Social Councils/Media Democratization: Diversion or Danger?

Seems bad ideas keep coming back under new names.

A while back at the height of his popularity and at the tail end of his administration, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, organized a meeting called the Conference on Communications. The official purpose, according to Lula, was to get all forms of media to be less negative about Brazil. He wanted to create a “social council” to monitor and audit news reports.

In his opening address to the conference Lula said media “excesses,” “lies,” fabrications, political involvement and “slander and abuse” were a problem for the country and he intended to address that problem by making the press more responsible through “social councils.” He then said (I can only assume with tongue in cheek) that he had “a sacred commitment to freedom of the press.”

The conference was filled were representatives from social movements, government unions and businessmen. Few media organizations attended because they saw the conference as an attempt to create a framework for censorship.

“The proposal to create a ‘social council’ to audit press content implies modifications to the Constitution which guarantees free initiative and freedom of expression,” said National Magazine Editors (Aner) president Roberto Muylaert. He added “social control sends shivers anywhere in the world because it is incompatible with freedom of expression and a free press.”

Eventually the plan went nowhere as President Dilma Rousseff didn’t just put the planned government-run social council idea on the back burner, she took it off the stove.

The idea of creating social councils, or people’s councils is not a new one and it is not an idea that goes away.

The latest incarnation comes from Honduran president Porfirio Lobo.

Honduras is plagued with ineffective courts, prosecutors and police. (And rulings from the courts gutting efforts to clean up the police.) The resulting lack of ability to change the in law enforcement community more quickly means that violent crimes continue at an alarming rate — 92 murders per 100,000 people, highest murder rate in the world.

AS expected, the violence and murders make up the daily fare for the countries newspapers — as they would in any place where the government does not control the media. The problem for Lobo is that these reports show a country in deep trouble. The other day, Lobo became fed up with these constant reminders of the violence in his country and proposed a solution that is a non-starter as far as the media are concerned.

In lashing out at the problems he is facing, Lobo called for a plebiscite on media democratization.

At a meeting with the Council of Minister where 2013 was declared the “National Year of Violence Prevention,” President Lobo proposed a ballot initiative for the elections in November to hold a plebiscite on the democratization of radio and television frequencies, according to La Prensa.

Critics of Lobo’s call within the journalism and civil society communities spoke out quickly.

Rodolfo Dumas, a member of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA):

“I was not surprised at all these statements, because just look at the critical situation the country is living in security, investment, labor, health, education and especially in financial matters to understand that sooner or later the government would resort to what I have called an arsenal of mass distraction because these actions simply divert attention.”

Jimmy Dacarett, member of the Civic Democratic Union:

“The intention of the President is to distract the attention of the Honduran people and the vital issues that really are hurting the government disaster they have done to date. “

Chance are this plebiscite idea will go nowhere. But it is something to keep an eye on.

Already the Honduran media are under siege from non-government forces. The growing strength of narcos and other gangs in the country (because of the weak — and corrupted — legal system) means they — not the government — are threatening journalists.

Already some journalists admit privately that their news organizations self censor stories rather than face the wrath of a local gang. Others say they pay a “war tax” to local gangs to ensure “nothing happens” to them or their news organization.

What Honduran journalists need is what the rest of Honduran society needs: a competent, corruption-free legal system. (And that gets into the whole debate of foreign aid projects designed to do just that and civil society development.) And to be fair to Lobo, he also wants these same things but he is trying to undo decades of problems in just a few years. It takes more than just the president wanting to make changes.

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Filed under Central America, Corruption, Harassment, Honduras, Press Freedom

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