Freedom of the Press
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Status change explanation: Chile’s status improved from Partly Free to Free due to a reduction in the level of violence and harassment faced by journalists while covering protests and demonstrations.
Chile hosts a relatively open environment for press freedom and journalism. A lack of media diversity, particularly in the print and radio sectors, and the ongoing existence of criminal defamation laws hamper these freedoms somewhat. Nevertheless, unlike most other countries in the region, journalists face low levels of violence, intimidation, and harassment.
- Two journalists were sentenced for criminal defamation, prompting them to appeal their cases to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
- Community radio stations, which face steep obstacles to registration, continue to be subject to service interruptions and confiscation of equipment.
Legal Environment: 8 / 30
Freedoms of speech and of the press are guaranteed under Chile’s constitution. Many of the weaknesses in the media environment stem from press laws and ownership structures that originated during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet (1973–90), which governments in the democratic era have been unable or unwilling to reform. Criminal defamation and desacato (insult) laws have been used to silence journalists sporadically since the country’s return to democracy, often leading to public outcry. In June 2015, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the convictions of Bruno Sommer and Sebastián Larraín, directors of the newspaper El Ciudadano, who were sentenced to 540 days in prison for a 2013 article about a former member of congress that the courts deemed slanderous. In October, Sommer and Larraín brought their case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), arguing that their conviction violated their freedom of expression rights as well as past IACHR rulings in similar cases.
Chile’s Law on Transparency of Public Functions and Access to Information, enacted in 2008, continues to serve as a useful tool for journalists, who report that government agencies generally respond to requests for information in a satisfactory manner. A 2015 report from the governmental Transparency Council showed that between 2009 and June 2015, about 300,000 public information requests were submitted, and in 2015 alone the agency expected to receive 3,000 appeals from citizens regarding rejected information requests. The same report noted that 166 violations were found during transparency audits of government institutions, resulting in fines of $80,000.
The community radio sector is significantly weakened by Article 36B of the General Telecommunications Law, a legal provision that criminalizes the operation of unlicensed community media. Although the law was originally passed in 1982, Article 36B was not added until 1994. The law imposes fines and imprisonment for broadcasting without a legal frequency, a condition that applies to most community media operators, and has been used to arrest or harass station operators. Community radio stations in southern Chile—an area primarily populated by the indigenous Mapuche people—have frequently been singled out due to their role in protests against commercial forestry and hydroelectric projects in the region. Authorities raided various community radio stations in 2015 on the pretext that they were broadcasting illegally. For example, in February authorities confiscated the equipment of the Mapuche station La Voz de Nueva Braunau, in Puerto Varas, and four radio workers were detained overnight. In May, Chile signed an agreement with the IACHR requiring the state to implement a series of measures aimed at promoting free and inclusive broadcasting. The resolution stems from the case of community radio station Melinka Estrella del Mar, in the Aysén region, which had its power cut off in 2003 after angering the local mayor.
In 2010, the Community Radio Law was passed to create a legal framework for the operation of the sector. Although the law was criticized as privileging media with outside funders such as evangelical church groups and municipal governments, it was seen as a positive step because it established a legal category for community media and amplified the permissible wattage for low-power stations. Implementation of these regulations has been held up in part by the failure of Chile’s largest commercial radio network, Iberoamericana Radio Chile, to cooperate with the communications regulator, the Subsecretariat of Telecommunications (Subtel), on the reallocation of frequencies.
In May 2014, the Digital Television Act was adopted after five years of debate. The act aims to diversify the media landscape, reserving 40 percent of the television spectrum for community, local, and regional operators. It also gives the public Televisión Nacional (TVN) a second regional frequency intended to broadcast a mix of TVN and locally produced content with a cultural and educational focus. An implementation plan to control the five-year switchover process to digital broadcasting was approved in April 2015.
Political Environment: 13 / 40 (↑1)
While the state does not exert political control over the media or engage in censorship of content, some journalists and outlets have at times practiced self-censorship or displayed political bias on sensitive topics, such as social protests or the human rights violations that occurred under Pinochet.
Although Chilean reporters are rarely subject to violence and intimidation by state agents, the militarized carabineros police force has been known to target photographers and reporters during street protests. Freelance photographer Felipe Durán, known for covering conflicts between the government and the indigenous Mapuche population, was arrested in September 2015 and accused of illegal weapons possession. Local journalists’ and civil society groups criticized his 45-day preventive detention as incompatible with freedom of expression and due process norms. Also in October, a military judge summoned a journalist from weekly newspaper the Clinic to testify in an effort to discover his confidential sources related to articles detailing a web of corrupt officials within the military.
Economic Environment: 8 / 30 (↑1)
The economic viability of independent media is challenged by the concentration of private ownership and advertising, as well as de facto government support—in the form of state advertising purchases—for a commercial newspaper duopoly. Lack of diversity remains a particular problem in the print sector, in which a significant share of political and policy debate occurs. About 90 percent of newspapers are controlled by two privately held commercial groups, El Mercurio and Copesa, which also receive the bulk of state advertising expenditures.
Radio frequencies are concentrated in the hands of just four media groups, with the Spanish-owned Prisa Group, which operates Iberoamericana Radio Chile, controlling roughly half of the radio market. Many press watchdogs view the implementation of the Community Radio Law and the addition of measures to ease the technical requirements and application process for new outlets as an indispensable step toward increasing the plurality of voices in Chilean media. The 2014 passage of the Digital Television Act could also have the effect of increasing media competition, though the television system in general already features some ownership diversity among the seven free-to-air channels, including the autonomous TVN, which by law is pluralistic and self-financed to ensure its independence.
Concentration extends to the mobile internet, as just three companies control about 95 percent of the market, and more than three-quarters of the residential broadband market is controlled by two companies. There are no government restrictions on internet access in Chile, and the penetration rate was 64 percent in 2015.