Out of a wide array of events and issues that concern the Peruvian civil society, only a few tend to reach the public sphere, albeit pervasively. The process of news production involves constant interaction of political actors that will attempt to set their dominant viewpoints across major news channels. Yet, when these same players exclude or invisibilize opinions opposed to their interests, it becomes unclear for news audiences who to trust in their information consumption. With the unfolding political turmoil that envelopes the country, new online media offerings seem to be creating alternatives for news consumers, who want to keep up to date about ongoing developments in a more pluralistic manner.
The rise of alternative: The failure to provide a full-frame of events
In a democratic society, any institution that intervenes in news production holds an important responsibility in shaping public opinion. For a country that once held the world’s worst death rate for COVID-19 per capita and carries the burden of a history of political tensions between its executive and legislative branches, breaking news about governmental decision-making must constantly be reported. The COVID-19 pandemic, the proliferating political instability in the country, and national protests have put into test the media’s traditional functions to help maintain civic processes. Such major events have notoriously served as critical junctures disrupting the Peruvian media landscape.
Despite the clear interplay between news media and the Peruvian civil society, spiraling tensions between the two have arisen. Lack of media plurality, ideological tensions and impartiality are arguably at the core of these issues. In a scenario where privately-owned media corporations hold sway, the distribution of partialized news becomes rather dubious. What is curious, however, is how certain developments have taken shape as a consequence: the appearance of alternative news media outlets from high-quality journalists who are unconformed with the journalistic practices of major news media outlets, and the civil society which uses social media channels to mobilize on sociopolitical issues concerning them.
Social media as a novel tool for political agency
In a country where over 80% of its population has been found to be a social media user by January 2021, it is hardly startling how social media has consolidated its position as the most popular means to access news information. Followed by TV (63%) and print media (28%), social network sites (70%) are now the primary medium for news recipients on a daily basis.
Out of 33.1 million people, Internet penetration in Peru remains at 68% of its total population, where the online news experience has gained relevance, albeit certain rural regions continue to rely instead on local and rural radio stations. As seen in the November 2020 protests, social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram are now more adopted for their channel functions, providing an online space for citizens to voice out their political concerns, coordinate citizen mobilization efforts, and provide relevant information or raise awareness. Major platforms like Facebook and Instagram here take the lead as channels to vociferate such opinions.
Words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are paradoxically also part of their vocabulary.
After several crises and most concerningly its remnants, online political discussion has established itself as part of everyday life for citizens, where the need for immediate attention to these events spirals the country into further uncertainty. Live streams and citizen-managed accounts for political opinion are some forms of social media activism that have surged amidst this turbulence. With the increase of fake news, however, the search for reliable information in social media like Facebook and Twitter has rather been hardened, fuelling a hostile and intolerant environment for online news users. Words like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are paradoxically also part of their vocabulary.
The issue of media pluralism deficit
Only in the past year, some break-even points in the industry have left unexposed the preferences of some editorial boards, incongruent with the journalistic values of a group of Peruvian journalists. During the second round of the 2021 Peruvian presidential elections, several employees from major news television outlets either presented resignations or were promptly replaced – as seen with the emblematic dismissal of former news director of América TV and Canal N, Clara Elvira Ospina, after she held a meeting with the presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori. While TV news programmes with major audience reach like Cuarto Poder have been discredited, small online news initiatives (such as Salvese Quien Pueda and Epicentro) continue to blossom in their niche YouTube channels as alternatives.
The digitization of newspapers and provision of news in digital versions has only meant that major key players of Peruvian traditional newspapers continue to thrive in terms of online readership.
With over 5 600 radio stations, 1 800 TV channels and over 1 000 newspapers operating in the country, a media pluralism deficit in Peru is still seemingly prevalent. A great share of media outlets is currently under the control of ownership by Grupo El Comercio – holding 78% of the market readership and estimates of 65% of the total online news media audience. The digitization of newspapers and provision of news in digital versions has only meant that major key players of Peruvian traditional newspapers continue to thrive in terms of online readership. Arguably, high media ownership concentration and the lack of transparency about it only seem to worsen the problem, as denounced by organizations like Reports Without Borders (RSF).
Naturally, what further raises alarm is how private media coverage can willfully display an open bias in favour of a preferred political party or candidate – or rather unfavourable to one that concerns them. As certified by the Final Report of the European Union Election Expert Mission, the 2021 elections exemplified how one-sided news coverage “undermined the right of voters to receive balanced information”. A polarized media environment dividing the country at this point is inevitable.
Alternative news media’s success may not be ever-expanding
Journalist Marco Sifuentes from newscast ‘La Encerrona’ reflects on the relative success of alternative news media. Contrarily, Sifuentes expresses his concern as to how this provides light into a deeper issue menacing the Peruvian news media landscape: “Alternative media should not really exist. It speaks very badly of traditional media the fact that we exist. It speaks of the failure of the business model, and concept of journalism that [Peruvian] traditional media currently hold”.
Sifuentes is not the only journalist sharing a cynical sentiment. Despite reaping the benefits of a greater budget and wide news reach, the failure of traditional media to accurately inform the public has become evident not only for those working in the industry. This deficiency has rather been pervasive in the public realm. Nevertheless, as much as new initiatives are being received favourably as substitutes of major news media, financing has been putting in jeopardy such journalistic efforts. Small news media producers – whether hosting news in YouTube channels or Twitter – are ultimately economic players that rely on financing to survive in a competitive market, where one of their most prevalent challenges is that selling news tends to be unprofitable.
Counting with alternatives remains insufficient
In Peru, traditional media institutions – the utmost pillars safeguarding freedom of speech and press – have arguably floundered. As mentioned by journalist Cesar Hildebrandt in an interview with Rebeca Diz, “the press has become part of power, not in counter position to it”. With various news media outlets failing in their information functions, institutions like traditional media must currently recover from this backlash against their discredited news coverage – where possibly reform is rather necessary. It is important to remember that at all costs, objectivity must prevail as much as possible in a democratic society, as it allows news media to cover political events with accuracy, fairness and independence. Whether action is taken or not, one could argue that traditional media could enter a zero sum gain, where the loss of their audiences could be the gain for alternative ones.
Cover: Andrea Valdivia
Edited by: Yili Char