Citizen Groups Organize to End “Soft Censorship,” Guarantee Freedom of Expression

By  |  20 / March / 2009

This post is also available in: Spanish

Today Latin American governments rarely exercise direct censorship of the press by banning newspapers or other media outlets, reviewing material, or outright prohibiting publication. However, governments across the region are using taxpayer funds and public power to exercise forms of "soft censorship" of the media. Common forms include: withdrawing government advertising funds as punishment for critical content, showering advertising contracts on friendly media, paying journalists directly for favorable coverage, denying broadcast licenses, or blocking access to sources and information for certain media.

Although these practices are not new, for the first time greater numbers of citizens are beginning to denounce the pernicious effects of these much more subtle methods of interfering with press freedom. Cases have been brought to light across the globe—in Latin American, Hong Kong, the Ukraine, and the United States, where the Bush administration was accused of using government funds to plant media stories in the U.S. and Iraqi press, and the governor of Illinois reportedly threatened to withhold state aid from a business deal involving the (Chicago) Tribune Co., if the paper didn’t fire certain members of its editorial board.

Forms of Soft Censorship

  1. Use of government advertising budgets to punish and reward media outlets
  2. Payments to journalists for favorable coverage
  3. Use of regulations and licensing to favor or suppress certain voices
  4. Selective denial of access to newsprint or printing facilities
  5. Use of financial, tax, labor, and other laws to harass selected media
  6. Denial of access to sources and information, in retaliation for critical coverage

Soft censorship practices have a powerful inhibitory effect that extends beyond the media outlets directly affected to the entire media environment. Government officials send a strong message to all journalists, editors, and media owners that they must think twice about the consequences of what they publish. The countless local newspapers and radio stations that depend on government advertising income to survive feel the pressure the most, especially in areas where local businesses take out little advertising.

Official advertising abuses take multiple forms. National and local governments in Argentina and Costa Rica have withheld advertising contracts in retaliation for critical content. Others have rewarded media that provide consistently positive coverage with disproportionate amounts of advertising income. In some cases, governments withhold payment for advertising already run if they are displeased by what the newspaper, radio, or television station says about them. In 2007, Costa Rica’s vice president resigned after he and another top official proposed using advertising contracts to gain favorable media coverage in favor of a free trade agreement with the United States.

In Honduras and Chile, local governments have demanded favorable coverage as a condition for advertising payments to local reporters or media—many of whom earn so little as journalists that public advertising is a vital source of income. Some officials even require journalists to sign contracts that require favorable coverage of government activities. In other cases, governments publish advertisements that are little more than thinly veiled propaganda.

Many of these abuses occur in the context of rapidly rising advertising budgets, multiplying the potential for government wrongdoing. According to a recent report entitled The Price of Silence: The Growing Threat of Soft Censorship in Latin America, the most dramatic example of the threat of soft censorship in Latin America occurred in Honduras, where the advertising budget for the president’s office was over 30 times higher in 2005, a presidential election year, than in 2006, the first year of the new government. In Colombia, national advertising spending was over 100% higher in 2006 than the previous year. Congressional and presidential elections were held in 2006 and were the first in which an incumbent president ran for re-election. In Argentina, national government advertising has increased steadily since former president Nestor Kirchner came to power in 2003. In 2006, the national government invested 353% over the amount it spent just three years earlier. In some cases, advertising contracts are awarded to a series of media outlets—often on-line "news services"—that do little more than reproduce government-produced articles or press releases, word-for-word, sometimes replicating typographical errors.

Other forms of soft censorship involve withholding information or access to government officials from media that question government actions, often as retaliation for critical coverage. Sometimes government practices are quite direct, but still invisible, such as the barrage of phone calls some high-level government officials make to media owners, editors, and journalists, seeking to block publication of certain information or otherwise control what is published.

Soft censorship can involve manipulating regulations, such as the unfair allocation of television and radio broadcasting permits to benefit political allies or silence independent voices. In some countries, government officials simply take advantage of the broad discretion afforded them by the state licensing process. In other cases, structural barriers such as high financial investment requirements exclude a wide range of voices from the airwaves. Community radios and other non-profit broadcasters are often subject to unfair and systematic denials of licenses, and indeed very few have been granted access to the airwaves in Latin America.

The abuses don’t stop there. The Honduran telephone company cut off service to a radio station, and a municipal government closed a printing press in Argentina—both in retaliation for critical reporting. Each of these behind-the-scenes methods is aimed at preventing the media and others from speaking out. Such tactics end up greatly limiting the information and opinions that citizens count on to consider, opine about, and effectively participate in local and national affairs.

