"Mega-mergers" threaten media diversity of approach and opinion
(IPS) VIENNA -- The further development of the Internet
was seen as one positive factor in the world of media in 1995,
which was otherwise dominated by more violence against journalists,
says an international media rights watchdog.
The International Press Institute (IPI), in its just published annual report for 1995, says the spread of Internet access has helped information to be passed around quickly and from further afield.
An estimated 50 million people, primarily in the western world, are now hooked to the Internet, a network of information providers, and it has brought communication costs down in comparison to fax and telephone calls.
On the negative side, the Vienna based IPI said although western media workers faced fewer physical threats, they faced another kind of problem: the increasing trend towards "mega-mergers" which threaten media diversity of approach and opinion.
"(In) many of these apparent heavens of pluralism, another less overt obstacle lurks: the concentration of media ownership in few hands, reducing the variety of voices," said Johann Fritz, director of the organization.
The IPI is an international network of editors and media executives from newspapers, magazines, agencies and broadcasters in 85 countries.
In Russia, seven journalists have been killed during the course of the past year
to the IPI report covering 150 countries, media moguls
from Australia to the United States were either joining forces to
dominate the market or were in pitched battles against government
authorities who, ironically, are playing the role of media
guardians by preventing the media domination of a few.
The most publicized cases of media mega-mergers occurred in the United States where the Walt Disney Corporation struck a $19 billion deal to purchase the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
In yet another move, another media giant, Time Warner, operating the nation's second largest cable system, purchased $8 billion worth of stock in Turner Broadcasting System, the operators of Cable News Network (CNN).
The Time Warner-CNN marriage had an effect in the far away Germany, where local media giants are campaigning hard for the relaxation of existing regulation preventing media domination.
At present, a company or a share holder can own up to 50 per cent of one broadcasting company and a quarter of two other companies. One-hundred per cent ownership of a broadcast company by a single shareholder or a company not allowed.
However, the provincial premiers in the country have agreed to scrap this regulation and allow a company or a single share holder the total ownership of one broadcast company, half of a second and up to 25 per cent of any other broadcast companies.
The Warner-CNN marriage ran into trouble with German regulators because they now own more than 50 per cent of the N-TV, a German language 24-hour television station.
In Australia, three media moguls, Conrad Black of Canada, Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer, are campaigning for the relaxation of media ownership rules which, among others, prohibit more than a thirty per cent stake by any foreign company in a local media organization.
The report says the three-pronged attack on the current regulations are a sign of an imminent battle between the three men to win outright control of John Fairfax Holdings, the country's largest newspaper group.
In a further move to prevent single-owner domination, the government in June announced plans for a new regulation barring cross-ownership which would prevent Packer, who now owns the country's largest TV network, from purchasing Fairfax Holdings.
In terms of physical threats, Algeria continued to be the most dangerous place with 20 journalists murdered there over the past year, the IPI said. Although the estimated 50 journalists killed since 1983 are just a fraction of the more than 40,000 people killed in the strife-torn country, they have been deliberately singled out and many newspapers have been shut down, says IPI.
Besides Algeria, Eastern Europe, and Russia in particular, also continued to be on the top in terms of violence against the media.
In Russia, according to the organization, seven journalists have been killed during the course of the past year. Among them was Vladislav Listyev, one of Russia's best-known broadcast journalists, who was shot dead by two men outside of his Moscow apartment.
In Africa, the most noted case has been that of the execution of writer and human rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight others by the military dictatorship in Nigeria. Although Nigerian ruler General Sani Abacha has lifted the ban on three newspaper groups, the report says he shows no signs of understanding the international "disgust" at his administration's disregard for human rights.
Elsewhere in Africa things were not better, either, says the IPI. In Kenya, a country that professes multi-party democracy, more than 80 incidents of attacks on the press were reported between June 1994 and June 1995.
And in Burundi, like Rwanda, parts of the local media have been accused not only by the IPI but by other organizations such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Frontiers, of inciting hatred and violence between Hutus and Tutsis.
Authorities continue to emphasize economic development at the cost of democratic freedoms and use security laws to tamper with press freedom
Without Frontiers has accused five newspapers of
inciting violence. The IPI said another newspaper, La Nation, owned
by the country's former dictator Jean Baptiste Bagaza, had been
backing Tutsi extremists harassing Hutus and called for the murder
of opponents and diplomats, including the U.S. ambassador there.
In Asia, while journalism in the strife torn Kashmir in India emerged as a dangerous job, in newly industrialized East Asian countries, authorities continue to emphasize economic development at the cost of democratic freedoms and use, among others, national security laws, to tamper with press freedom, the IPI said.
"Many of the region's leaders clamping down on press freedom argue that the interests of the community at large must take precedence over what they say is the Western obsession with individual freedoms," says the report.
In Latin America, a continent recovering from military regimes, the situation of the media has been improving. But the IPI warned of efforts to muffle the media with different regulations, such as the 1994 law in Venezuela which requires journalists to register with the National Journalists College and to hold a university degree in communications. Practicing the profession illegally, according to the law, would bring suspension from work and prison terms of three to six months, claims the IPI report.
The most distressing signals came from Brazil, where four journalists were killed between March and December of last year, the IPI said.
During the October meeting of the Inter American Press Association in Caracas, the Brazilian authorities were taken to task on their media record and the country was put at the top of the risk list followed by Mexico and Guatemala, where at least two journalists and a security officer at a newspaper office were killed last year.
Many other journalists and writers were also either threatened or assaulted. "Guatemala had general elections, but the climate for journalists attempting to report in or from this Central American nation remains murderously hostile," said the report.
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