also a member of the Uruguayan Citizens' Communication and Participation Forum, who called for the development of alternative media that differ from private and state-run outlets.

The discussions and complaints of the problems were followed by self-criticism.

In Argentina the ownership concentration of the media is similar to what is seen in other parts of the economy, like banks and supermarkets, said journalist Mario Wainfeld, a columnist with the Buenos Aires newspaper Pagina 12.

Some colleagues tend to fall into step with the "anti-politics" view of media owners, who blame all problems, including underdevelopment, on the "poor administration" and "corruption" of governments, and who see the role of a reporter as one of oversight, he added.

This worldview can even reach the "oversimplification" that "wherever there is a poor person, the question is to find the corrupt person who is responsible," while "we all know that the problems of poverty are much more complex than that," said Wainfeld.

Some editors and television news anchors in Uruguay pointed out that the issues of poverty and the environment are now frequently in the news due to initiatives and social plans launched by the leftist Broad Front government, or to the campaign against the construction of pulp mills in southwestern Uruguay.

But Magdalena Riveros from the Paraguayan daily ltima Hora said the only chance social issues have of making the front pages in her country is through "tear-jerking" news stories.

Emiliano Cotelo, director of the Uruguayan radio program En Perspectiva, pointed to the difficulties in following up on different issues, "because sometimes we journalists are dominated by the short-term picture."

But he also said the failure of the United Nations and other international groups to make good on certain commitments means issues focused on by the big international conferences have lost credibility.

The UNICEF (the UN children's fund) representative in Uruguay, Tom Bergmann-Harris, said compliance with the MDGs is "a responsibility of the governments" that citizens must monitor and oversee through the media. He also said "the idea that the MDGs are not achievable should be discouraged," as they basically boil down to "fundamental human rights."

The eight MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; the promotion of gender equality; ensuring environmental sustainability; the reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and a global partnership for development between the rich and the poor by 2015, taking 1990 levels as the baseline.

But these goals are "conservative, minimalist and unambitious," according to many non-governmental organizations, said Uruguayan activist Roberto Bissio, a spokesman for the Global Campaign Against Poverty (GCAP).

"When we asked the UN experts who formulated the goals to explain how they set the percentages, the response that we got was simple: the aim is to project towards 2015 the rate of progress seen in previous decades," he said.

"That basically means not demanding any additional effort from governments or multilateral institutions," he added.

But "for once" non-governmental organizations assumed the challenge of accepting the commitments and asking governments every year what they have done to live up to the agenda that they set in conjunction with multilateral bodies like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, said Bissio.

But since the 1990s, the decade of huge international conferences that produced important documents and commitments, "development indicators have begun to stagnate, and to even decline in some cases," he noted.

The journalists' meeting was held in the framework of a seminar on local governments working for social inclusion and against poverty organized by the Montevideo city government, the UN country team in Uruguay, the GCAP and IPS, and sponsored by the city government of Rome.

Mayors Ricardo Ehrlich of Montevideo and Marcos Carambula of the southern department (province) of Canelones, Mayor Fernando Damata Pimentel of the southeastern Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, and Deputy Mayor of Rome Maria Pia Garavaglia discussed local strategies to combat poverty and the need to counteract the deterioration of the social fabric in cities that is partly caused by globalization.

"We are far from living up to the MDGs, and the public is far from understanding them," summed up IPS Director-General Mario Lubetkin.

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Albion Monitor November 30, 2005 (

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