Citizens groups around the region are beginning to do the hard work it takes to identify and publicize abuses and demand that governments refrain from indirect censorship. Groups ranging from journalists associations to civil rights organizations now use freedom of information requests to local and national governments to gain access to government data on advertising spending, and use that information to denounce abuses. They are also demanding the required legal reforms, making legislative proposals, engaging lawmakers and other government officials, and taking action in the courts in support of media outlets that have sued the government. Throughout the continent, citizen groups are winning important victories.

Key Challenges in Ending "Soft Censorship"

  • Traditional forms of direct censorship have been replaced by more subtle forms of financial and regulatory methods, or so-called "soft censorship."
  • Indirect censorship is usually invisible to all but the media professionals directly impacted, making it difficult to document.
  • These forms of government interference with freedom of the press have a chilling effect on the entire media environment, increasing self-censorship and limiting the information and opinions available to citizens.
  • Public officials and the media involved are loath to share information on these practices, making it difficult to denounce them.

Citizen Action to End Soft Censorship and Protect Freedom of Expression

Activists generally focus on the more heavy-handed methods of interference, so there has been little monitoring of soft censorship. Also, manipulation of the media through the selective and punitive use of advertising contracts, and repressive regulatory practices often remains invisible to all but the actors involved. The first challenge, then, is to document and publicize abuses—a difficult task given that many media are reluctant to risk the anger of public officials and the loss of their own government advertising contracts or inside sources of information.

In August 2008, the Buenos Aires-based Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (Association for Civil Rights, ADC) and the NY-based Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI) published The Price of Silence: The Growing Threat of Soft Censorship in Latin America. This report meticulously documents soft censorship practices in seven Latin American countries: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Peru, and Uruguay. The research was conducted by a coalition of journalists, activists, and NGOs including the ADC, which worked with several local organizations in Argentina; the Fundación Para la Libertad de Prensa (Freedom of Press Foundation, FLIP) in Colombia; Fundación Pro Acceso in Chile; the Instituto de Prensa y Libertad de Expresión (Institute of Press and Freedom of Expression, IPLEX) in Costa Rica; the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (Press and Society Institute, IPYS) in Peru; and the Asociación de la Prensa Uruguaya (Uruguayan Press Association, APU) and the Montevideo office of the Asociación Mundial de Radios Comunitarias (World Association of Community Broadcasters, AMARC).

The report found that soft censorship interferes with editorial independence and citizen’s access to unbiased information in the countries under study. The most egregious cases generally occur at the local level, where media outlets are most precarious financially. Fewer national level media depend on government advertising income for their survival, but are still subject to soft censorship practices. The report also documented a growing movement toward legal reform in several countries across the continent. According to Darian Pavli of the Open Society Justice Initiative, "Millions of dollars are tossed around by government officials trying to buy favorable coverage—a situation made worse by low salaries and lack of job security for many journalists."

A coordinated media strategy to publicize the findings ensured coverage of the regional report throughout the Americas. The Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción in Honduras also published a national study and held events to present both the national and regional reports in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.

The citizen groups called for governments to refrain from using advertising and other financial or indirect pressures to interfere with media freedom and independence. They also called for an end to all improper interference with the editorial content and autonomy of the media. They coalesced to demand specific laws that establish fair and transparent contracting and licensing procedures that ensure media independence and pluralism, such as timely publication on-line of user-friendly information regarding all stages of the government advertising contracting process, and clear, fair, pre-established criteria for selecting media in which to advertise.

In Uruguay, civil society organizations have capitalized on the political will expressed by officials of the government of Tabaré Vásquez who stated publicly their commitment to push for new advertising legislation. In June 2006 APU and AMARC, the two NGOs involved in drafting the regional report, organized in Montevideo a "Colloquium on Government Advertising and Freedom of Expression," attended by government officials and civil society representatives. During 2008, the Media and Society Group (Grupo Medios y Sociedad) organized events to continue the momentum toward reform, and helped prepare draft legislation that is currently subject to public debate and will likely be presented to Congress in April 2009. The draft bill includes a clear definition of government advertising, calls for the publication on-line of specific information on the contracting process, lays out specific criteria and procedures for contracting, and creates a government body to gather independent information on media circulation and audience ratings. It also creates a special, separate program to fund government subsidies to support media diversity.

Meanwhile, AMARC and its allies won a major victory in 2007 when Congress passed a community broadcasting bill that for the first time recognizes community radio and television stations and requires the state to promote their viability. In Chile, in late 2007 a special congressional investigation spurred by concerns about lack of media pluralism called for a comprehensive reform of advertising laws and policies. The Santiago based Pro Acceso worked closely with the special commission and, with OSJI, facilitated a committee hearing with a delegation of foreign experts who discussed best practices in regulation of government advertising. At Pro Acceso’s presentation of The Price of Silence in Santiago in August 2008, a public official announced that the government was committed to presenting a reform bill, which is being worked on by representatives of government and civil society.

