The Press and Politics in Peru in the Post-Truth Era

Written by Jessica Retis, Ph.D. Professor. Director, Master's in Bilingual Journalism; University of Arizona

The Press and Politics in Peru in the Post-Truth Era

The University of Arizona

In the mid-2010s, the Oxford English Dictionary and the Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española created new entries for “post-truth” and “posverdad.” The former dictionary selected it as the word of the year, while the latter defined it as “a deliberate distortion of reality that manipulates beliefs and emotions with the goal of influencing public opinion and social attitudes.” Peru has been called “the post-truth country” to explain why, in addition to political and economic crises, there has seemingly been established a cynical culture in which some knowingly lie while others know they are lying, like some sort of nebulous board game. The rules are tacit, and anyone who decides not to follow them is kicked out of the game. In Mecanismos de la postverdad, Jacqueline Fowks studies how disinformation based on prejudice and emotion is spread through the press and social media in countries such as Peru, Colombia, Chile, and Mexico. These Latin American realities are no different from what has been happening in the Global North. In fact, Oxford observed a spike in the use of the word in the wake of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the 2016 U.S. presidential election and consequently decided to add it to the dictionary. Post-truth is here to stay.

In schools of journalism we engage in critical discussion of disinformation (false information created deliberately with a concrete objective), misinformation (information that turns out to be false but is not created intentionally), and malinformation (information based on reality, but used deliberately to harm). We also analyze the danger of failing to adequately decipher them in an era of “information disorder.” Faced with an increasing number of risky situations, media organizations and journalists have responded by creating international networks providing fact-checking tools, such as factcheck.org, the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), and, in Latin America, Chequeado and resources offered by the Fundación Gabo, to name only a few. In February 2021, the Consejo de la Prensa Peruana launched PeruCheck in collaboration with the Instituto Internacional para la Democracia y Asistencia Electoral (IDEA Internacional) and Verificador de la República, a verification organization that is part of the IFCN. This alliance of collaborative journalism aimed to counteract any disinformation that might appear during the presidential election process. At the same time, the Oficina Nacional de Procesos Electorales (ONPE) and the Jurado Nacional de Elecciones (JNE) launched a social media campaign to combat fake news and clarify information for Peruvians. But counteracting fake news in a post-truth country is quite the challenge.

In addition to understanding the sociopolitical situation, it is necessary to discuss the historical context and political economy of the media and information. Previous studies have analyzed the ties that have historically existed between the Latin American press and political and economic elites. Others discussions have debated the dangers of the concentration of media ownership in a region where there are ever more outlets appearing, with ever fewer owners. In the case of Peru, since its earliest origins, print media has been dominated by groups and families who have dictated the flow of information. A 2016 research project sought to identify the “proprietors of the news” and examine how the ability of provide information is concentrated in a few hands. A recent mapping out of the digitalization of Peruvian media pointed out how the centralization of so much of what happens in the country determines the place from which norms and topics are written and proposed. As Mastrini and Becerra have argued, the concentration of information and communication in Latin America has been taken to a new level in recent years. These commercial synergies of conglomeration were accompanied by the substantial modification of regulations by the governments of the region. The concentration of media ownership in an era of post-truth is a challenge for contemporary democracies, and this is exactly what it has been for Peru during this year’s presidential election and its aftermath.

The first round of Peru’s elections took place on April 11, 2021, and the second round on June 6. But even before the first rallies, the mechanisms of post-truth had been in full swing. Then-president Martín Vizcarra (who had assumed power in the wake of the resignation of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski following impeachment) announced in a July 28, 2019 address that he would propose a constitutional reform allowing him to hold the 2021 elections early, but this proposal was rejected. Then, in October and November of 2020, Vizcarra was subjected to impeachment proceedings for a second time, based on alleged corruption during his term as governor of Moquegua. In his defense, Vizcarra complained that dozens of legislators were the subject of ongoing corruption cases and asked them if they would resign. The tumultuous debate ended with 105 of the 130 legislators declaring him morally unfit to govern. On November 10, Manuel Merino, president of Congress, was sworn in as president of Peru.

Frustrated with these events, various groups of people and organizations took to the streets to protest with slogans like “Merino does not represent me,” or “Merino is not my President,” in a series of marches in Lima and throughout the country. The youth took a leading role with slogans like “You messed with the wrong generation.” They used “alternative” sources of information such as WhatsApp, Instagram, and TikTok, since they viewed – and still view – the mainstream media with suspicion; after all, the media had initially ignored the demonstrations and later focused their attention on social conflict, a common tendency among mainstream outlets when reporting on youth movements. The police repressed the protests with pellets, rubber bullets, and tear gas, and numerous reports appeared of injured protesters and reporters covering the demonstrations. Brian Pintado (22) and Inti Sotelo (24) died from multiple serious wounds made by police projectiles and weapons. The Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos del Perú demanded justice for those killed and wounded in one of the bloodiest events that took place under contemporary Peruvian democracy. In the face of these protests, Congress found itself forced to make a deal, and Francisco Sagasti was elected to the presidency on a provisional basis to call elections.

