Uruguay’s Media Reform Success Story

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Edison Lanza (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights)

On the eve of his appointment as the new Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Uruguayan lawyer, journalist and director of CAinfo, Edison Lanza, visited CIMA to discuss the success of Uruguay’s media reform efforts in a region plagued by little regulation and limited respect for freedom of expression and independent media.

In the 30 years since its emergence from military dictatorship in 1984, Uruguay has quietly become something of a poster child for democratic reform in Latin America, and its record on media is no exception.

Consistently ranked at the top of the region by the major media freedom indices for the past decade, Uruguay has created an increasingly supportive environment for media through the passage of reforms targeting community radio, libel laws, and freedom of information, as well as pending legislation on broadcast licensing and regulation.

Uruguay has set itself apart from much of its neighborhood according to Freedom House’s 2014 Freedom of the Press Map.

In a country run by a military regime up until the mid-1980s, how was the media environment transformed in such a profound way, whereas many of its neighbors have languished in the yellows and purples of the Freedom House 2014 Press Freedom Map? Although the laws themselves warrant discussion as models for the region, too little attention is paid to the way in which these laws came to fruition.

Lanza credits Uruguay’s improved media environment to the formation of broad-based civil society coalitions in the 1990s. The coalitions, sometimes encompassing up to 30 diverse organizations each, leveraged the technical expertise of their members and focused on specific media issues such as freedom of expression or community radio where they could galvanize the most public support. Perhaps more crucially, the coalitions conducted strategic outreach to members of the national general assembly. Since the enabling environment for media necessitates political support, cultivating political allies is key to the success of any reform movement.

However, forming political alliances can be a persistent challenge for media reform advocates, according to Lanza. “The problem is on both sides, civil society and government, but we tried to convinced people that all sectors should be involved in media reform. But it can be hard to have a constructive dialogue.”

In Uruguay, media coalitions succeeded early on in finding political support among left-wing politicians in the opposition that were particularly sensitive to human rights issues and saw media and freedom of expression as part of that effort. These political allies provided a strong voice within Uruguay’s lawmaking body and allowed media reform bills to be authored, introduced, and advocated for from within the political system even if they stood little chance of passing.

In 2005, after years of sustained efforts, media reform advocates like Lanza had their golden political opportunity with the emergence of the left-wing Broad Front coalition in the national assembly. Their political allies in congress now had real political clout to pursue reform. Only a few years later, Uruguay would pass landmark laws on community radio, libel, and freedom of information. “When the [Broad Front] came to power, we were able to say, ok now this is your chance to pass the reforms you have been talking about for years.”

In a recent post on The Source, author Richard Winfield of the International Senior Lawyers Project strongly argues in favor of focusing more media development interventions on helping to shape the enabling environment for media. Indeed, donors and implementers should look to support indigenous movements like the one described in Uruguay to create an enabling environment for media. This means supporting coalition-building among domestic organizations, providing needed technical assistance and understanding the political realities in the country in order to build sufficient political institutional support. The Uruguayan example demonstrates that organized, collective, and sustained support for media reform can succeed. International media development actors, especially donors and implementers, must find a way to support these efforts.

*Thank you to Silvio Waisbord of the George Washington University for his contribution to this post. Dr. Waisbord has written extensively about “media movements” in Uruguay, as well as other media issues in Latin America. Read more in his article “The pragmatic politics of media reform: Media movements and coalition-building in Latin America”.

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Posted in General, Latin American and the Caribbean, Sustainability

Soft Power on the Air: The News with a Russian Twist

When the Malaysia Airlines plane crashed in eastern Ukraine last week, the Russian state media began to spread obvious disinformation and anti-Ukraine propaganda. With fabricated witnesses and unlikely hypotheses, consumers of Russian media received a disturbingly false picture of this international crisis.

This message reaches beyond Russia’s borders to the former Soviet republics, where Russia still plays a large role. Russia uses the media to achieve its foreign policy goals by manipulating public opinion on Russia and international events. Its use of media to increase its soft power in the region has led to detrimental effects on the media environment in the region.

