pink tide

The Pink Tide represents Latin American efforts to reform and democratise the media. While real advances have been made, the limits to reform are made clear, argues Des Freedman


The Pink Tide: Media Access and Political Power in the Latin America, edited by Lee Artz, (Rowman & Littlefield 2017), 209pp.


If Latin America was a laboratory for neoliberalism in the 1980s, it has been the testbed for radical opposition to neoliberalism in more recent years. Left-leaning governments have been elected across the region based on a wide variety of anti-capitalist programmes that have promised nationalisation, land redistribution, welfare reform, recognition of indigenous rights and social justice. It is less about ‘structural adjustment’ (the traditional neoliberal social engineering of the International Monetary Fund) and more about ‘democracy adjustment’.

One vital area of reform has been the attempt to challenge the traditional grip of major media conglomerates who have worked hand-in-glove with the state for many years. Groups like Globo in Brazil, Clarin in Argentina and Cisneros in Venezuela have provided cover for a range of authoritarian regimes, and have starved Latin American audiences of the oxygen of a free media.

The attempts by left-wing governments in the last twenty years to challenge this hegemony and, in particular, to put in place grass-roots and public-access communication, is the topic of an excellent new collection edited by Lee Artz (who was also involved in putting together another great collection on Marxism and Communication Studies). The Pink Tide: Media Access and Political Power in Latin America provides a comprehensive account, not just of the rise of a continental rejection of neoliberalism, but of the particular efforts to develop media systems that privilege popular participation and community control.

Artz, in his Introduction, makes clear that this is not just an anaemic version of the kind of public-service broadcasting produced by the BBC but about the ‘democratic right of the public to produce and disseminate content’ (p.3). It’s about both providing a platform for under-represented groups and about integrating media into wider challenges to neoliberalism when, for so long, they have acted as mouthpieces for the status quo. Artz is also keen to critique developmentalist approaches to media activism and firmly engages with the ambiguities of the notion of ‘civil society’, instead throwing his weight behind the energy of working-class and indigenous-led social movements.

This collection is part of a growing literature on radical reforms of media in Latin America, especially given the widespread passage of legislation stimulating community and public media, controlling commercial media and enshrining communication rights. However, the collection is interested less in dry and technical evaluations of legislative developments than in how political struggles have provided opportunities for (and constraints on) grass-roots media change. There are a couple of overview chapters as well as specific case studies on Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay and Brazil tackling issues of freedom of expression, media ownership, the growth of alternative media and the possibility of redistributing media power.

While there is no one overall conclusion about the respective gains made across the region nor a single pattern of development mapped out – Artz makes it clear that ‘there is no one model of resistance to neoliberalism that might transition to participatory democracy and social justice’ (p.195) – there are some common themes.

First, there is a very familiar story of how any attempt to restrict the communication rights of corporations is met with a huge outcry that this is necessarily a violation of freedom of expression. Legislative reforms in places like Argentina, Uruguay and Ecuador that tried to safeguard equal portions of the broadcast spectrum for public, community and private media were greeted with howls of outrage as if media conglomerates are the only institutions that can be trusted to secure the public interest. This is despite the case in Venezuela, for example, where private media were instrumental in organizing the ultimately unsuccessful coup against Chavez in 2002. This speaks to the need to think of freedom of expression not simply in relation to censorship or licensing but as an active means of securing for all citizens the right to speak.

Second, the record of reform is patchy, often undermined by a combination of entrenched resistance from private media together with a decline in popular mobilization that has led to the re-creation of power blocs inside the new administrations. The chapter on Ecuador provides a fascinating account of how the country’s ambitious attempts to galvanise community media and check the power of private media have been blocked by a nervousness on the part of the administration fully to confront private actors as well as ‘bureaucratic inertia and the continued colonization of regulatory agencies by private interests’ (p.107).

Having promised to reserve 34% of spectrum for community use and 33% for public media in the 2013 Organic Law on Communication, by the time of writing, 85% of the radio spectrum remains in private hands. Instead, what has stuck are a series of content regulations that hand excessive power to President Correa without sufficient guarantees of oversight, a position that has ‘left media activists in an uncomfortable position’ (p.100).    

These problems are part of a wider issue concerning the underlying energy and politics of what is, after all, a ‘Pink Tide’ in which, for all the ambitions to redistribute power and privilege, there has also been a reluctance fully to confront private capital and to enshrine popular sovereignty at the heart of the movements. This is not to belittle the gains that have already been achieved and that – in relation to the heavily concentrated and marketized media systems of Europe and North America – are still impressive, not least because they remind us that change is always possible.

The ‘Pink Tide’ has placed media power and control firmly onto the political agenda and, even if it has not been able to resolve the conflicts between public and private, has still encouraged a shift towards more participatory forms of production and more progressive systems of representation. Echoing Rosa Luxemburg’s stark warning of a choice between socialism and barbarism, Artz concludes by insisting that:

‘There is no third way. Reforms are needed, desired, but reforms only relieve; they do not end abuse and exploitation. No negotiating, no agonistic resolution can be crafted that will overcome class contradictions and subdue the capitalist interests’ (p.190).

This book is a valuable and fascinating account of a new laboratory for media democracy and communication rights.

Des Freedman

Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the co-author of 'The Media Manifesto' (Polity 2020, author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), and former Chair of the Media Reform Coalition.