Media, not the state, should enforce `media responsibility'

Posted on Sun, Dec. 26, 2004

A recent survey of Latin American attitudes toward the media found that 37.2 percent of respondents agreed that the presidents should be able to control the communications media. Even though most Latin Americans still think that this type of control is not good, that almost 40 percent think otherwise is dangerous.
The good news come from another survey: The organization Latinobarometro reported recently that during the last eight years, television, as an institution, has been one of the most trusted institutions in Latin American countries, above other institutions like the armed forces, judiciary, government and political parties.
At first glance, these two results seem to be in contradiction because many people favor controlling the media but, at the same time, trust the media as they are now. A careful consideration of some of the regions' realities explains why both conclusions are understandable.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous and independent entity of the Organization of American States, concluded in its annual report last year that police abuses, unlawful restrictions on freedom of expression and problems in the administration of justice are some of the ''structural deficiencies'' that weaken democratic institutions in the Americas.
The role of the media in some countries in recent years has been essential in exposing corrupt activities by officials belonging to those institutions. Within this context, the trust of people in the media is understandable.
If this seems logical, why do the same people consider that the media should be regulated by the presidents? Maybe the answer could be found in the way that media organizations behave.
As special rapporteur for freedom of expression in the IACHR, I visited many countries to promote that right, and, in some circumstances, I expressed my concern about the possibility that the media might not always act responsibly. With this scenario in mind, it is understandable, too, that people agree on governmental regulation.
I believe, however, that the media are mainly accountable to the public and not to the government. Although journalistic activities must be guided by responsible conduct, it cannot be the role of the government to enforce ''responsibility'' in the media, because of the highly subjective content of the ''media responsibility'' concept.
Any regulation by the government ''to improve media responsibility'' could create an environment in which self-censorship or censorship can flourish. Were that to happen, media regulation becomes the means to hide governmental activities, and the victims of the regulation would be the people.
In Venezuela, to cite one example, the bias found in some media outlets reflects the polarization that has been characterizing the country. For instance, the IACHR expressed concern ''by the scant information, or at times total lack of information, available to Venezuelan society during the days of the institutional crisis of April 2002,'' after President Hugo Chávez was briefly ousted from power. It also expressed that this situation ``should be the subject of an essential process of reflection by the Venezuelan media about their role at that moment.''
After the crisis, the Chávez government started promoting a new law on ''social responsibility in radio and television.'' The law was approved recently, despite the concerns expressed by the IACHR, my office and many nongovernmental groups.
The new law imposes restrictions on the content of radio and television programs, and this, in conjunction with the vague phrasing used in several of its provisions and the severity of the punishments potentially applicable to violators, could lead to self-censorship on the part of the media. The IACHR subsequently issued a press release noting these concerns.
The discussion of ''responsibility'' is meaningless without wide-ranging freedom of expression, which must be guaranteed by governments. Moreover, any threat of imposing legal sanctions for journalistic decisions that are based essentially on subjective insights violates press freedom.
Having in mind the realities of our hemisphere, the media themselves can collaborate in the protection of press freedom by taking up the challenge of self-control. In that way, the media would earn the trust given by the people.
Independent and free media are a prerequisite of a democratic society. So the enforcement of ''media responsibility,'' which could be subject to abuse by public officials who may not be impartial toward the media, endangers democracy itself.