Report to the Midyear Meeting

Bridgetown, Barbados

April 4 – 7, 2014

Congress in late 2013 passed a media bill to regulate the legal statute, the functioning and the content of audiovisual media, but to date it has not been debated by the Senate. The bill approved in the lower house only on the votes of the governing Frente Amplio party, contains regulations restrictive for the exercise of freedom of expression.

In both houses the Frente Amplio has an absolute majority that enables it to make decisions of its own will. It has been announced from the Executive Branch that there will be proposed changes to the bill when it begins to be considered in the Senate and there will be insistence on the creation of an Audiovisual Communications Council (CCA), as envisioned in the initial initiative submitted by President José Mujica.

In the new version of the proposed Audiovisual Communication Law the same bill sponsors introduced changes during the debate in Congress to avoid a possible denunciation of unconstitutionality, making the CCA disappear, transferring to the Communication Services Regulatory Agency (URSEC), a technical body, power to control content of audiovisual media, detect non-compliance, apply sanctions and recommend cancellation of frequencies or fines. That body is already created and functioning, with which the constitutional obstacle of generation of charges is avoided, but it maintains the inconvenience of being headed by people directly appointed by the government.

President Mujica criticized that decision and announced the sending of a proposal that would leave in the hands of the judiciary the application of serious and very serious sanctions.

From the opposition there was again the warning of "mistrust" that is awakened by the political decision to insist on a law of this nature in the midst of an election year, at the same time as there was launched – unanimously – harsh criticism of its content.

Other relevant developments in this period were:

On November 28, 2013 President Mujica declared in Fray Bentos city (located on the Uruguay River 150 miles from Montevideo) that the media law which his government is promoting will be "a monstrosity" that will "become a memory" in the short term, given the increase of digital television.

Mujica said that it will be the very fiber optic currently installed by the government that will make the said law obsolete.

On December 17 Congress amended the Access to Public Information law and introduced new limits which were voted on in the Senate, also by the opposition National Party. Government party Senator and President Mujica's wife Lucía Topolansky was the promoter of these changes to the law, although she clarified that the government's intention "is not to restrict access to information."

Topolansky said, "We wonder if society has the sufficient maturity and knowledge" to handle this law. With these changes the hierarchies will be able "exceptionally" to classify information as confidential when they receive a request for access, even though those data previously were not. In addition, public entities will be able to refuse information that forms part of a decision-making, request for bids or control process.

Topolansky had questioned the use the press makes of the Access to Public Information law when it was learned of the high number of repetitions of grade figures in high school. She said that the supplement "Qué Pasa" (What's Happening) of the newspaper El País makes "generous" use of the law on access to public information to make "cheap playing at politics."

The newspaper submitted a petition to the courts to obtain the statistics, following the refusal of the education authorities. Finally the courts provided access to that information.

On February 24 a court in Mercedes city (170 miles west of Montevideo) called in five journalists with the Agesor news agency to testify in a case of sexual abuse at a military encampment in November 2013. The journalists were called on to identify their source. Two days later Agesor declared that the judge had pointed out that the call to testify "was not an action that sought to restrict press freedom." The journalists had exercised a right to secrecy in their profession and international standards on press freedom.

On March 17 Senator Constanza Moreira, a pre-candidate for the presidency in internal elections planned for June by the Frente Amplio party, declared that there should be a law allowing the media to be intervened so as to check the veracity of what they report and so that there is not disseminated "sexist, racist or homophobic" content.

On March 18 at the request of the defense of retired members of the military and police force a criminal court judge relieved journalist Roger Rodríguez of professional secrecy and asked him to identify a source within the framework of an investigation into the murder of María Claudia García de Gelman. He refused to identify his informant and the judge did not insist on the matter.