Political News on Television


The Most Wanted Man in the World?

The American journalist Walter Lippmann said that the press "is no substitute for institutions.  It is like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision."  The idealized vision of the media is that of the Fifth Estate: the social layer of journalists, critics and intellectuals who do not celebrate the existing social arrangements and who acts as the and guardians and watchdogs of truth and justice.  All that sounds fine, except the other 'Estates' will not passively sit back and be criticized for their dealings.  In fact, they will do everything in their power to bribe, coerce, intimidate, co-opt, banish or silence critical voices.

A famous example is Canal 2 (Frecuencia Latina) in Peru.  In 1996-1997, this broadcast television channel aired a series of exposés about corruption and irregularities in the high echelons of the Fujimori government, including torture, murder, payoffs and illegal wiretaps of opposition politicians and journalists.  The government struck back by stripping the Israeli-born owner Baruch Ivcher of Frecuencia Latina of his citizenship, without which he lost control of the television station and had to leave the country.  

Of course, the government does not have to resort to such hardball tactics all of the time.  After all, that makes for bad publicity all over the world.  Certainly, the government is the largest advertiser around, so it has tremendous financial leverage over media owners.  The government can also organize media attacks on those who publish unfavorable reports (read link).  In the case of Peru, there is at least circumstantial evidence that the local tabloids seemed to act at the beckoning of the government (case in point: La República's investigative reporter Angel Páez found himself being accused by the tabloids for being a Ecuadorian spy because he reported on corruption in the Peruvian military; in this case, there was even a faxed story from a government advisor to a tabloid, which printed the story verbatim the next day). 

Fortunately, the Fifth Estate has far too many actors to be manipulated and controlled completely.  This is particularly true in the age of the Internet, when low-cost, transnational media actors are almost impossible to stop.  In September 2000, the undoing of the Fujimori government began with the release of a tape showing the national security advisor Vladimir Montesinos handing a bribe of $15,000 to an oppositional legislator Alberto Kouri, who switched parties immediately afterwards.  This was promised to be the first of thousand of such secret tapes, including one of José Francisco Crousillat of America Television taking a bribe in return for favorable treatment of the government in his broadcasts.  A number of these tapes would be broadcast on a daily basis (see Vladivideos), becoming conversational topics for the citizenry.

              

The net result was that President Alberto Fujimori was ousted by Congress as being 'morally unfit,' and went to Japan where he sought protection against extradition by Peru through his Japanese citizenship.  Meanwhile, Vladimir Montesinos fled the country, and became the most wanted man in the world for several months before he was captured in Venezuela and returned to stand trial in Peru. 

As in any drama, there are good guys and bad guys, as was the case here among the media.  In the post-Fujimori era, the media served an important function in the ensuing democratic presidential elections.  The presidential debate between the two candidates --- Alejandro Toledo and Alan Garcia --- was televised to the country, thus permitting the citizenry to see firsthand how they handled themselves.

Alfredo Toleo Televised presidential debate Alan Garcia

Unfortunately, these two candidates were also tainted by unfavorable media coverage.  In the case of Toledo, there were allegations of cocaine abuse, womanizing and a paternity suit.  In the case of Garcia, there was the memory of hyperinflation and corruption during his previous term as president.  In the end, 16.6% of the votes (note: voting is compulsory in Peru) were either blank or spoiled as a sign of protest against the two candidates who were perceived as flawed.  Among the valid votes, Toledo gained 52% to win the election.

We will now cite some survey data from the TGI Peru study.  This is a survey of 2,007 persons between the ages of 12 to 64 years old living in Lima (Peru) conducted during the first part of 2001, when Vladimir Montesinos was the most wanted man in the world.  According to this survey, 43% of the survey respondents said that they frequently watched political news coverage on television.  The next table shows the demographic breakdown of this audience.

Demographic Group % watched political news frequently
Age/Sex
     Male 12-19
     Male 20-24
     Male 25-34
     Male 35-44
     Male 45-54
     Male 55-64

     Female 12-19
     Female 20-24
     Female 25-34
     Female 35-44
     Female 45-54
     Female 55-64

28%
41%
49%
57%
63%
65%

26%
33%
40%
35%
50%
64%
Socio-economic Class
     AB
     C
     DE

57%
41%
38%
Employment Status
     Full-time employed
     Part-time employed
     Not employed

50%
44%
35%
Occupation
     Director/upper management
     Middle/lower management
     Professional
     Technician/mechanic
     Professor/teacher
     Administrative
     Maintenance/security
     Lower commercial
     Artisan/domestic service

78%
51%
66%
53%
51%
45%
46%
45%
39%
Education Level
     Doctorate degree
     Masters degree
     University/college graduate
     University/college incomplete
     Technical completed
     Technical incomplete
     Secondary/commercial completed
     Secondary/commercial incomplete
     Primary completed
     Primary incomplete 
     Did not attend school

90%
72%
69%
47%
50%
40%
40%
36%
35%
35%
17%

TOTAL

43%

The viewing of political news coverage increases with affluence and education, and also among men and older people.  These survey data do not offer the explanation by themselves, but we can nevertheless speculate.  On one hand, it is the rich and powerful who have vested interests in political matters.  On the other hand, the poor and powerless have never seen political promises translate into anything that is personally meaningful.  If such is the great divide that exists today, then democracy and media have long ways to go ...

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(posted by Roland Soong, 7/30/2001)


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