Nearly 80 percent of print media in Peru is now in the hands of one media group after the Aug. 23, 2013, purchase by El Comercio group of 54 percent of shares of the Empresa Periodística Nacional (Epensa) which until then ran the 14 regional editions of the newspaper Correo and other national publications.
Empresa Editora El Comercio, the umbrella media company owned by the Miró Quesada family, calls itself the “foremost multimedia organization in Peru.” In addition to the daily newspaper El Comercio — which was first published in 1839 — until the August acquisition it also published six other newspapers and six magazines, and also had two television stations. It has now added three more newspapers, five magazines, and several weeklies and supplements that belonged to Epensa.
The purchase triggered a response from the La República media group, which from early last year had shown interest in purchasing a majority share of Epensa. The president of La República’s board of directors, Gustavo Mohme Seminario, was one of the first industry heavyweights to raise a red flag, labeling what El Comercio did as “media consolidation,” which signified a “threat to freedom of expression.”
At the end of November, eight journalists, including Mohme Seminario, filed for an injunction, demanding the Peruvian judiciary system declare null and void the purchase by El Comercio, on the grounds it threatened freedom of expression as established by the Constitution. At the time, however, the debate was put on the back-burner.
The debate heats up
On Dec. 29, in a television interview, President Ollanta Humala said the sale of the majority of Epensa shares was “a threat to freedom of expression,” though he added that the buyout “wasn’t currently illegal.” The next day, El Comercio countered with a front-page headline: “Humala issues veiled threat against freedom of expression.” The president, however, didn’t go back on his word as he had on earlier occasions after being pressured by the press, and went so far as to suggest Congress take up the issue.
Humala’s statement was a flashpoint. The debated intensified to the point that former presidential candidate and 2010 Nobel Laureate for Literature Mario Vargas Llosa publicly criticized El Comercio media group.
Although he rejected the ideas of state intervention and media laws such as those in Argentina and Ecuador, Vargas Llosa wrote in his column in the Spanish daily newspaper El País that the courts needed to take up the issue in Peru through that lawsuit filed by the eight journalists. It would be good, he added, if the case reached the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
El Comercio responded in editorials and columns by its journalists that the Epensa purchase was fair and square, and that the public had “the freedom to choose.” The company also insisted that under current regulations, anyone in the country could start a newspaper.
Renowned journalist César Hildebrandt came out in partial support of El Comercio.
“El Comercio was wrong buying Epensa, but has acted within the current law, which allows this. Journalists who have filed the lawsuit, they all support the liberal system, which allows for [media] consolidation and punishes minorities, those marginalized in journalism,” he said in a critical tone in an interview with Venezuelan channel Telesur.
Hildebrandt went further, saying in the same interview: “of 13 million voters, one million read newspapers and 12 million watch television — (the latter) which is absolutely controlled by conservatives. The real problem is the monopoly the conservative sector has on the political agenda of Peruvian media, not that El Comercio bought Epensa.”
Journalist Glatzer Tuesta, host of the show “No Hay Derecho” for Lima’s Radio San Borja, toldLatinamerica Press the debate over media consolidation in Peru “is healthy and can’t be covered with one finger.” He believes the buyout is “dangerous for freedom of expression,” adding that El Comercio has “more than just media interests.”
“El Comercio’s partners also have shares in construction and housing [companies]. What would happen if those companies had problems? Would journalists from this media group cover that, if it were of public interest? If you look at how the media group behaved [before the purchase], you’ll see that in the majority of cases, they paid little attention.”
With regard to politics, Tuesta noted that in the 2011 elections El Comercio endorsed the candidacy of Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former dictator Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) who is currently serving a sentence of 25 years in prison for corruption and human rights violations during his rule.
“When a company owns many media organizations, the possibility of silencing uncomfortable voices is greater, because it can ultimately, at their preferences, ignore some opposing facts, especially in electoral scenarios,” Tuesta explained.
“Let’s suppose El Comercio backs a certain candidate. What’s going to happen with the other campaigns? Sure, they’ll give them coverage, but while still propping up their candidate to the detriment of the other ones.”
The journalist, whose radio program is produced by the non-governmental Legal Defense Institute (IDL), also questioned the purchase by El Comercio on the grounds that it created a “consolidation of advertising” — threatening the livelihoods of local newspapers that don’t have a national reach.
“If [El Comercio] is interested in moving forward and expanding their hold on the market why would they buy out another media group? Why not publish another paper? That’s why this is about consolidation,” he said.
As with Vargas Llosa, Tuesta also believes Peruvian courts should take up the lawsuit to “avoid the government make a law authoritatively.” He added that the Inter-American Human Rights System’s Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression could help with “issues of abuse of power” in this case.
For now, the ball is in the Judiciary’s court; earlier this year, it agreed to hear the request for injunctive relief regarding the sale of Epensa to El Comercio. A new chapter in the story will start once that decision is handed down.
Courtesy Latinamerica Press