The election featured no fewer than 18 candidates, of whom the most notable were former president Ollanta Humala and Keiko Fujimori, daughter of the imprisoned former president Alberto Fujimori. The long list of aspirants reflected Peru’s deep polarization and enduring political rivalries. The results of the first round brought to the fore realities already evident in other Latin American countries: the cleavages and radicalism that characterized both right and the left. In Peru, classism and racism also played a role. On April 11, Fujimori and Pedro Castillo, a previously little-known leftist schoolteacher, achieved 18.9% and 13.4% of the first-round vote, enough to send them to the June 6 runoff. Their respective right and left positions, diametrically opposed on the political continuum, produced a series of confrontations in public debate. After the second round, Castillo was declared the winner by a margin of 50.125% to 49.875%. The ONPE released the results after Fujimori attempted to discredit the vote through numerous baseless accusations of fraud, and Castillo was eventually officially declared the victor, after a one-month delay. Throughout, the mechanisms of post-truth were in full swing, with disinformation based on prejudice and emotion widely disseminated through public and private social media. The rancor and fears on both sides of the political spectrum blurred the lines of electoral democracy, and ideological confrontations played out in the streets, television news programs, and WhatsApp groups. The mainstream press also suffered the consequences of the political confrontation, information chaos, and widespread hoaxes.

As the Asociación Nacional de Periodistas del Perú (ANP) pointed out, the climate of uncertainty surrounding the election affected press workers in a variety of ways. La Hora’s Davies Soto was injured while covering a march in support of Castillo. Jacqueline Fowks of El País received death threats from supporters of Fujimori. Abel Robles (STV Noticias) was fired due to his criticism of Fujimori. And Stefanie Medina and Carlos Brown of Canal N were physically attacked by Castillo supporters. Reporters, directors, editors, and managers alike also faced disconcerting situations in the newsroom. After two producers were fired from América TV and Canal N, a group of journalists resigned, alleging violations of fair journalistic practices by their superiors. Shortly after stating that under her leadership América TV and Canal N’s coverage would be impartial, Colombian journalist Clara Elvira Ospina was replaced by Gilberto Hume. In the wake of her dismissal, journalists from América TV’s Cuarto Poder sent a letter to the network’s director protesting the move and expressing concern about the consequences it could have for the news program’s credibility. The Ethics Tribunal of the Consejo de la Prensa Peruana (CPP) released a statement agreeing that the networks had in fact violated the standards of the profession and that their coverage of the candidates had lacked impartiality.

All these events have added new dimensions to existing trends in the Peruvian media over the last decade. In a current study of the media landscape and conditions for Peruvian journalists, we point out the over-centralization of the production of information in Lima and how difficult it is to highlight the existence and representativity of regional and local media. The study is part of an international project organized by Worlds of Journalism that will contribute an analysis of the Peruvian case to this global study.

In addition, in the context of the election, various digital media outlets collaborated on a unified project called “La Liga Electoral.” Many of these platforms have been boosted by or received the collaboration of journalists for mainstream outlets that were fired or resigned over issues of censorship. Through a variety of digital platforms and social media networks they have staked a progressive place for themselves in the Peruvian media landscape, using innovative funding mechanisms and attracting a growing audience. Some of these outlets, such as Ojo Público, Convoca, and IDL Reporteros, were a few years old, while others, such as La Encerrona, Sálvese Quien Pueda, El Diario de Curwen, La Mula, Sudaca, Inty Noticias, and, more recently, Epicentro, have appeared in the context of the pandemic and the crisis of the mainstream media. These journalistic initiatives have been producing news in an era of audience hyper-fragmentation. In addition, many of them participate in collaborative news projects with media from other Latin American countries.

In contrast to the United States, where the media openly endorse candidates, in Peru journalistic objectivity is expected, and the standards of the profession demand that journalists remain impartial. Nonetheless, over the last few decades, both the sociopolitical context and productive synergies of the media have demonstrated that media corporations can exercise significant influence over the editorial lines taken by their outlets, as demonstrated during the recent wave of protests. This concerning situation has continued since Castillo took office. On the one hand the mainstream press characterized Castillo’s election as unacceptable, a low blow, chaos, or a bomb; on the other, they complained that the president-elect was limiting their access.

As Marco Avilés states, like other Latin American countries, Peru is structurally racist, with a colonial historical legacy that privileges a well-off economic elite centered in Lima and other major cities. As Marco Lovón explains, the 2021 election for the first time employed racism as a strategy to disqualify the rural vote. In a country that still suffers from vast social inequality, the pandemic has only exacerbated matters. As Lorena Alcázar argues, although Perú achieved many of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals even before the 2015 deadline, persistent inequality continues to be reflected in social indicators, particularly among traditionally marginalized groups such as women, Indigenous people, and Afro-Peruvians. The future is uncertain, and its outcome will depend on economic and political synergies at the national, regional, and global level. The Peruvian media, with all its problems and potential, will help write the history of what is to come.

Translated from Spanish by Bryan Pitts. 

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The opinions expressed in this blog post represent the views of the author and not of the UCLA Latin American Institute.


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