Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 314 | Septiembre 2007


Costa Rica

Media Positions on the CAFTA Referéndum

Will Central America’s Free Trade Agreement with the United States get thumbs up or down in Costa Rica’s upcoming referendum? In anticipation of the results, the country’s mass media have revealed their true colors when it comes to presenting issues critical to the nation’s future: plenty of rhetoric, little hard information and virtually no dialogue or debate. At a time, when discussion of our economic and political future should be center stage, we’ve felt and resented our cultural backwardness first hand.

Carlos Sandoval García

The first referendum in Costa Rica’s history will be held on October 7 to decide whether or not to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), already ratified by the other Central American parliaments with no such vote by the people. This is one of the few moments in this country in which politics has relegated soccer to the sidelines.

CAFTA has triggered a wide-ranging debate over the style of development that Costa Rica could or should have after 25 years of institutional changes that have liberalized trade and transformed many state institutions. What is at stake, in synthesis, is how far to expand trade, lower import barriers and concentrate ownership of knowledge. If at least 40% of registered voters turn out, the result will be binding.

In the past three months, both traditional and nontraditional means of communication have been used to debate this issue. Those favoring a “Yes” vote have invested around US$2 million in mass media publicity, while those favoring a “No” have turned more to Internet, academic debates and community meetings. So given such obviously unequal resources, why do all polls show the “Yes” vote leading by just seven or eight points?

Institutional modernization,
deological conservatism

Costa Rican society experienced far-reaching institutional changes in the 1940s and 1950s, including the establishment of public health, insurance, electricity, telecommunications and higher education systems that provided a good sector of the population access to better living conditions. The institutions established, which amount to a welfare state, were accompanied by a political system that for the better part of the second half of the 20th century consolidated a legitimated electoral system for choosing our rulers.

This consolidation of the institutions and the political system was not matched by a similar impetus in cultural politics from those institutions that develop or support the production of cultural images, discourses and practices, including the media. This uneven development is a Costa Rican paradox that has received too little attention.

The principal consequence is a not very inclusive public sphere with chronic difficulties in debating and recognizing the different interests that lead people to have different points of view. As a society, we have great difficulty making our disagreements explicit. We’re just not accustomed to recognizing that there could be other viewpoints, that no one has a monopoly on knowledge, as shown by the current debate about CAFTA.

With very skimpy participation

During the 1950s, for example, the National Liberation Party tried to get television to become part of the University of Costa Rica, hoping to give it a public and autonomous identity rather than a state or official one. Even a UNESCO report requested by the government of José Figueres recommended the idea. Nonetheless, the initiative didn’t prosper and the Supreme Court, in a decision that would have far-reaching implications, ruled that television frequencies must remain in private hands. The National Radio and Television System was inaugurated 30 years ago, and most would agree that it has never successfully legitimized itself, unlike institutions such as the Electricity Institute, the University of Costa Rica, or the Social Security System.

In 1999, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) published a study called “Civic audit of the quality of democracy,” which examined citizens’ opinions about various national institutions. The greatest levels of disagreement were found in opinions on the media. Among the most suggestive and perhaps least explored data was the citizenry’s estimation of its own participation in the media. The study shows almost no opportunities for people to intervene in the media: the space for public participation is just 3.9% in the print media; 1.7% in television; and 1% in radio. The report concludes that “the media are unelected representatives of the citizenry.”

More juicy incidents, less CAFTA

In 2004, Costa Rica’s highest rated news program, Telenoticias, dedicated more time in its 7 pm prime time slot to reporting local incidents than informing about the CAFTA negotiations during the very week the governments of Central America and the Dominican Republic signed the trade agreement—there’s a lot of doubt about the “free” part—in Washington. Thus, independent of the fact that there was more reporting in favor of CAFTA than against it, it was considered less relevant than items on the police blotter—and forget any airing of opinions about it.

In sum, Costa Rica advanced more on economic and political issues in the 20th century than on cultural ones, making it hard for us to debate our country’s economic and political future.

Many channels, little choice

As in many other societies, television is Costa Rica’s main information medium and that has implications in the forming of opinions around CAFTA. A household survey of 2,042 people for the UNDP’s 2005 Human Development Report estimates that 58% of the population is informed by television, 29% by the press and 13% by radio. REPRETEL and Televisora de Costa Rica, the main TV channels, account for 47.4% and 43.8% of the preferences, respectively.

A surprising 40% of the population doesn’t read newspapers, but of the 60% that does, 25% reads Extra, a sensationalist newspaper, and 24% La Nación, the main informative newspaper. Next is Al Día and last is La República. Although the Nación readership has qualitative weight, most people don’t inform themselves through the press, particularly La Nación, on a daily basis. We thus need to avoid any over-simplistic image of the media and their reception.

The further we move from the Central Valley, the more people read Extra rather than La Nación. Likewise, the higher a person’s education level, the more likely he or she is to read La Nación rather than Extra. One conclusion that can be drawn from these data is that Extra has caught up with La Nación’s circulation rate, despite being half its age.

