ForeignPolicy

Media War Heats Up Around El Salvador's Elections

Big media power presents a major obstacle to the Salvadorean left, but the digital age has also provided them with new means to fight back.

No one in this tiny country of 6 million understands the new ways of waging political war in the media age better than Mauricio Funes. A former journalist, he is the first candidate of the opposition Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) with a real possibility of winning the presidency (most recent polls show him with a 5-11 point lead.

As a result of their success, Funes and the FMLN also find themselves the targets of what many local and international media analysts concur is the fiercest, most expensive and dirtiest media campaign in Salvadoran history.

At a recent press conference in a posh hotel, Funes was surrounded by a small army of black-suited young media professionals who had replaced many of the older, former guerrillero cadres that managed previous FMLN presidential campaigns. Funes defended against attacks from his primary adversaries-El Salvador’s largest and oldest media outlets.

“Their dirty campaign will backfire,” said Funes. His media operatives backed up his statements by showing a slide show detailing what they call the “Government-Party in government-News Media” continuum that opposes the FMLN and a booklet titled “Record of a Dirty Campaign.” FMLN operatives also distributed a video containing more than a dozen examples of news reports they believe reflect the “bias and extremism” of the mainstream Salvadoran media: television news reports of “possible” FMLN involvement in the distribution of M-16’s to the Mara 18 gang in prison; reports in major newspapers of Funes and the FMLN dissolving the armed forces in the event of a victory in Sunday’s elections; news reports that the Obama Administration “may deny legal status” to Salvadorans living in the United States if the FMLN wins.

Once engaged in a guerilla war against the big agrarian interests defended by the Salvadoran military, the FMLN now finds itself fighting a war of words against big financial interests represented by the right wing ARENA party and its candidate, Rodrigo Avila. Those interests, domestic and foreign observers say, are defended by the country’s most powerful media outlets.

A report released last January by the more than 30 members of the Election Observer Mission of the European Union (EU) appeared to confirm the very political role of El Salvador’s news media. The report found “disproportionate disequilibrium in the amount of time or space assigned to the parties” in 11 of the 15 news media in monitored. Without naming the ARENA party, said Luis Yáñez-Barnuevo, the Spaniard in charge of the EU mission, “We are concerned that there exists in the campaign a very notorious disequilibrium in the support of the news media and the State towards one of the two candidates.”

For her part, Alexandra Bonilla, a reporter with La Prensa Grafica, one of El Salvador’s oldest newspapers, deflects criticism against outlets like hers. “These reports are unfair” said Bonilla, who reports on the media. “The larger media here are owned by conservative interests, but we do try to uphold professional standards in our election coverage. We give equal time and coverage to both parties.”

While the concentration of big media power may present a major obstacle to Funes and the FMLN, the digital age has also provided the left with new means to take power. This year’s elections marked the first time internet-based independent media have played a serious role in the elections. Political blogging on all sides of the political spectrum has started taking hold in El Salvador. Internet news sites like El Faro, ContraPunto and Raices are among the most popular sites of their kind in the country and have seen exponential increases in traffic because of the intense interest in this year’s elections.

“Internet news sites are still an incipient political medium” said Juan Jose Dalton, founder and editor of ContraPunto. “But they are already a major force because of the demand for fast news, professional reporting and alternatives to the very compromised official list media” declared Dalton, who is the son of Roque Dalton, El Salvador’s revered revolutionary poet and writer. “We bring a vision, a political space that has not existed for most of our history.”

One anonymous young, bespectacled blogger interviewed for this story said that he thought that the ability of alternative media to compete with his country’s big media is, in no small part, rooted in the culture of political anonymity created by the successive strings of oligarchs and military dictatorships that dominated the country for more than 150 years. “Blogs and other alternative media give us a way to participate anonymously," he said. "We’re watching an explosion of new voices and new ways to express ourselves.”

At the Funes news conference, the young blogger had his hands full with the camera he used for blogging and the tape recorder he used in his day job: journalist at a magazine. “In a country where saying publicly that you supported the FMLN could get you killed, alternative media offers the best alternative to the multi-million dollar campaigns of the right,” he said. “The media itself has become a field of battle-and we’re going to win!”

Roberto Lovato, a frequent Nation contributor, is a New York-based writer with New America Media.
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