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Media freedom- a view from Chile
So what is the situation of media freedom in this, the most ‘advanced’ country of South America, cited as model of capitalist development, and poised to join the OECD club?
Formally, there is, almost, full freedom of expression, However, journals and journalists closed down or forced into exile during the ‘protected democracy’ of the 1990s for disrespecting the reactionary Supreme Court or church-inspired censorship have still not been compensated, despite rulings by international bodies.
In today’s Chile you can publish nearly anything you like, but it is the rich who dominate the mass media. Two companies, both of which were faithful supporters of the former dictatorship of General Pinochet, dominate the press. There are four major TV channels: one is owned by the Catholic Church, one by a hugely rich right-wing politician and one by another very rich pro-Pinochet businessman. The remaining station is government owned, with a board which is representative of the parliamentary parties (half right wing, half 'centre-left’). All of them are dependent on advertising from big business.
One small example of what this ‘freedom’ means: last year there was a strike and occupation of a major distribution centre of the largest supermarket chain, D&S, just north of the capital, Santiago. Although the strike lasted for many weeks, it was never reported in the press or on TV. All the mass media depend on advertising from the company.
On May 3rd 2007, Rodrigo Cisternas, a 26 year old forestry worker, died in a hail of bullets. He was one of five thousand sub-contracted workers at a wood-pulp processing plant in Horcones, who were on strike in protest at miserable wages and exploitative conditions, including long hours with no pay for overtime. Horcones, in Southern Chile, is a former coal-mining area blighted by high unemployment.
Behind the 86 subcontractors involved in the dispute is a firm called Celulosa Arauco, whose profits last year were $619 million (US dollars). Celulosa Arauco is part of the giant Angelini group. The owner Anacleto Angelini, who has a net worth of $2.6 billion, began his business career under Mussolini in Italy. After Mussolini's death and the restoration of democracy he moved to Chile.
On the day of the killing, two thousand workers had blocked a road leading to the plant. The police immediately moved in, attacking the workers and wrecking their cars. In response, Rodrigo Cisternas took a tractor and pushed away a police bus. A brief TV report captured the image of about 20 police opening fire. He was hit by three bullets.
Unlike the D&S dispute, the strike at Horcones did get media coverage- but only because of the death of Cisternas. In the wave of public disgust which followed, the company hurriedly agreed to wage increases of between 56% for the lowest paid and 16% for the highest paid, and to pay for overtime. Even a right-wing local MP (from the pro-Pinochet UDI Party) said he was shocked that the company had been paying only $50 a month more than is received by workers on emergency government employment schemes.
Chile has returned to democracy, but the big business groups that backed the Pinochet dictatorship still wield enormous power. On paper there is freedom for all; but real freedom is reserved for the super-rich and powerful, in economic life and in the mass media.