Media-Government Relations in Latin America: State Capture or State Domination?

freedom of speech

Communication, because of its huge political seduction capacity and its strategic role in the political agenda and the economy, wakes up excessive and perverted passions for the conquest of power. In Latin America, media is the scene of conflict and tensions that affect democracy. In 2014, the report on the quality of media freedom elaborated by Reporters without borders ranked Cuba 170, Mexico 152, Colombia 126, Guatemala 125,Venezuela 116, Brazil 111 and Peru 104 (on a total of 180 countries).

In the past, most countries in the region have been living under authoritarian regimes that relied significantly on media companies and therefore fostered their rise and growth. In Brazil and Mexico for example, these companies progressively converted themselves into huge unrivalled conglomerates, such as Globo and Televisa respectively. Those groups became regime allies in their quest for political power. Since the 80s, most of those countries implemented neoliberal policies and economic reforms such as privatization and deregulation of various sectors. The democratization of the economy and political life permitted for these corporations to uncover a lot of corruption cases and paved the way for the creation of a coherent civil society. However, in most cases, those processes did not permit to democratize the media sector itself but concentrated the sector in even fewer hands while the media companies expanded vertically and horizontally. Media corporations increased their power and the biggest transnational media players gained the most benefits to the detriment of independent and local production. Key institutional and political changes produced two contrasting yet overlapping developments: a high degree of media concentration fuelled by market-oriented policies, and the re-emergence of state intervention in media reform. Both have operated in the same environment characterized by clientelism and discretional/uneven application of regulation and law.

Unlike the classical liberal model envisioned media as an independent power beyond the reach and control of the state, since the end of 20th century media policy has been used as a political tool for the benefit of media groups or political elites. This phenomenon was highly correlated with highly partisan or polarized politics, like in Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia. In spite of the extensive legislation implemented in the recent years, the multiple loopholes in the laws and reforms, the confusing and contradictory legislation and the lack of objective institutions continue to threaten effective media regulation. For example, in Mexico’s July 2014 reforms, the powerful lobbyists and congressmen connected to media sector and more precisely TV networks worked hard to ensure that no media policy could threaten their own interest.

This trend represents the “captured liberal media system model”. It refers to biased regulations or policy-making processes in favor of specific economic and political interests. This concept is linked to state capture, which describes how certain powerful groups in society (mostly big corporations) affect the outcomes of the policymaking process or the shaping of rules and regulations in their own benefit and at the expense of the broader social interest. As Manuel Guerrero highlights, the transitions from authoritarianism to neoliberal models in the region have generated different settings and terms of capture. In Central America, Brazil, Mexico and Colombia, the weight of media corporations and certain political groups may be strong enough to influence the policy-making process and its outcomes, or to shape the topics of the public agenda in certain ways. On the contrary, in Argentina, Venezuela or Bolivia, it is the state (often against specific private groups) that took control of the media and favors a discretional application of the state regulations and norms.

After a country-based analysis, Omar Rincón and Ana Lucía Magrini have elaborated a very interesting typology exposing the different modalities that took the media-government relation in the region.


Relation Media-Government Relevant cases Effects on democracy
Presidents that dominate media: those are charismatic presidents mostly from left-wing parties and that usually break the traditional form of political communication –       Evo Morales in Bolivia-       Correa in Ecuador-       Chavez/Maduro in Venezuela-       Lula/Roussef in Brazil-       Uribe in Colombia (although right-wing) The struggle brings an extreme polarization around the presidential figure which hurts democracy and media freedom.
Governments that want to dominate the public sphere: in this case the struggle is not only around the president but also pervade legislative and judicial power. The objective is to create an integral system of domination of the public opinion market –       Fernández in Dominican Republic-       Cristina Kirchner in Argentina-       Correa in Ecuador-       Evo Morales in Bolivia Private media are the opposition. Governing is dominating private media. Democracy becomes a battle of ego and visibility.
Media close cooperating with the government: it is the result from shared political interest between different presidents and governments (almost always conservative). Public media are almost inexistent, the information being in the hands of private actors. –       Honduras after the coup and during Lobo’s presidency-       Mexico in the war against the cartels of Calderón-       Colombia and the “democratic security” paradigm of Uribe-       Chile during the presidency of Piñera-       Panamá under the control of Martinelli Creation of a unique speech democracy, happy and progressive.  Dichotomy between the “good elite” and the “bad” poor, drug dealers and criminals. Lack of diversity in the formation of public opinion and social representation that is harmful to democracy system.
The “communicator state”: there are almost no private media. All the public media work as propaganda. –       Cuba-       Venezuela-       Nicaragua and Dominican Republic are getting closer to it Democracy does not exist because the only discourse is propaganda and any dissension is considered as antipatriotic and terrorist.


All in all, the modalities of capture vary depending on the nature of politics and it has to be analyzed following a country-based analysis. However it is clear that that the relation between media and governments are uneven and problematic on the continent. Omar Rincón and Ana Lucía Magrini exposed the different way in which government dominates media. However, the analysis of Guerrero describing how media corporations can influence directly the political and economical agenda has to be emphasized. In those two models, the problem stays the same, the infiltration of private interest in the public sphere, synonym of “state capture”.

Alex Chunet

Alex Chunet

Editor, International Crime at InPRA
Alex Chunetcompleted a Master in International Public Management at Sciences Po in 2016 and is currently enrolled in a one year post-graduate program at LSE in Local Economic Development.

He had the opportunity to work in diversified institutions from the international organisations sector (OECD, UNODC), public sector (French embassy in Buenos Aires), private sector (BSD Consulting), and the academic sector (J-Pal Poverty Action Lab).

Through those experiences, he managed to acquire significant knowledge and experience in the design and analysis of economic and social public policies in emerging economies.
Alex Chunet

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