Controversial documentary ignites press freedom debate in Chile

Talking about the media as the fifth power, here is a reference to “El Mercurio” a Chilean newspaper which was fundamental in the 70s and 80s to all the things that happened in the country.

Also, here is the documentary called “El Diario de Agustin” (just in spanish by now) which was censored in all medias in Chile, spite it has been prized internationally.

Controversial documentary ignites press freedom debate in Chile.

A reclusive media baron, accusations of censorship and a prize-winning documentary that won’t be shown on television: The story of ‘El Diario de Agustín’ resurfaces.

In a triumph of irony “El Diario de Agustín,” a documentary tracing the murky influence of Chile’s historically largest media chain throughout the last half century, has become the center of a censorship battle after the film’s television premier was cancelled.

el-diario-de-agustin-500x364The documentary, directed by Ignacio Agüero and produced by journalist Fernando Villagrán, traces the media conglomerate El Mercurio S.A.P.’s involvement in Chilean politics throughout the last 60 years.

The film’s title, which translates to “Agustín’s Paper,” refers to El Mercurio owner Agustín Edwards Eastman who, since taking control in 1956, has presided over a period of unprecedented media influence.

Five years after its release, the documentary has still not been shown on television, sparking questions over Edwards’ and El Mercurio’s continued influence over Chilean society.

A Chilean institution

Often described as the Andean country’s paper of record, nationally distributed El Mercurio is the Santiago version of a Valparaíso newspaper of the same name opened in 1827. Taking into account its Porteño heritage, El Mercurio is the longest-running Spanish-language newspaper in the world.

In 1877, the Edwards family acquired the newspaper and it has remained in his family ever since.

The conglomerate currently owns three national and 20 regional publications and, together with Copesa media group, which owns La Tercera, accounts for 95 percent of print media in Chile.

“Chileans: El Mercurio lies”

The documentary follows six Universidad de Chile journalism students as they complete their thesis on El Mercurio’s influence on the country’s politics.

The investigation focuses on the newspaper’s campaigns of misinformation as well as its complicity in covering up human rights abuses during the dictatorship.

El Mercurio has been the subject of numerous controversies since Agustín Edwards inherited the media group more than 55 years ago.

During the 1967 university reform movement, El Mercurio falsely labelled student protesters as “Marxists”, alleging a “patent communist influence.”

The students’ response, spelled out in a banner hanging from their university’s entrance, was unequivocal: “Chileans: El Mercurio lies.”

The phrase is now a key reference point and, more than 45 years later, was recently updated by the modern student movement to “Chileans: El Mercurio still lies.”

The documentary explains how, in 1970, shortly after Salvador Allende’s election, Agustín Edwards traveled to the U.S. and met personally with U.S. President Richard Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. While there, Edwards secured U.S. government funding for a propaganda campaign against the Allende government.

Most shocking is the conglomerate’s collusion in covering up human rights abuses perpetrated by the military regime during Pinochet’s dictatorship.

By 1975, mounting international pressure and a potential U.N. visit convinced the military regime of the need to explain the disappearances of hundreds of opposition party members. The media was its tool of choice.

La Segunda, a part of the El Mercurio media group, ran the infamous  headline “Exterminados como ratones,” (“Killed like rats,”) falsely claimed in-fighting among leftist groups was responsible for the deaths of people who had in fact were disappeared by the regime’s military police.

The students’ thesis research on El Mercurio has now been published by the Universidad de Chile.

While there has been no official recognition by El Mercurio of their complicity in the dictatorship’s abuses, some of the documentary’s most striking scenes arise from the student investigator’s attempts to question former staff such as former company director Arturo Fontaine, who led the group from the late 60s to early 80s.

In one scene, Fontaine appears relaxed as he answers questions about the origin of the newspaper’s nickname when a question on his knowledge of the military regime’s human rights abuses takes him by surprise causing him to abandon the interview, colliding with a microphone stand in his haste to escape.

newspaperFear of provoking debate

Following its release in 2008, “El Diario de Agustín” was featured in numerous film festivals and won Best Latin-American Documentary at Atlantidoc in Uruguay.

