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In El Salvador, a Reminder of the Importance of Public Media

by Bart Weiss 17 May 2013 4:48 PM

Guest blogger Bart Weiss writes that a trip to the Central American country for the annual Input Conference was a reminder of the role a free press serves.


Guest blogger Bart Weiss is the artistic director of VideoFest and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

I was recently in El Salvador, where I had an eye-opening look at another country’s media and gained a new appreciation for our system.

El Salvador is run by drug cartels/gangs. In addition to the politicians, both left and right, the cartels run the newspapers and commercial TV stations. And there is lots of crime here. So I learned not to trust anything I saw in the paper (It was in Spanish anyway).

Unfortunately, this sounds like many places in the world. But there’s one big difference. The Internet is virtually non-existent. Only 12 percent have any Internet service, and just 7 percent have cable TV. There is an alternative (i.e., non-cartel owned) newspaper. But it’s only online, which in this country isn’t very helpful.

All of this means there’s no smart phone culture in El Salvador. The Arab Spring couldn’t happen there.

In a place like this, a truly independent public broadcasting network would be really important. Indeed, that was the talk of the Input Conference, which brought me to the country in the first place.

But as I spoke to people, I got the real picture. Two guys I talked to have worked for an local station and were pretty much told to put in more pro-government programs. They wanted to produce programs about what was really happening and were told they soon could. But soon turned into a few years and they left out of frustration.

I found out there are actually many independent filmmakers in El Salvador, but none were included in the program and none were present at this conference, which was really odd. In the many Inputs I have been to, there has always been a major presence from local makers.

Sometimes it is important for us to stop and think how great it is that we have independent media and Internet service. If anything, we get too much media and media from all sides. But for people to be free, we need to know what is happening. Be glad you’ve got all the film and video you do.