A Brief View of Social Communication: CIESPAL's Activities in Latin America

Jorge Mantilla (CIESPAL)

A quick look at social communication in Latin America shows well-defined stages, going from the romantic and confrontational style of journalism of the giants of independence to the communication media giants which exist now, as well as to a resurgence of community communications.

The countries of Latin America have common ethnic roots, geographic similarities, and common historical ancestry, and for the most part one can make generalizations on some topics. In the matters which concern us, the activities of the proponents of independence were similar, from the heroic liberators to the political leaders and the men of culture. The development of communication media and the communications profession have followed similar patterns. For this reason, we dare to put forward a general outline of communications in Latin America, comprising five eras:

  1. Ideological, confrontational, and romantic period
  2. Emergence of informational journalism
  3. Professionalism of communicators
  4. Social communication as an industry
  5. Community communications.

Ideological, confrontational, and romantic period

The peoples of Latin America experienced the entire colonial period as intensely unrestful, since they did not humbly support Spanish rule. Indigenous uprisings and massive Métis movements swept the continent. Many young people had the opportunity to travel to Europe and assimilate the spirit of independence. Upon their return, they undertook the fight to defend their ideas, inviting rebellion by means of pamphlets.

This was a romantic era for journalism, and at the same time one of great content and extraordinary courage and valour. Each country notes in its history the names of those part-time journalists and the media which they used to defend their ideals.

Journalism began in its most rudimentary technical form with equipment being extremely simple, including hand-run presses. Conversely, the content of those newspapers was of great value: critiques of the conquerors, diffusion of libertarian ideals, and dissemination of scientific news to shorten the cultural difference between the indigenous people and the Europeans.

This period continued, practically, until the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Emergence of informational journalism

Feeling the influence of the European countries mentioned, and that of the U.S., periodicals started to appear with regular circulation, the technical limitations being met with great strength. Dailies, weeklies, and biweeklies appeared, as well as monthly, bimonthly, and quarterly publications.

In the pages of these publications, the confrontational, ideological, and romantic style of journalism continued, with the addition of sections of information and advertising. Many of these publications were ephemeral; some others managed to survive because they pioneered the management of journalism as a business. They formed family enterprises or business groups, many of which still exist today. At this time, the three fundamental objectives of journalism were enumerated: to inform, to educate, and to entertain.

In this era, radio journalism also appeared. Its beginnings were humble: a few broadcasters who thought they should not just be playing music began to inform their listeners by reading newspapers aloud. This type of information did not gain the acceptance of the public, so the broadcasters had to find their own way of using information sources, and regular news broadcasts at set times began.

Professionalism of communicators

Until the 1940s, editing and working on a periodical was the way in which journalists were trained. Young people without any special training would find a job with a newspaper and would apprentice with an experienced journalist for a short time before being sent out on their own. There were no other entry requirements. Generally, these new reporters were members or friends of the owner's family.

But the need for training was acknowledged, requiring at least a minimal knowledge of general culture, basic writing skills, and "reporter's instincts." So courses and apprenticeships were appreciated. Later, schools and faculties of communications were established in the universities.

A rivalry between the "practical" and the "theoretical" journalists arose. The former, with their experience, continued to be the favourites of the communications enterprises, and young university graduates had to fight to make a place for themselves. In some countries, the debate still goes on between people who have demonstrated ability to continue to work in journalism and those who have used connections to get editorial positions.

Still, new information technologies continue to spread through the universities. Many of these establishments follow the American curriculum, which stresses information over analysis, unlike the European style of journalism.

Journalists have organized themselves into social groups and into areas of specialization; they fought to categorize journalism as a profession. Professionals are defined as people who have a university degree and who are recognized for a standard of quality, through the test of years of practice and the approval of a professional body. They oblige companies to only employ people with professional certification. Laws have established sanctions for employers using non-professionals, a provision that is not always complied with.

The problem continues today. The Inter-American Press Society (SIP) has not slowed its attempts to put across the idea of voluntary certification for journalists. Therefore, there were several related guidelines passed in 1993 at the Society's meeting in Chapultepec, Mexico, called to discuss problems with freedom of the press, and at a meeting held in Santiago, Chile, which dealt with the development of communications and democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean. These guidelines say: "According to the fundamental rights of expression and association, conferred by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, access to and the use of journalism must be free and without limitations."

