GIGA Working Paper

Latin America's New Left in Battle with the Media

Heated disputes between government and media are nearly day-to-day business in Brazil and Argentina. However, the two states handle the problem differently, shows Philip Kitzberger.

A common feature of the recent wave of left-leaning governments in Latin America has been the eruption of intense ‘media wars’. These conflicts have raised questions about their causes and about their consequences for democracy. Growing mediatisation combined with persistent elitism and (ownership and audience) concentration in Latin America’s media systems have often been advanced as an explanation. The occurrence of open conflicts and their degree of radicalism have in turn been attributed to the populist or social-democratic nature of the governments involved.

I focus here on the determinants of governmental strategies towards dominant media actors in contexts of increased questioning of the media’s role in democratic politics. I argue that besides prior political identities, ideological beliefs, and policy preferences regarding the media, the adoption of confrontational counter-hegemonic or accommodation strategies depends on particular constraints and opportunities. There are also – I claim – particular junctures and developments that influence how governmental decision-makers interpret correlations of forces, and how they perceive their chances of political survival.

I compare the two first Kirchnerist presidencies in Argentina with the two first Workers’ Party (PT)-led governments in Brazil. The cases comprise Néstor Kirchner’s presidency (2003–2007) and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s first presidency (2007–2011) on the one hand and Luis Inácio‘Lula’ da Silva’s two terms (2003–2010) on the other.

Despite their differences in terms of identity and path to power, the initial phases of these governments were strikingly similar in terms of their media politics. In fact, Lula and Kirchner each inaugurated their presidencies in 2003 by adopting an accommodation strategy towards their country’s dominant media organisations. These pragmatic approaches were reflected in political decisions favouring Globo and Clarín – Brazil and Argentina’s largest media organisations – and in the preferential treatment given to their journalistic outlets.

In both cases, political crises – the Mensalão scandal in Brazil 2005 and Argentina’s agrarian conflict three years later – shook this initial equilibrium, shifting the way these outlets covered government. However, the two governments responded differently to these new scenarios. While Lula abandoned the former accommodation strategy after 2005, thereby changing his stance on the Globo Group, he did not enter into the overt war with leading media players that has characterised Kirchnerism since 2008.

These divergent reactions require further explanation. To account for the responses adopted in the aftermath of the crises, I first explore the constraints in the political-institutional realm and in the media sphere. I then reconstruct some episodes and processes that followed the crises to prove how ongoing events led to governmental (re)interpretations of the political situation that decisively influenced the strategies adopted.

The paper is organised as follows: I start by introducing some analytical considerations. Then, I delineate the parallel developments in both cases: the respective dominant media actors, the political context, the initial governmental politics of accommodation, and the political crises. In the third section I address the divergent paths each government took in response to the critical junctures, first outlining the strategies adopted and then exploring different variables that explain them. [...]

Read on: Philip Kitzberger, Demands for Media Democratisation and the Latin American 'New Left': Government Strategies in Argentina and Brazil in Comparative Perspective, GIGA Working Paper, No. 261, November 2014

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