In the case of radio, preferences are distributed among all the stations, although those that program a lot of music in Spanish tend to have a larger audience.

A “Yes” vote predominates
in the media messages

The “Yes” vote predominates in the media, but this isn’t a political party initiative. Rather, most media have articulated and publicized the positive messages about CAFTA in both editorials and news pieces, often construing it as synonymous with a better future, in which “future” is defined as being modern and “modern” translates into more jobs.

Television is where the “Yes” vote is most publicized. Publicity and public relations agencies are at the service of the “Yes” message, producing spots and trying to give it a news peg as often as possible. They also offer public officials talks on “how to speak in public” about CAFTA.

This should come as no great surprise given that polls in recent months have confirmed again and again that television is the main medium for learning about what’s going on. Yet an analysis of the main channels’ programming reveals virtually no debate or discussion programs. Not even the channels of the REPRETEL group or Televisora de Costa Rica have any tradition of debating and discussing current events. They occasionally offer interviews—in recent weeks, both Channels 6 and 7 have had interview sections—but even that’s the exception, and interviews are a far cry from debates. The most illustrative example is that the flashy entertainment program “7 Stars” has a larger staff than the magazine-format news show “7 Days,” both shown on Channel 7. The point isn’t to demonize show business, but to demonstrate how alien debate is to Costa Rican television. It would be interesting if people could directly question candidates in the coming elections, using YouTube, as happened in a recent experiment by the Democratic Party in the United States.

Radio is a different case. It is unarguably the medium that offers the greatest possibilities for public participation. At least in recent years numerous opinion programs have taken up residence on the AM band. Some radio programs also contribute anti-CAFTA points of view, something that exists neither on television nor in the press.

Not mentioning CAFTA
amounts to pushing a “Yes” vote

Often the absence of the issue of CAFTA on the informative agenda is as suggestive as support for the “Yes” vote, perhaps even more so. For example, the Nación group has been diversifying its media offer given that its traditional newspaper’s print run hasn’t even kept up with the population growth. Its new news daily Al Día, dominated by sports, entertainment and local incidents, has been a sales success.

Nearly a year ago the group inaugurated yet another daily newspaper called La Teja. Two features could be said to characterize this initiative: it reinforces the monopolistic tendencies in the current media offer and seeks a leading role by aiming even more explicitly than Al Día at grassroots sectors. La Teja’s daily circulation is estimated at 64,000 copies. It doesn’t come out on Sunday and is sold only on the street.

Interestingly, La Teja doesn’t even mention CAFTA as an issue during weeks in which the pages of La Nación insist on its positive aspects every day. For example, La Teja didn’t publish a word about the executive branch submitting the agreement to the Legislative Assembly for ratification. Thus CAFTA’s absence could be more significant than arguments in its favor.

This suggests that we shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming that the hegemony-seeking ideology always tries to draw all social sectors into certain theses or projects, in this case CAFTA. Ideology becomes hegemonic not only by hammering home its viewpoints, but also by blocking any viewpoint at all on the theme so that people end up as the objects rather than subjects of political activity. La Teja’s anti-politics is profoundly political.

Not surprisingly, a considerable number of people still don’t have much information or knowledge about CAFTA. The country is divided, but a good percentage of the population has been left out of the discussion. Thousands of people—generally speaking those who are economically marginalized as well—see politics as something removed, distant. There’s a certain “division of labor” here, with the grassroots sectors feeling no reason to get involved in national debate. In the kind of journalism dominated by incidents, sports and show biz, the image of society La Teja communicates is a world in which there are no institutions, people are individuals without interpersonal or social relations and life is a succession of unlinked episodes.

The center of debate
has shifted rightward

More generally speaking, it could be said that at this moment of CAFTA and the referendum, the media have moved even further right on the political spectrum. Although this isn’t exclusive to Costa Rica, it’s worth putting into perspective the thesis that opinions that would once have been considered rightwing are now presented as “common sense.”

A shift has occurred in the spectrum of opinions, regardless of whether the “yes” or “no” vote wins the day. The notion of “free trade” has ceased being a neoclassic or neoliberal position and is now a centrist one. Neoliberalism and neoconservatism have taken root as common sense and displacing them from the centrality they currently enjoy won’t be easy. The daily Extra has exploited this rightward movement.

La Nación wants to
be the nation

In a setting characterized by the weakening of political parties, some media are becoming the voices and articulators of class interests. La Nación is a case in point, because while it doesn’t have a large quantitative range of readers, it has qualitative weight as the articulator of an elite project, at times beyond party differences.