The media of communication experienced great changes with the appearance of television. Informational programs diffused through this medium and through radio led to a decline in print journalism, leading some to believe it might even disappear. This has not and will not happen, since it has been shown that the electronic and print media complement each other.

It is in this stage that the concept of journalism was enlarged, since it became an activity that was no longer the sole venture of periodicals, but also of radio and television. The name "journalists" (in Spanish, periodistas from the word for periodicals) stuck, but it now denotes social communicators. There are those who believe that this designation is not fitting. Among them, the renowned communications expert Mario Kaplun suggests that both "journalists" and "social communicators" should be dropped in favour of "EMIREC" ["TRANSREC"], since those who practise community or popular communications are at the same time transmitters and receivers of messages.

Social communication as an industry

In the past few decades, the media of communication have grown immensely, both in number and in increasing types of services offered.

CIESPAL, the International Centre of Higher Studies in Communication for Latin America, conducted a survey of media, which gives a very clear idea about the status of communications in Latin America. One CIESPAL document, prepared by the researcher Ana Lopez, says the following:

Media of Communication:

In Latin America, there were in 1990 a total of 7,873 media outlets, [including] 1,007 daily newspapers according to the data collected by CIESPAL for the Communication Media Inventory. Actually, this number is 1,150, which agrees with the data of SIP, in 1993. With regard to radio stations, CIESPAL counted 5,876 working radio stations in 1990, and SIP, 4,586 in 1993. With regard to television stations, SIP recorded 595 and CIESPAL 490, both in 1990.

In accordance with the data of the Inter-American Press Society, the total circulation of the Latin American daily press is 31,010,000 copies, or 71 copies per thousand inhabitants, taking into account the total population of the region. If the same circulation figure is related to the literate population, we find that the rate increases to 84 copies per thousand [literate] inhabitants.

These indices are inferior to the data from the recent UNESCO study on developed countries, such as Japan, in which there are 565 newspaper copies per thousand inhabitants, West Germany, with 550, the United Kingdom, with 414, and the United States, with 268.

According to the UNESCO information, one newspaper copy can be read by at least three people, which is to say that in Latin America, the daily press would be capturing 21% of potential readers (taking into account the total population), and 25%, or one quarter, of the literate Latin American population (restricting ourselves to the total literate population, not only those who are functionally literate).

This indicates that for every ten literate people, 2.5 would be able to access the daily press. One study published by Mario Kaplun in 1973 found that of every ten Latin Americans, the press reached only 2.25. Comparatively, this figure has increased since 1973 alone by 0.25.

According to data collected for the Latin American Media Inventory, published by CIESPAL in 1990, there were an estimated 315 radio receiving sets for every thousand inhabitants. If we refer back to UNESCO's study, which found that at least five people listen to one radio set, and keep in mind the total population of the region, in this case we are able to say that radio was and continues to be the medium with the best penetration in the Latin American population.

In reference to television, CIESPAL counted a total of 490 parent television stations, without counting repeater stations, and an estimated total of 57,484,000 receiving sets, according to the latest UNESCO figures. UNESCO gave a figure of 142 sets per thousand inhabitants. Making the relation, with at least five people being exposed to one television set, it follows that seven of every ten Latin Americans have access to television programming on the subcontinent.

However, what is this proliferation of communication units contributing to the development of Latin Americans? What type of programming are the 436 million inhabitants of the subcontinent receiving?

In analyzing the properties and character of the media, we find that 82% of them belong to private enterprise, noting that newspapers are almost exclusively private (94%), radio broadcasters are 35% private, and television 67%. In speaking of their character, we refer only to the two electronic media, since the press is completely commercial. Radio broadcasters, to a large percentage (84%), were installed for investment purposes, and rely on advertising; television is the same, to a lesser extent, having this character in 71% of the cases. Faced with this reality, cultural and educational radio make up barely seven per cent of the radio spectrum, and television stations set up with these goals account for ten per cent of the regional total.

