How Governments Abuse Advertising in Latin America

Darian Pavli, senior attorney at the Open Society Justice Initiative, answers questions about the dangers that abusive allocation of public advertising funds poses to freedom of expression, and what is being done to address this issue in Latin America. In the last year, the Open Society Foundations have worked with Article 19 and Fundar in Mexico, and Asociacion por los Derechos Civiles in Argentina to monitor and publicize how governments allocate official advertising monies to media outlets.

What is “official publicity”?

For us, official publicity is another term for government advertising.  This could be as small as a job notice, or it could be an entire campaign on television costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

How does it relate to freedom of expression?

State advertising gives governments financial leverage over media outlets, especially in tough economic times, because publicity can be such a significant source of funding.  This leverage is often abused to manipulate the messages coming from outlets, which clearly undermines media freedom and independence.

This is part of a bigger trend, which we call “soft censorship” to distinguish it from the good old forms of “hard censorship” like throwing journalists in jail, sending thugs to beat them up, etc.  Now, as countries across Latin America become more democratic, or at least want to appear more democratic, there is a shift from harder forms of censorship to softer forms. The degree to which unregulated government advertising is used as a form of soft censorship to manipulate editors, owners, and journalists is a major and growing concern for journalists and media freedom groups in the region.

Earlier this year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) released guidelines for regulating “official publicity.”  How do the guidelines affect freedom of expression in Latin America?

This is a very important document from the commission but it’s also the culmination of a lot of work done by media freedom and civil society groups over the years.  For instance, we and our partners promoted litigation, first in Argentina and later in Mexico, to highlight the need for regulation of official publicity.

In Argentina, we brought attention to a case where advertising was withheld from a major publication in retaliation for publishing a corruption story about a provincial governor.  From one day to the next, all the government advertising dried up.   This put the newspaper in a tough financial position as a direct consequence of reporting something that the government wanted to keep quiet.  The case went all the way to the Supreme Court of Argentina, and the court ruled that funding for publicity cannot be allocated in a way that undermines freedom of expression.  The laws and the jurisprudence in this area are not very well developed, so having a verdict of this sort, from the top court of Argentina, is very important.

Recently, the Supreme Court of Mexico heard a similar case relating to a small, rural community radio that applied to the government to receive advertising and was denied.  The court ruled, essentially, that denying government advertising to community radios based on vague criteria was arbitrary and discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional.

Based on these cases and other standards, the IACHR arrived at the conclusions that (1) advertising is related to freedom of expression and can be used as a manipulative tool, and (2) that there is too much discretion in the way advertising is allocated.  Basically, the government should not be in the business of playing favorites, especially using tax-payer money.

With the support of the Open Society Foundations, Article 19 and Fundar recently developed a website about official publicity in Mexico.  What are you hoping it will accomplish?

The website, Publicidad Oficial, documents the abuse of government advertising.  The site’s main purpose is to highlight the issue and shed light on how advertising is used and abused, why it is a problem, and what can be done about it.

In the case of the federal government of Mexico, their advertising budget has roughly quintupled in the past few years.  The question is: Is the money being used for propagandistic purposes?  This is particularly problematic during elections because often public funds are used unfairly by incumbents. And they also create greater opportunities for buying media friendship.  The website is a tool for the public to look at data that analyzes public spending from the local level up.

How are you working with citizens to call on the Mexican government to implement more stringent official publicity laws?

In addition to trying to shed more light on government advertising practices, we promote reasonable regulation.  One way that we are doing that is by working with other NGOs, as well as members of Congress in Mexico, to try and develop some reform proposals.  We are trying to build a campaign and a process through which the major political parties are forced to confront and tackle this issue.

We are also working with Fundar and Article 19 to publish a report next year on government advertising abuses at the state and municipal level in Mexico.

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