Geographically, Central America includes parts of Mexico, i.e., the southern part of the Tehuantepec Isthmus, but traditionally it is composed of the countries of Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. With the exception of Belize, which is a small country with about 300,000 inhabitants that did not gain its independence from Great Britain until 1981, all were Spanish colonies. The current Panamanian territory was part of Colombia until 1913. All of these countries gained their independence between 1821 and 1859. Of 43 million Central Americans, 13 million live in Guatemala. The geographic position of Panama and the political stability of Costa Rica have allowed both of these countries to develop economically, but the rest of the countries in the region display extreme poverty, particularly evident in areas inhabited by indigenous groups. After several decades of internal turmoil, civil war, and dictatorships, Central America has recovered its essence. Since the 1980s, it has recovered its peace. Even though democracy and competitive elections are now a fact within the isthmus, the influence of remote times still prevails.
Regional Media Development
The influence of the media was important during the democratization of Central America. It was the result of multiple experiences from the past, both those of journalists and those of several media owners. Many of these individuals faced censorship, military repression, and the closure of their offices. The participation of the army was a common feature in these events. State financing, which plays an important role in private investments and represents a key survival factor, enables many governments to exert their influence over media content in the press, radio, and television. Tax collection and audits contribute to keeping state influence marginal. External influence also plays a key role, mainly that from Mexican investors.
Nowadays, many media function as political instruments and, in nearly every Central American country, they are concentrated in the hands of a few families. Their interests are primarily centered on the economic impact of the media network. Only Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Panama have laws that guarantee equal access to the media by the political parties. Deviation or reduction in campaign funds and parties has led to greater distortions in competition.
The lack of scientific research on the region makes it difficult to provide quantitative data. That said, radio is the mostused medium, and television constitutes the most-marketed medium, followed by the press. The proportion of the latter is 40 newspapers for every 1,000 inhabitants. Costa Rica has the highest proportion with 79, while Nicaragua has the lowest with 16.
Journalistic work faces the multiple challenges of a narrow labor market, complicated structural conditions, bad planning, corruption, and the limitations imposed by restrictive laws. A more active civil society is needed to support and encourage independent and capable journalists. Furthermore, both professionalism and journalistic ethics are nearly unknown, as is the case in the rest of Latin America. Despite attempts made by some international training programs to change the situation, the tradition of research and investigative reporting is unknown in many places. Finally, the lack of interest in regional and international issues is evident in the different media offerings.
The regional results obtained from the annual study of the US organization Freedom House are highly critical. Its 2007 report shows Costa Rica as the only country belonging to the group considered to be free countries (20th place of 195). The rest of the Central American countries are considered “partly free”: El Salvador and Nicaragua are placed 42nd, Panama 43rd, Honduras 51st, and Guatemala 59th.
There is a climate of aggression directed toward journalists in Central America, and Guatemala is perhaps the most notable example of this. This country suffers the consequences of a long and bloody civil war as well as the influence of violent regimes, which have lacerated social consensus. In this respect, it is the indigenous groups, representing 40 percent of the country’s population, that are the most depraved. Crime, international traffic of drugs, corruption, and a flourishing kidnapping industry make research in information and critical journalism a highly perilous occupation. According to the corruption index of Transparency International, Guatemala holds 117th position (of 159); attempts to clarify are overshadowed and contributions are regarded as threatening.
The Guatemalan radio and television industries are mainly concentrated in the hands of Mexican investors. A sole consortium controls the four open channels and 90 percent of the frequencies held by radio broadcasters are the property of three groups. Concentration also exists within the press. Newspapers (Prensa Libre, La Hora, Siglo Veintiuno, El Periodico, Diario de Centro America, La República, Nuestro Diario, Al Dia, El Quetzalteco, and El Metropolitano) are not the exception, and only two are published outside the capital. The general trend is mainly conservative, and economic forces dominate the scene, making it impossible for a spectrum of plural opinion to exist. As is the case in all of Central America, community radios are isolated.
The amount of violence is also critical in El Salvador, with the issue of the Maras, gangs of juveniles active in the capital, terrorizing the population. The influence of a long civil war is ever-present, and the division of the nation keenly felt. El Salvador’s business elite dominates the five national newspapers with its conservative posture (El Diario de Hoy, La Prensa Grafica, El Mundo, Clatino, and Diario Mas, printing 250,000 issues in a population of 6.9 million people), as well as the audiovisual media. Three of the five private television networks are the property of Telecorporación Salvadoreña (TCS), which openly supports the ARENA party, currently in power. Channel 12 is Mexican-owned.