In Argentina, a multifaceted campaign for legal reform has raised awareness of the issue and resulted in legislative proposals at the national and local levels. In 2005, the ADC and OSJI published Buying the News: A Report on Financial and Indirect Censorship in Argentina, the first of its kind in Latin America, covering four provinces and the national level. In 2006, ADC followed up with "Basic Principles for the Regulation of Government Advertising," to promote a series of principles any legislative proposal should respect.

These principles include:

  • the need for specific regulations for advertising contracts;
  • a clear definition of the objectives of government advertising;
  • the need to eliminate government officials’ discretion, which allows for the manipulation of government advertising for personal and political gain;
  • the importance of assigning responsibility for advertising-related decisions to officials with technical expertise rather than political appointees;
  • the requirement for government transparency in all stages of the contracting process;
  • the significance of establishing adequate external control mechanisms, such as regular audits of contracting procedures.

To increase participation in the issue, the ADC held meetings with lawyers, journalists, and others to receive feedback on the draft principles. Several workshops were covered in the press, raising the visibility of the issue. At a public event in Buenos Aires to launch the principles, journalists who had traveled from different provinces expressed their support for the principles and shared experiences with indirect censorship. The principles have been used by activists in Chile and Uruguay, and workshops will soon be held in several countries to get regional level input.

Legislative and Regulatory Reforms:

In December 2006, the council of the municipality of Alta Gracia in the province of Córdoba passed the first regulatory reform of government advertising contracting in Argentina. Local media owners expressed opposition, but the statute was defended by the local journalists’ association. In February 2008, a decree established objective criteria for the allocation of advertising in the province of Tierra del Fuego, where ADC and the Justice Initiative had pressed for reform since 2005. The decree also faced opposition from media owners, and implementation was slow. A few months later, the provincial government issued a new decree that incorporated ADC’s proposals for change and recognized the difficulty in moving from an entirely unregulated distribution scheme to one that uses objective criteria for allocating advertising.

At the national level, seven bills have been presented, but none have advanced. Still, the presence of lawmakers from Uruguay and Chile at events in Argentina helped spur legislative interest, and ADC and other groups have been invited to Congress to discuss some of the bills. Although a recent reform made non-profit organizations eligible to receive broadcasting licenses, civil society groups have called repeatedly for a new broadcasting law to revamp the current framework, a remnant of the most recent dictatorship.

In Colombia, several mayors and governors have signed transparency pacts (Pactos por la Transparencia), written agreements with the local citizenry as represented by local organizations, which contain a public commitment to government transparency. The Presidential Anticorruption Program promoted these agreements and acted as a witness to them. Citizen participation in monitoring committees comprised of civil society organizations help increase social control over government actions.

The National Association for Journalists’ Social Development (ANPRESS, Asociación Nacional para el Desarrollo Social del Periodista) promoted a provision addressing government advertising in the transparency pacts that was signed by the mayor-elect of the department of Tolima in 2004. A committee in charge of advertising contracting was also created but was comprised exclusively of officials from the municipal government (with none from civil society), compromising its independence from the current government.

In 2007, FLIP signed an agreement with the Presidential Anticorruption Program to include a clause similar to that used in Tolima in the transparency pacts to be signed by candidates for office in the context of the October 2007 municipal and departmental elections. Ten mayors and 10 governors signed the pacts when they were candidates. FLIP participates in the monitoring committee of a sub-group of those departments in which the transparency pacts include a government advertising clause, and also offers technical assistance to those mayors and governors who ratify the agreements regarding implementation.

So far, only the municipal government of Cartagena has passed advertising-related regulations. Cartagena created a Government Advertising Committee charged with planning all advertising based on campaigns with specific objectives and target audiences. The committee selects the media outlets in which to advertise based on pre-established criteria such as target audience, readership or similar ratings, and program content.

The case of Peru shows that new laws are not enough to ensure change in practices. Peru is the only country in the region with a specific national law guiding government advertising contracts. However, research by IPYS showed that the law has not been regulated and is barely implemented. As a result, abuses persist at the local and national levels. In fact, in 2007 the housing minister used advertising contracts to purchase favorable coverage of his ministry and himself in three national newspapers—and President Alan García refused to condemn the wrongdoing.