The Russian government values the power its media empire supplies when designing its foreign policy; in fact, its 2013 Foreign Policy Concept includes a section titled “Information Support for Foreign Policy Activities” which specifies the role media will play:

“In its public diplomacy, Russia will seek to ensure its objective perception in the world, develop its own effective means of information influence on public opinion abroad, strengthen the role of Russian mass media in the international information environment providing them with essential state support…”

Russian state-controlled news networks produce more professional, attractive news coverage than the domestic media outlets in several neighboring countries. As a result, the foreign audience trusts the content despite its biases. Russian networks emphasize their mission to present the Russian view on events, which often involves disinformation and propaganda. Russian media is especially powerful in Central Asia, where Russia’s close allies reside and where press freedom has steadily declined. Russia also tries to influence the Baltic states, exposing the Russian-speaking population to ideas it otherwise would not have heard. For instance, some Russian papers in Latvia express open hostility to the Latvian government.

Former Soviet Republics

Economically and politically, Russia is a powerful state that sets the standard for its neighbors. Through the media, Putin is able to spread his ideals of “sovereign democracy”, where each nation determines its own definition of democracy as an alternative to Western democratic principles, thereby undermining democratic developments in these nations. For example, Kazakhstan has taken Putin’s cue to implement similar plans to restrict the media environment and pursue an authoritarian path. This region is particularly challenging for media development, where Moldova and Georgia are the only states considered to have “partly free” media environments, according to Freedom House.

Press Freedom Status in Eurasia, according to Freedom House

It is important that independent news sources be supported in Russia and the former Soviet republics to prevent the deterioration of the media environment and ensure access to information in this area of the world. There needs to be a concerted effort to provide objective Russian-language news in this region.

For more about Russian media’s influence on its neighbors, read David Satter’s report for CIMA, “The Last Gasp of Empire: Russia’s Attempts to Control the Media in the Former Soviet Republics”. You can read about Chinese media’s similar efforts in “CCTV’s International Expansion: China’s Grand Strategy for Media” by Anne Nelson.

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Posted in Europe and Eurasia, Impact and Evaluation

Myopia and Misallocation in Media Development

Guest post by Richard Winfield of the International Senior Lawyers Project

Two years ago, my friends at CIMA revealed that of all federal foreign aid dollars, only 4/10s of one percent is aimed at assisting the development of free and independent media. The CIMA study reported that only $222 million in federal and private foundation funds were spent in 2010 on all forms of media development abroad. Of that sum, only 5.4% was aimed at helping democratizing countries to adopt modern, progressive media laws. This marked a drop of 4.2% from the comparable figure in 2006 of 9.4%. Funding for media law reform from all sources is on a downward spiral.

Efforts to create less hostile legal environments for the press have become the underfed stepchild of foreign aid. A pie chart published in the CIMA study illustrates the lopsided priorities in funding. For every dollar spent on reforming laws, $19 are spent on such projects as training journalists and supporting media businesses. This misallocation ignores the realpolitik of helping create a viable independent press; not even the best-trained journalist can survive in a hostile legal environment where prison awaits him/her for critical reporting. Not even a media outlet with the best business plans or technology can survive in such a repressive legal regime.

The CIMA study concluded that government and non-government funders alike have consistently “overlooked” the need to support media law reform. It is hard to explain such myopia. After all, it is no secret that autocracies deploy a variety of weapons systems to prevent a punish journalists for publishing critical coverage, and most systems are based on laws: criminal libel laws, seditious libel laws, insult laws, civil libel laws, national security laws, journalist licensing laws, internet-blocking and -filtering laws, and censorship laws to name just a few.

Only with an arsenal of such legal weapons systems can autocracies hope to survive, immune from the scrutiny of a free and independent press. Maintaining such systems is an incumbency insurance policy for any repressive regime worthy of the name. It is as fundamental to a regime’s survival as secret police, informers, rigged elections, lapdog judges and the usual ecosystem of fear.

A modest analysis would suggest there exists a link between enacting and enforcing good media laws and a good, watchdog-free and independent press. Another modest analysis would suggest there exists a link between such a free and independent press and the possibility of a self-governing democracy. A further modest proposal would go something like this: because reforming media laws is indispensable to sustaining a free and independent press, and because a free and independent press is central to creating democratic institutions, policymakers and funders should reemphasize and reenergize support for efforts to enact progressive media laws.