El Salvador also has its official channel. The one-dimensional stance of its owners, reflected in its taboos and preferences, leads the path to self-censorship. If it does not follow this trend, a forceful silence is imposed. Finally, several Salvadorian laws point out the benefit of national security in contrast with critical journalism.
Honduras enjoys free elections – though they are often accompanied by expressions of violence – and this is reflected in a free media system, which is also concentrated in the hands of highly influential families. The country’s newspapers are La Tribuna, El Heraldo, Diez, La Prensa, and Tiempo. Journalistic work always encounters difficulties in the use of official sources, and corruption in exchange for positive reports is very common. A positive point is that slander was ruled unconstitutional.
In the case of Nicaragua, the influence of civil war and dictatorship continues. The change of power in 2007 – Sandinista commander Daniel Ortega, working in a coalition with a liberal former president, won the presidency – showed the existence of competitive democratic rules and processes. The country’s history and past changes of power made it possible for leftists to gain presence and voice. Little before the conclusion of their term, the Sandinistas privatized the main radio networks and guaranteed the permanence of individuals and groups loyal to them in these entities. The main newspapers offer a space for different political voices – though demanding a positive political orientation in exchange. La Prensa’s liberal voice has represented public criticism since Sandinism times. El Nuevo Diario has a clear tendency toward Sandinism, and La Noticia, La Jornada, Trinchera, Bolsa de Noticias, and Hoy are also worth mentioning. In addition to six private television stations, Nicaragua has one official channel.
As a result of American influence and having direct management of its Canal in recent years, Panama’s position is special in Central America, for it is also a bridge to South America. The history of the media in this country is also affected by past dictatorships. The country has four private television stations and a wide range of radio stations, along with one state television channel and a network, both of which are under the Catholic church’s guardianship. Panama has eight national newspapers (La Prensa, El Panama America, Critica Libre, El Siglo, La Estrella de Panama, Mi Diario, Dia a Dia, and Capital Financiero). It also suffers from concentration of media and difficult working conditions for journalists: they are constantly threatened by the state, and by the end of the former president’s term, 80 journalists had received official warnings. Media laws are highly restrictive; many date from dictatorial times and have not been reformulated.
Given its small size, Belize’s open and free media system is seldom discussed. Although it is true that it lacks daily journals, its weekly press is varied and pluralistic. Belize’s 300,000 inhabitants can choose from ten radio stations and two television channels. Cable television is a widely spread medium. However, the laws on media give the state intervention rights in journalism, mainly when public officials and ministries are within the focus of reports and if they are criticized. Finally, attacks on radio broadcasting freedom are commonly interpreted as protection of national security.
Costa Rica continues to be the Central American democratic model. This fact is reflected in its media system and the current situation: the freedom of the press dates from 1835, and ever since, radio, television, and press have been able to work freely. More than 100 stations make up the private broadcasting system, along with the private sector newspapers La Nación, La República, Diario Extra, El Heraldo, La Prensa Libre, Al Dia, and La Teja, and public sector broadcasting such as Canal 13, which operates under the guardianship of the Sistema de Radio y Televisión Cultural de Costa Rica (SINART) and has been in existence since 1977. However, a financial crisis brought about restriction in investments and infrastructure. The open sector has a UHF channel from the University of Costa Rica, Channel 15, receiving income from university funds. 40 percent of its content comes from Deutsche Welle and from Asociación de Televisoras Iberoamericanas (ATEI). One of the most controversial issues is whether or not stations should pay taxes on frequencies – this was not provided for in the obsolete 1954 act that regulates broadcasting in the country.
In recent years, press freedom in Costa Rica played an important role in uncovering massive corruption scandals. In the lead were La Nación newspaper and the editorial department of Canal 7. Meanwhile, the interest that the population shows in the media continues to increase. Costa Ricans invest a significant part of their incomes in the use of the media. There is increasing demand for cable television systems, which now accounts for 20 percent of Costa Rican households. The use of telephones and computers with Internet access is far above the Latin American average.
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