Additionally, in observing the coverage that these media have, it becomes clear that 57% of the total Latin American radio broadcasters and half of the television stations are of local scope. In the case of the daily press, the percentage of publications which circulate locally reaches 66%.


If we were to tune into a radio station in any Latin American country, we would find an abundance of musical shows. We can listen to music at any hour, generally, beneath the banter of a disc jockey, to satisfy every different type of audience; informational programs take second place and sports takes third. According to a CIESPAL study in 1990, in a sample of 83 Latin American radio broadcasters, they found that 94% had primarily musical programs, 87% transmitted newscasts, and 52% had sports shows.

Referring to this study, it was found that less than half of the stations (45%) transmit educational/cultural shows during the week, with themes relating to science and technology, literacy, history, legends, arts and cultural information, health, literature, ecology and matters of social interest. Paradoxically, these programs aired in greater proportion over commercial radio.

When we turn to television, we have the same situation, since the study in question showed that the tendency is to broadcast primarily entertainment, which makes up 75% of programming (that is to say, series, soap operas, feature films, sports programs, children's programs, etc.). Telenovelas (soap operas) take up 736 hours a week of the total transmission time of 70 stations surveyed. News and current affairs take second place with 16% and programs classified as educational or cultural, a mere five per cent. (Lopez, 1990)

To round out this quick view of Latin American communication media, I would like to comment on four aspects: the media's openness toward cultural and educational programs, the impact of advertising, the danger from new technologies, and the defence of freedom of the press.

The media consider it their fundamental obligation to collaborate with the education and culture of the community. Some of them have done this responsibly, but there are also those who have not. The most influential periodicals are opening their pages to educational initiatives, many of them designed by students themselves. The success they are garnering is well known. In the same way, they are dedicating supplements to publish articles on culture which are well received by readers. In radio and television, the same is happening, although not to the degree that would be desired.

The impact of advertising has been influential, which is justified since it is the only way to generate enough interest to cover the cost of production. Marketing has invaded the media, leading to an unfortunate situation in which economic pressure groups have been created which almost always negatively influence the freedom that communication media should have. Thus, there are enterprises or groups that have rendered themselves untouchable because they threaten to cut off the revenues that flow from advertising.

The new technologies are increasing the quality of the product that the media enterprises are offering their readers, radio audiences, and television viewers. But not everything is positive, especially for Third World countries, because the communication media in these regions of the world are unable to compete with those of the First World. The thrust of this concept is expressed in the extreme as "the possessor of the truth is the possessor of the satellite."

The Latin American media have been advised that they should unite to form chains that are able to compete with these pressures. Some are doing this, with excellent results.

It should be mentioned as a positive that almost all involved can agree upon the defence of freedom of the press. However, there are some critics of this concept, who argue that freedom of the press is the freedom of those who own communication media to express their opinions. With this affirmation, it should be said that social communicators have their limitations.

Community communications

Luis Suarez, Executive Director of FELAP (Federación Latinoamericana de Periadistas), speaking at the UNESCO conference in Santiago, Chile, stressed that

the large communication media in the area take advantage of ample information networks, but are unable to gather all the issues and problems affecting the marginalized urban and rural regions. The large communication media tend to pay attention to news of national and international scope, which leaves uncovered the problems of marginalized "islands." In addition, these media tend to aim their information at those audience members which represent a good advertising market. Therefore, specific or daily questions are left out, although they are of vital importance to small and communal populations. This is aggravated in the case of indigenous communities, which communicate in their own languages, and whose forms of life are not reflected in most of the large media, except in coverage of a natural catastrophe or armed conflict. We must therefore make an effort to be self-critical, and to recognize the "informational barrier" as another social barrier in Latin America. The large media and the international community should cooperate with local media lacking resources, but without setting conditions or intervening in their orientations.

I consider this an adequate explanation, since it takes into account community communication, which is also called popular, participatory, or alternative communication.

CIESPAL, with the help of the Organization of American States, worked on a pilot project in five rural indigenous communities in Ecuador. During five years, trained promoters gathered young people, men, and women from the communities, and organized them into communication workshops. The results were magnificent. In these workshops, the peasants created news bulletin boards and pamphlets; they published periodicals on hand-made mimeographs which they ran themselves. Most outstanding was the creation of recording studios in which they produced programs that were later broadcast by Radio Latacunga, a station in a city of approximately 30,000 people, which collaborated in the project. The studios stayed organized and the peasants continue to produce programs. This pilot project has been replicated in other countries in the region.

