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Citizen activism challenges protected media oligopoly, concludes RSF

(RSF/IFEX) - 17 August 2011 - "A new Chile is born," said President Sebastián Piñera as he personally welcomed 33 miners at the surface after their spectacular rescue from a collapsed mine in the Atacama desert 10 months ago. The country has indeed changed since then but not as La Moneda palace's current occupant expected.

Students are staging massive protests against an unegalitarian and expensive education system ( http://www.radiotierra.cl/node/3279 ). Civil society groups and ecologists have been campaigning against the HydroAysén dam project, with some success on the legal front. Miners still have to endure terrible conditions and still get paid badly, but they will be staging angry celebrations on the first anniversary of the rescue of "The 33." In the south, the Mapuche indigenous minority is winning new support for its land and cultural demands. In Santiago, students have staged several occupations of Chilevisión, a TV station that Piñera owned before he became president. Furthermore, despite police repression, there have been more than 500 protest marches in the capital alone since the start of the year.

During a visit to Chile in June for the 20th anniversary of community radio station Radio Tierra, Reporters Without Borders saw how the issue of news and information is playing a central role in this upsurge of citizen unrest. Participants in online, community and alternative media, representatives of civil society groups and foreign journalists all see the protests as a challenge to a political, economic and media system inherited from the Pinochet years. During the last 20 years of rule by the Concert of Parties for Democracy, media ownership continued to be concentrated in very few hands, hindering pluralism and leading to conflicts of interest. Is the media oligopoly about to be broken?

Conciliation and concentration

"Cause", "Análisis", "Apsi", "Fortín Mapocho", "La Época" - these names do not mean much to the generation of students now on the streets. These magazines nonetheless played a major role in the advent of a new era, the 1988 referendum that ended the dictatorship and opened the way for the Concert of Parties for Democracy, a coalition of Christian Democratic and centre-left parties, to come to power two years later. Founded on the basis of the 1987 campaign for a "No" vote to Pinochet and backed by the then dissident press, the coalition finally put an end to 17 years of direct censorship. It was a great achievement, but many say it was not enough.

Former "Cause" journalist Francisco Martorell, vice-president of the College of Journalists from 2006 to 2008 and now editor of "El Periodista," a monthly with a print-run of 12,000 copies and a well-known online version ( http://elperiodistaonline.cl/ ), is very critical of the Concert of Parties' 20-year record.

"'Cause', 'Fortín' and the other magazines of that tendency survived for a while thanks to the external aid that was organized under the dictatorship. After 1990, the media ceased to be a priority for the government, which regarded the return to democracy as a given and never touched the system of subsidies established under Pinochet. This system, which had previously resulted in the disappearance of the opposition press, killed if off again after the return to democracy, although it had just barely been revived. To cap it all, there are now fewer print media in Chile than there were at the end of the dictatorship!"

The Chilean media have been characterized since then by an extreme concentration of ownership. One example is the Spanish media group Prisa (publisher of the Madrid-based "El País" newspaper), which owns nearly 60 per cent of Chile's radio stations. But the leading cases are the two national media oligopolies - the El Mercurio group, publisher of the daily "El Mercurio", and Copesa, owner of the daily "La Tercera" and the leading magazine publisher. These two media conglomerates were the sole beneficiaries of the subsidy system established under the dictatorship, worth 5 million dollars a year, and have continued to be its exclusive recipients since 1990, leaving the rest of the media to face the vagaries of the market without any form of cushion.

Mauricio Weibel, now a correspondent for several foreign news media, has participated in five attempted media projects in recent years. "Without the Internet, it would be completely impossible to launch any kind of alternative media," he said. "Distributing newspapers is already difficult because of this country's very special geography. To print a newspaper, you have to turn to the oligopolies. And it is the same for distribution, because they own the sales outlets. As for radio stations, they are owned by the private sector, which in this country is completely indistinguishable from the financial sector." It determines how the much-needed advertising is allocated, without any public oversight.

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