Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has become the latest Latin American president to wade into a debate over concentrated media ownership, leading critics to accuse him of threatening press freedom.
In a December 29 interview, Humala spoke out against a recent purchase by Peru’s largest media conglomerate, Grupo El Comercio, of a majority stake in press company Epensa. The acquisition, which increased El Comercio’s share of the Peruvian print media market to 70 percent up from 50 percent, was highly controversial. Several well-known journalists, including the director of rival newspaper La Republica, filed a lawsuit against El Comercio over the purchase in November, accusing it of establishing a near-monopoly. Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has been one of the staunchest critics of the acquisition, calling it “potentially a very large threat against democracy.”
In the interview, Humala said he was fully in agreement with Vargas Llosa, and called on lawmakers to hold a debate on media control. “It is shameful that in Peru we have one group that practically owns the media, it's dangerous,” said the president.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the remark has caused a stir. El Comercio covered it yesterday with front-page headlines and an editorial accusing Humala of disguising an attack on the media as concern for freedom of expression. The president’s main opponents joined in the criticism, with Keiko Fujimori and ex-President Alan Garcia releasing separate condemnations of his comments.
For now, the issue appears to be off the table. As legislators have pointed out, there are no media monopoly laws under consideration in Congress at the moment. Unless the Humala administration or the president’s Gana Peru coalition drafts and submits one, the controversy surrounding the president’s comment will likely die down.
If a bill does materialize, however, it will be interesting to see how it is covered in the U.S. press. A number of U.S. outlets were quick to frame media regulation laws passed in the region this year (see the WSJ on Argentina, or the Washington Post on Ecuador) as undemocratic attempts by leftist leaders to muzzle critics. But Humala is not so easily pigeonholed. The Peruvian president has been praised for his 2011 swing to the center and his repeated efforts to distance himself from the ALBA bloc. This clashes with the narrative used for Argentina and Ecuador, which may spur a deeper analysis of the concentrated state of media control in Peru.
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