Friday, January 3, 2014

Humala Calls for Debate on Media Consolidation in Peru

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.

News Briefs
  • Work on a planned expansion of the Panama Canal may soon be halted, the New York Times reports, as the consortium overseeing the project is seeking $1.6 billion from the Panama Canal Authority to cover extra costs due to “unforeseen circumstances.” If the money is not paid in the next 21 says, the conglomerate is threatening to suspend construction. According to the AP, Panamanian President Richard Martinelli has said he will travel to Spain and Italy this week to seek their governments’ help in urging the domestic companies involved there to resolve the dispute.
  • On Wednesday evening, Venezuelan Communications Minister Delcy Rodriguez took to Twitter to publish a list of the international vacation destinations of some 27 opposition figures, an apparent effort to portray the opposition as out of touch economic elites. The list includes Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo Lopez and other leaders of the Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), who traveled to destinations like Panama, Miami, Madrid, New York and Paris over the holiday season. BBC Mundo highlights the response by some opposition figures, who called the move a violation of privacy. For analyst James Bosworth, the list is an illustration of the government’s flagrant abuse of intelligence to discredit its political opponents.
  • The Miami Herald has an overview of the state of gay rights advocacy efforts in the region with a special emphasis on the Caribbean, where sexual relations between individuals of the same sex is illegal in many countries. It is punishable by prison sentence in Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
  • A recent report by Colombian think tank Fundacion Paz y Reconciliacion sheds some light on the FARC’s military activity since the group began talks with the government. According to the report, the rebels have adapted their campagn to the pace of dialogues, declaring truces or offensives based on the status of the Havana negotiations. The report also claims that the FARC have roughly 11,000 fighters, considerably higher than the 8,000 figure used by the Colombian government.
  • The governments of Haiti and the Dominican Republic are taking steps to resolve the current diplomatic crisis between the two, which stems from the D.R.’s controversial Constitutional Court ruling on citizenship in September. Dominican presidential advisor Gustavo Montalvo told reporters yesterday that the government will send representatives to January 7 talks with Haitian officials in dialogues facilitated by Venezuela, the United Nations, the European Union and CARICOM, EFE reports.
  • The recent Washington Post investigation into the U.S. role in providing smart bombs for Colombia’s aerial campaign against FARC rebels, which revealed that the controversial 2008 bombing that killed FARC chief Raul Reyes in Ecuadorean territory was carried out with tacit U.S. approval, is making a splash in Ecuador. Yesterday, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa told reporters that he had asked U.S. officials to clarify their role in the bombing, alleging that it was part of an attempt by the “extreme U.S. right” to damage his country’s ties with Colombia and the peace talks in Havana.
  • While 2013 saw its fair share of landmark court decisions, this year promises to be just as significant. O Globo reports that Brazil’s Supreme Federal Tribunal is set to take on a series of important issues in 2014, including private funding for political campaigns.
  • In The New Yorker, Mattathias Schwartz has an in-depth piece on the United States’ military-heavy approach to counternarcotics efforts in Honduras, using the controversial May 2012 DEA-backed operation in which several civilians were killed to reflect on the cost of the war on drugs.
  • Following up on a paper on inequality in Latin America by three World Bank economists, The Economist’s Americas View blog takes a look at uneven economic development in Latin America, characterizing the region’s tradition of mixed progress the “’yes, but’ syndrome.” The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog makes a similar point, noting that inequality in Latin America is “better, but still terrible.”
  • In a column for El Faro, Salvadoran journalist Hector Silva Avalos writes a scathing critique of President Mauricio Funes’ anti-corruption and transparency efforts, accusing the president of using an investigation into former President Francisco Flores’ alleged graft as political theater, while at the same time ignoring widespread corruption in the police and the political clout of the military command.