Since then it has been shown widely around the Spanish-speaking world, making its absence from television screens in Chile notable.

In 2010, TVN bought the rights in a contract that committed them to show the documentary three times in as many years.

Two years later, with no screening in sight, the filmmakers began to ask questions.

Then, a showing at midnight on Nov. 23, 2012 was announced, only to be cancelled at the last minute.

In January 2013, TVN claimed that the film would be shown in an upcoming documentary series, only for the program to be announced with “El Diario de Agustín” conspicuously absent.

A public spat between Villagrán and the channel’s director, Mauro Valdés, culminated in the former accusing the TVN boss of being “scared” of Agustín Edwards in an interview with The Clinic in December 2012. The television company chose to break the contract citing the application of “unacceptable public pressure” on the part of Villagrán according to local press.

At first, Valdés’ apparent reluctance to screen the film seems puzzling. Chile has a free press and, although shocking, the film’s subject matter has already been published in various academic research projects and is widely available on the Internet.

Villagrán sees the problem as one of self-censorship emanating from a fear of upsetting the established powers or provoking debate.

“It is still a guide for the political class. Politicians are scared of entering into conflicts with El Mercurio because its vast media power means that they could be punished. They feel that if they are not in El Mercurio they could lose their political career,” Villagrán said.

On Monday, award-winning journalist Faride Zerán expressed similar sentiments during a debate entitled “Why El Diario de Agustín won’t be shown on Chilean television.”

“It is not because the right have such great tentacles of power that they can silence citizens,” Zerán said. “It’s that bureaucrats and politicians look after their jobs, their relationships and their networks, and they don’t want to upset the powers that be.”

Then and now: The state of independent media during the dictatorship and under democracy

A strange paradox in Chilean media is the contrast between the thriving alternative scene that, despite censorship and intimidation by security forces, proliferated in the late-1980s and the comparatively low number of independent publications today.

Villagrán is unequivocal about the limits of Chilean media today, saying that key issues are often neglected by the homogenous and conservative mainstream.

“It is not exaggerating to say that for a time during the dictatorship there was more diversity in the press than we have today in democracy. This speaks very badly of Chilean democracy,” Villagrán said.

While Chile enjoys freedom from government intervention in the press, structural factors limit diversity of opinion according to independent watchdog Freedom House.

In May 2012, Freedom House cited the print duopoly and its “stifling” effect on independent print media as a factor in their downgrading of Chile’s press status from “free” to “partly free.”

El Mercurio’s and Copesa’s domination means that the editorial positions of the vast majority of Chile’s media are considered right-wing and center-right respectively.

What caused the collapse?

The mainstream narrative of the collapse of the independent media sector is that it was a simple consequence of the market — the alternative publications simply could not compete and so they failed.

A former manager of the iconic anti-Pinochet magazine APSI, Villagrán says this narrative is belied by the collapse of La Tercera and El Mercurio in the 1980s, only for them to be rescued by the government.

“They are here now because the state saved them. They were rescued while the publications that didn’t support the dictatorship were suppressed and harassed,” Villagrán said.

Freedom House currently suggests that structural issues curtail the potential of new publications starting up.

“Media groups are tied to financial and advertising interests, and control distribution channels throughout the country, creating high barriers to entry for new publications,” reads the watchdog’s report.

Villagrán sees distribution of advertising as a key factor in the collapse of many alternative publications in the 1990s.

“Not just private companies, but even the supposedly democratic government distributed the majority of advertising to large media chains, without considering sales numbers,” Villagrán said.

“El Diario de Agustín” will be shown at Arte Normandie cinema, Santiago from April 23 to 28 2013.

By Sam Edwards (
Copyright 2013 – The Santiago Times”


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