The first actions of community communication efforts were linked to unions or political groups. This created confusion, which unfortunately continues today, although not to a very large degree. These groups spoke of revolutionary, guerilla, communist, or clandestine journalism. In reality, there were various examples in the 1960s of cases that fit this description. One of them is Radio Panamerica, created by the Uruguayan movement Tupac Amaru, but which has now abandoned its clandestine activities and is a medium with a large audience, still dedicated to community service. The criterion has changed. Now, they attempt to use all those who believe in the advantages of horizontal communication.

Community radio

The medium which has been most used in community or popular communication is the radio. There are various arguments which stress the importance of radio in this field. Some of these say:

"Community radio allows control of a true community tool, which fosters creativity and facilitates popular access."

"Community radio restores the vocation of radio as a bidirectional instrument of communication."

"It is a type of radio made to serve the people, a radio that favours local cultural expression, participation, and values."

"Commercial radio considers the radio listener as a simple receiver, the community model considers the audience as subject and participant at the same time."

Within the AMARC project (World Association of Community Radios), CIESPAL published the book Radio Apasionada [Passion for Radio], in which one chapter offers a view of community radio in Latin America. It says:

It may be said that the first experiences with community radio were initiated in Latin America almost half a century ago, and for many years indigenous people, unions, universities, churches, private and public sectors combined efforts, making radio in this region the most dynamic and diverse in the world.

In the last ten years an increase in the use of radio by popular groups has been seen. Some of these groups, like the "Feminist Radio Collective of Peru," produce programs and diffuse them over commercial airwaves. In other cases, they use "megaphones," that is to say, simple loudspeakers installed in shantytowns, through which the community can have a voice that is ignored by other communication media. In Argentina, thousands of stations have appeared that are so small they escape the laws which regulate telecommunications.

Other experiments that have popped up define themselves as "educational." These stations do not dedicate themselves to formal education, and have abandoned traditional methods of radio education to incorporate more efficiently the many types of educational programming made possible by popular participation. "Radio Soleil" in Haiti has followed this path for many years, and "Radio Asè Plèrè An Nou Litè" in Martinique continues along the same vein.

Indigenous populations have their own radio stations throughout the region. These stations transmit in indigenous languages and constitute an important space for their cultural and political preservation. The chapter entitled "Nuevas Voces" ["New Voices"] gives a general idea of how the structure of these stations takes into account the great variety of local conditions and traditions that exist in these populations.

Clandestine guerilla stations have contributed to national liberation movements in many countries. "Radio venceremos" in El Salvador defended the struggle of the Salvadoran people for 11 years before being legalized under the February, 1991, peace treaty between Frente Fabamundo Marti and the government.

There are hundreds of other examples: stations belonging to the unions in Bolivia, stations directed by peasant organizations in Ecuador, a women's station in Chile, over 300 popular stations run by the Catholic Church, and a handful of stations in Nicaragua that are valiantly trying to survive the hostile climate of the country. (Gerard, 1992, p. 18).

In any case, as the Director General of CIESPAL, Dr. Asdrubal de la Torre, said at the UNESCO meeting in Chile, "The world movement of community radio cannot be avoided; it will be validated in the next few years, requiring the understanding and support of sectors involved in communications, and to these [community media], I assign greater importance than the large media."

A similar situation confronts the written press and television, since there are various places where people are improvising with rudimentary stations. This is the case with the remote Ecuadoran Galapagos Islands.

Radio is an extraordinary medium, able to reach the most remote places with its cultural messages; and it is all the more so if it is set up with a good understanding of the realities affecting these places.


Thank you to Aviva Farbstein for the translation of this article.


Gerard, Bruce (Ed.). [1992]. Radio apasionada [Passion for radio]. Quito: CIESPAL.

Lopez, Ana. (1990). Inventario de medios de comunicación en América Latina y en Caribe (prensa, radio y televisión): Resumen de resultados. Quito: International Centre of Higher Studies in Communication for Latin America (CIESPAL).

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