Until the Social Christian Unity Party finally consolidated itself as an expression of the opposition to the governing National Liberation Party, La Nación took on the role of linking and publicizing that opposition. José Figueres Ferrer, who was elected President after leading the 1948 revolution, once declared that the only thing he regretted as a politician was having lost control of La Nación. In recent years, corruption scandals, the weakening of the traditional parties, criticism of the bipartite system and growing inequality have undermined the parties, which in turn has allowed La Nación to again play a clear role as the mouthpiece of of a sector of the political class.

With respect to the “Yes” vote on CAFTA that it has been pushing, it is the banner of the business and corporate elites, not of any party. The National Liberation Party is split over CAFTA and it is not at all clear from what National Liberation is proposing to liberate us. And while there have always been doubts over the social and Christian nature of the Social Christian Unity Party, the question now is who and what provides it unity.

In this context, La Nación has assumed the role of interpreting a discourse on where the country should be heading, particularly pushing the notion that modernization guarantees well-being. This message is often underpinned by an anti-communist line that has taken on renewed life in these times of CAFTA. The “Yes” proponents tell us that the “Holy Trinity of Evil”—Castro, Chávez and Ortega—support the “No” vote, a view that at least in Nicaragua sparks a hearty chuckle.

Óscar Arias:
A hard-up Nobel Laureate

Óscar Arias’ decision to run for reelection as President seems to have been the result of some consensus among business elites, perhaps beyond party differences. He was seen as the figure that could crystallize the unfolding of over two decades of neoliberal policies. While Arias was at odds with La Nación in his first term, he now seems to have more agreements than disagreements with it. Arias and the media—La Nación in particular—now seem to agree on what a national project ought to look like.

If in Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, who followed Arias as President between 1998 and 2002, the elites opted for a confessed neoliberal economist with a rather stuffed-shirt style, in Abel Pacheco, who followed Rodríguez and served until last year, they chose a charismatic person they hoped could convince Costa Rican society of the utility of continuing to intensify the neoliberal policies. To some extent, the possibility of Arias running was the result of the lessons learned over these past eight years. He was seen as a kindred spirit on neoliberalism, but without Rodríguez’s distance and with a less folksy version of Pacheco’s charisma. But while the pro-CAFTA sectors saw an easier road ahead with Arias’ candidacy, the election results warned that not everybody is lined up behind the Nobel Peace Laureate.

“The citizenry’s
unelected representatives”

Now with the CAFTA referendum on the agenda, there’s a clear need for mechanisms to ensure media accountability. They have been the institutions that have most touted the concept for others, but ironically don’t apply it to themselves.

It would be worth asking if the media shouldn’t disabuse themselves of the illusion that they are a kind of universal voice that often employs the “fictitious we,” particularly in editorials. Isn’t it about time they made their viewpoints explicit? For example, why aren’t editorials signed in the Costa Rican press? Why don’t the media assume the positions they adopt like any other political actor? The media should be explicit about the mechanisms they use to legitimize their viewpoints, just as any other institution should.

The media also ought to explain how they determine their agendas. How do they decide that the first segment of Telenoticias be dedicated to incidents? How do they conclude that the “Dancing for a dream” contest show qualifies as news? As with La Teja, the important thing isn’t whether Telenoticias sides with the “Yes” vote; the issue isn’t even brought up, because even more important than taking sides is sweeping important issues under the rug.

Where the “No” vote is strongest

Returning to the initial question, why do the polls tell us that there’s a relative draw between the “Yes” and “No” votes despite the asymmetric use of the media? Of course, a possible answer is that the media aren’t the only influencing factor. A second answer is that the use of media in favor of the “No” vote has been significantly more ingenious. Stickers, text messages, blogs and garage doors turned into murals have invested the “No” vote with creativity and criticality. This has even prompted La Nación editorial writer Julio Rodríguez to publicly ask Nitoman, a pop musician from the southern port town of Golfito why he’s opposed to CAFTA if he sings in Spanglish.

Arguing, as the elites tend to do, that the “No” vote is reduced to outmoded union hacks isn’t a very original or creative move either. The “No” vote is more like a network, so the question of who’s taking the lead matters less than in other mobilizations. Issues such as defense of public institutionality, the environment and patriotism—which sometimes takes the form of reinventing Costa Rican exceptionalism—are some of the main reference points for “No” voters.

A third aspect worth highlighting is that the “No” vote has ended up imposing its agenda: the “Yes” crowd has spent the past few months responding that CAFTA doesn’t threaten the water supply, doesn’t put public health at risk, etc. The latest effort has been to try to recapture the heart, the “No” campaign’s symbol, spending millions of colons in media publicity. Apart from the employment issue, in which CAFTA has been interpreted as jobs for Costa Ricans, the “Yes” vote hasn’t been very creative in either journalistic or publicity terms.

Beyond the question of whether the heart is on the left side, an important lesson taken from the media’s role in this period could well be that we have too much rhetoric, too little information and knowledge and way too little dialogue and debate. If communication is the art of listening, the media have really shortchanged us.

Carlos Sandoval is the director of the University of Costa Rica’s Social Research Institute and the envío correspondent in Costa Rica.

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