Court Battles Won:

ADC and other groups have filed lawsuits demanding that local governments provide information on public advertising spending. Also, the ADC submitted amicus curiae or "friend of the court briefs" in two leading cases involving advertising abuses: in Sep 2007, Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled that the government of the province of Neuquén violated the free speech rights of the Río Negro newspaper by withdrawing advertising in retaliation for critical coverage, in what amounted to indirect censorship. The court ordered the Neuquén government to abandon discriminatory allocations of advertising funds and present a new allocations plan—the first time a Latin American Supreme Court ruled unequivocally that retaliatory allocations of public advertising violate media freedom. In Feb 2009, a court ruled that the government of Néstor Kirchner discriminated against the publishing company Perfil (Editorial Perfil) by denying advertising as punishment for its editorial line and ordered the government to advertise in its publications.

Citizen Proposals and Demands

Citizens have called on public officials to:

  • Publish timely, easy-to-understand information regarding contracting practices and public funds spent on government advertising, including amounts spent broken down by campaign, media outlets, etc.—and to provide such information in a timely and complete fashion in response to freedom of information requests.
  • Pass specific laws addressing the government advertising, and in the case of Peru, to regulate and correctly implement the existing law.
  • Pass specific legislation to make the process of broadcast licensing fairer and less discretional, and, in particular, to support the allocation of licenses to community and other non-profit media.

The main recommendations in The Price of Silence called on public officials to:

  • Make a public and enforceable commitment at all levels of government to refrain from using advertising and other financial or indirect pressures to interfere with media freedom and independence.
  • Adopt and implement clear and specific laws that establish fair, competitive, and transparent contracting procedures for all branches of government.
  • Refrain from using government advertising—directly or indirectly—for electoral, partisan, or personal promotional purposes and adopt mechanisms to prevent, investigate, and sanction such abuses, especially during election periods.
  • Increase the transparency of state advertising by publishing timely information on all stages of advertising-related contracting.
  • Cease all improper interference with the editorial content and autonomy of the media—including denial of access to information as reprisal for critical coverage, attempts to prevent publication of stories critical of the government, and other forms of harassment and intimidation.
  • Adopt and implement comprehensive legislation on licensing of community broadcasting bands and related issues, in keeping with basic standards regarding freedom of expression and media pluralism established by Inter-American human rights instruments.
  • Pass comprehensive laws on access to information held by public bodies, and where laws already exist, ensure full compliance with relevant statutes. In Latin America, currently only 10 countries have national laws (Chile, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay).

Successful Tactics and Strategies to Eliminate Soft Censorship

  • Freedom of information requests have provided access to government data on advertising spending and practices.
  • Public events and media coverage of special reports have brought public attention to previously invisible interferences with press freedom.
  • Litigation against government denial of information requests has brought additional attention to the issue of indirect censorship and transparency in government.
  • Civil society groups have gone beyond denouncing problems to propose legislative reform, and have provided their expertise to lawmakers and other public officials for drafting new laws requiring transparency and prohibiting soft censorship practices on the local, state, and federal levels.
  • Transparency pacts in Colombia have been used to secure specific commitments on government advertising practices and involve citizens in monitoring official compliance.
  • The formation of coalitions of national and local journalists’ associations and cooperatives, civil rights organizations, and groups involved in combating official corruption and promoting government transparency has given greater political leverage and public attention to the effort to end soft censorship.

Linking Across the Continent to Eliminate Soft Censorship

Although the struggle to eliminate indirect censorship is an uphill battle, these innovative citizen-led coalitions have made major progress across Latin America. Their efforts have shed light on what was once an invisible but very real problem, created momentum for change, and begun to reform government legislation and practices.

As the seven countries involved in the original study move toward better practices under the watchful eye of citizen groups, the challenge remains to address soft censorship in other countries where abuses have been denounced, for example, Nicaragua, Mexico, Brazil, and Guyana.

These complex, behind-the-scenes methods of censorship require sophisticated citizen responses backed by some degree of technical capacity. International networking is both possible and necessary, to share expertise, methodologies, and lessons learned. The "Basic Principles for the Regulation of Government Advertising" (see above) can be adapted and used in most any country in the region. Methodologies for documentation and experience analyzing legislative proposals can be shared across borders, as can experience in using legal remedies.

Inviting key actors to share their experiences in public events in other countries can be helpful for making change. A presentation in Buenos Aires by the chair of the special investigative commission of the Chilean Congress spurred the enthusiastic request by key national legislators that ADC continue to help deepen the public debate in Argentina. Meanwhile, Chilean and Uruguayan actors have invited experts from Argentina to present the Basic Principles for Legislative Reform as a means to advance change in their countries. There are also possibilities for taking joint action before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and Court, such as requesting a special hearing on the issues, and for engaging Catalina Botero, the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, more deeply in the issue.

Activists are encouraged to visit www.censuraindirecta.org.ar, a clearinghouse developed by the ADC and OSJI to centralize information, analysis, and expertise on the pernicious effects of indirect censorship and the movement in the Americas to eradicate these practices.

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