The Defender

By Suzana Singer


I needed to go to Los Angeles to the international meeting of ombudsmen to learn about an initiative by a neighboring country that could be useful in the debate about the media in Brazil.

Six months ago, the first “defender of the public with audiovisual media” was appointed in Argentina. It is a type of ombudsman, chosen by Congress and charged with directing demands from viewers and listeners.

The defender has no power to fine or punish broadcasters who are the targets of complaints; she only tries to mediate a solution. Journalist Cynthia Ottaviano, the first appointed, said that there was built-up demand, since she has already registered 187 issues.

It’s possible to direct complaints by letter, email, or personally, in public meetings promoted in different provinces. The first meeting, held in April in Chaco, brought together 320 people.

Cynthia, 40, told about a story involving children who were mistreated in a private school. Suspecting that something was wrong, one of the fathers put an iPad in his daughter’s backpack and managed to record the teacher being verbally abusive with the girl. It became a huge scandal.

A TV channel reported the story but illustrated it with images from its archive, of just any school. It also showed the photo of a teacher who had the same name as the one who was accused, but who had nothing to do with the case. Activated, the defender managed to get the TV station to read a correction, repeated as many times as the image of the teacher was shown on the air.

Near the border with Bolivia, a group of residents contacted the defender because they wanted the attention of the press to complain about environmental contamination in the region. With the help of the ombudsman, the topic was reported by public radio in Buenos Aires.

The defender doesn’t only deal with complaints about the news. Entertainment programs and advertising also are part of her scope. One complaint said that an advertisement for a beverage promoted suicide. The ad showed a building in flames, with fire fighters trying to persuade a boy to jump. He takes a couple gulps of a soft drink and jumps, floating happily.

Cynthia contacted the advertising agency responsible for the ad and concluded that they didn’t do anything wrong. This time, the public was not right.

Other targets of complaints are programs which disseminate prejudicial images of women and gays, the end of educational programming on public channels, and the lack of translation into sign language.

The defender of the public position is called for in the controversial media law, approved in 2009, but it took three years until the job was filled. The defender’s team has 40 people, including journalists, anthropologists and lawyers. The money which sustains the initiative comes from taxes levied on radio and TV broadcasters. The defender reports on her work to Congress, not the executive branch.

Cynthia said that her appointment was practically ignored by the big news organizations in Argentina, who are battling with the administration of President Cristina Kirchner but tells that she managed to direct, successfully, a demand referring to the “Clarín” news organization.

The crux of the media law in Argentina, which is anti-monopolistic in character, was debated thoroughly in Brazil. Folha, along with many of the big news organizations, harshly criticized the government’s attempt to silence the biggest newspaper in the country. “Following, with equal or greater audacity than what has been done by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, the Argentine government utilizes economic and legislative measures for an objective which, in its essence, is the same: suffocate any kind of criticism,” an editorial in the newspaper said last November.

It’s just that the media law is not just this. There are 166 articles and at least one of them, which creates the defender, should be observed.

Here in Brazil, the debate about regulation of the media got slowed down because the proposals presented are accustomed to including a subtext of censorship which causes, with good reason, goose bumps at the big news organizations. These, however, don’t manage to suggest ways which guarantee a greater degree of transparency and give an accounting to the public.

In Brazil, only Folha, the newspaper “O Povo” in Fortaleza, and EBC (TV Brasil) have ombudsmen. All the other newspapers and magazines are content with a section for letters from readers and another for corrections. TV and radio stations don’t even have this.

(Translated by John Wright.)

This column was originally published in Folha on 27 May 2013.

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