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MEDELLÍN, Colombia – Changes being promoted by several governments in Latin America undermine citizens’ freedom of expression, Spanish journalist Miguel Ángel Bastenier said.
The columnist who writes about Latin America for the Spanish newspaper El País, and who also was its deputy director of general information (1982-1993) and deputy director of international relations (1993-2006), said journalism in several Latin American countries is being neutralized by the government and organized crime.
Bastenier, 69, presented his latest book Cómo se escribe un periódico (How to write a newspaper) to about 30 Colombian journalists in Medellin’s Hotel Park 10, commemorating the Day of the Journalist in a country that until 2006, was the most dangerous for media professionals in Latin America.
Infosurhoy.com: Is there a newspaper crisis or is there a crisis for the users of mass media (TV, video, radio) who are no longer reading newspapers?
Miguel Ángel Bastenier: The mass media crisis is extremely clear. There is an exodus on the part of this [newspaper-reading] public toward other media models. If we think about how things were back when [people my age] we were 25, newspapers used to be kings when it came to creation. If something did not get published – it had not taken place. Evidently, that world is gone. When I studied in England, many years ago, there were two newspapers that each sold more than five million copies a day. Great Britain had [a population of] 54 million and 23 million newspapers were sold every day. Nowadays, the newspaper with the largest circulation has 3.2 million, which is still a tremendous amount, of course, but the drop is huge. This crisis dates back some time; it has been speeding up because of the changes in the way of delivering news, through the shift – growing daily – of newspapers’ readers to the digital thing.
Infosurhoy.com: Do changes in journalism coincide with political shifts?
Miguel Ángel Bastenier: These political changes indeed alter things and they clearly do so in a negative way. This is such a complex and broad theme that I do not dare giving a short-and-sweet answer. It’s just that to speak about politics in Latin America is very difficult because there are such differing styles. The governments of Latin America talk, whether deliberately or not, to a very small segment of the population. This prevents newspapers from having an easy time and keeps them from playing in a big arena. Instead, they have to play in a small one.
Infosurhoy.com: What do you think of how governments have created a type of journalism that sides with the ruling party?
Miguel Ángel Bastenier: Latin America is undergoing a considerable change evolution. Bolivia is an absolute example, and when I speak about it in Argentina, they all look the other way and don’t want to acknowledge that [Bolivian President] Evo Morales exists. The indigenization process – in those countries that have raw materials to do it – is a fact that will change the face of Latin America. [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chávez means something similar in that sense; different, but in a parallel way. [Ecuadoran President Rafael] Correa is not exactly the same, because he is a westerner and he wants Ecuador to belong in the western world, with changes to social property and the fairer distribution of wealth, which is stupendously fine. However, these changes are taking place at the expense of freedom of expression, at the expense of freedom to the human being and to those institutions of expression through which he may feel free to act, to have an opinion and to criticize – all within the constitutional framework. And this is catastrophic to journalism. This is happening to the media in Latin America, and [I say] to those who have not yet been affected that they should brace themselves because it will happen.
Infosurhoy.com: According to a study conducted by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), among the factors conditioning institutional powers and determining the low quality of democracy in Latin America are the economy, drug trafficking and the media. Thoughts?
Miguel Ángel Bastenier: On one hand, there are governments that in order to counter the media’s influence, they try to ignore the importance of the media’s relationship with the people and they fall into a neo-populism. On the other hand, there is, in effect, a weakening of journalism’s capacity to act, to move, to be where it wants to be and to reach that socialization of themes that people really care about. There is a backward slide in which the public powers undoubtedly play a role. Drug trafficking, specifically, leads to inhibition rather than leading to intervention. That is something terrible that is happening in a large part of Latin America.