Richard N. Winfield leads the media law working group of the International Senior Lawyers Project, which he co-founded in 2000. He teaches comparative mass media law at Columbia Law School, and American mass media law at Fordham Law School. He served as general counsel for the Associated Press for over three decades while a partner at Rogers & Wells, which later became Clifford Chance US LLP.

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Posted in global, Sustainability

Event: Documenting Democracy and Extremism in Pakistan through Political Cartoons

Political cartoons grace the pages of newspapers throughout the world often as fillers, deemed unimportant, when in reality, these images have the power to say more than any text based article. Political cartoonists play an essential role in conveying the true environment of what is happening in a country; however, in many restrictive countries, these artists are facing a shrinking space in terms of freedom of expression.

A few months ago, CIMA focused on this issue in Ecuador. We are excited to announce another event highlighting political cartoonist, Sabir Nazar. Sabir, a current NED Reagan Fascell fellow, is among the most well-known political cartoonists in Pakistan. In his July 23 event, he will use his cartoons to highlight the closing space in Pakistan for free expression and the ways that visual artists contribute to the promoting democracy.

cartoon image

Resisting Extremism through Media: Claiming a Space for Political Cartoons in Pakistan will be on July 23 at 3:00 p.m. The discussion will be moderated by CIMA’s senior director, Mark Nelson. Brian Joseph, NED’s senior director for Asia and Global programs at the National Endowment for Democracy will also offer his expertise from his time studying the region.

Sabir cartoon_press freedom

Please register for the event here: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/resisting-extremism-through-media-claiming-a-space-for-political-cartoons-in-pakistan-tickets-11647149939, and follow the event live on Twitter! Follow @cima_media using #NEDEvents.

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Posted in Asia, Sustainability

Treading Softly: Soft Censorship in Russia

Only a few brave souls will continue to produce objective, high-quality news when they have many incentives not to do so. Independent news sources in Russia face increasingly higher risks of litigation, verbal attacks by government news sources, or shutdown. Journalists must practice self-censorship in order to succeed in the field and avoid troublesome consequences.

Subjective application of the law is one key tool for soft censorship, which I noted in my last post. Media outlets may have their license suspended for any number of reasons, such as for violating a ban on obscene language. Libel is a criminal offense, one of several laws discouraging journalists from reporting on corruption. Tax, fire, and other safety inspectors pay surprise visits to independent media outlets to issue citations and impede operations.

Journalists in state-owned media enterprises have privileges over journalists in independent media. They receive access to exclusive press conferences and government information which may be denied to independent journalists, and they receive significantly higher salaries. State-owned media benefits from sizeable government funding, giving them a distinct advantage, but at the loss of their editorial independence. Prominent TV host Vladimir Pozner has noted that he is not permitted to invite certain prominent opposition members onto his show on state-owned Channel One. Several editors of prominent independent media outlets, such as Lenta.ru, have been fired and replaced by supporters of the Russian government. Pavel Durov, the founder and CEO of the popular Russian social media network VKontakte, was recently fired and forced to flee the country after refusing to release Ukrainian user data to security forces.

Pavel Durov, Former CEO and Founder of VKontakte

The negative consequence of all this is self-censorship. Rather than risk their livelihoods, many journalists and editors will not report objectively or will avoid sensitive topics altogether. Few negative reports were published about the Sochi Olympics by state-owned media companies, despite blatant corruption and environmental concerns. The Kremlin’s expectations of the media are understood, and explicit instructions regarding content have largely become unnecessary. Self-censorship is systematized. It is more difficult for the diverse opposition voices to get their message across when they face a united state-controlled media sector.

In rewarding compliant journalists and punishing those who do critical reporting, the Russian government is able to shape its image to its audience. This plays a key role domestically and in Russia’s foreign policy objectives, which I will discuss further next week.

Read more about soft censorship in the CIMA report, Soft Censorship: How Governments Around the Globe Use Money to Manipulate the Media, or our recent blog post, “Sunlight on Soft Censorship: A Global Review”.

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Posted in Europe and Eurasia, Impact and Evaluation, Sustainability