Peru's Media Faces a Crisis Within a Crisis

With Peru's mainstream media concentrated in a few hands, citizens turn to the internet to challenge hegemonic narratives. The results are not always utopian.

April 7, 2023

Protesters in Lima hold a banner that reads "Stop the Massacre! Resign Assassin Dina" during a national strike on January 28. (Candy Sotomayor / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Midway through January, the journalist Rosa Chávez traveled to La Pampa, a district in the coastal region of Áncash, Peru. Throughout her stay, she had limited access to the internet and relied on two free television channels for news updates: TVPerú, the state channel, and Latina, the country’s second most important private broadcaster. By that point, some 50 Peruvians had died during the protests that have shaken the country since December 2022. “But throughout that week,” Chávez said, “I did not see any coverage of those deaths or the reasons behind them.”

On January 22, the Peruvian National Police raided San Marcos, the country's oldest and largest public university, detaining over 200 protesters who had traveled to the capital for a protest against interim president Dina Boluarte. The police smashed down the school's gates with a tank, forcing students and protesters to lie down on the ground before arresting many of them. “Almost none of that appeared in the news,” Chávez said. “They mentioned that San Marcos had been taken, and that the police had intervened, but there was no mention of the attacks that had been recorded and disseminated on social media.”

Over the past three months, Peru has experienced its most violent social conflict in 20 years, triggered by Pedro Castillo's failed autogolpe (self-coup) in early December and his subsequent ousting by Congress. The country has since been rocked by near-daily protests, with particular intensity in the southern regions and in Lima. The latest symptom of the constitutional crisis that has dominated Peruvian politics since 2016, these public demonstrations have been met with violent repression by police forces. According to Peru’s ombudsman, 48 civilians have been killed and over 970 have been injured, with most fatalities resulting from the use of lethal tactics by the military and police, “often in apparent violation of their own protocols.” The seemingly arbitrary deaths and attacks have disproportionately affected Indigenous, rural, and impoverished communities in the southern cities of Ayacucho, Juliaca, and Macusani. As of April, authorities have not taken any legal action against police or military personnel in connection with these incidents.

Protesters have a wide range of demands, from the resignation of Boluarte to calls for a new constitution. The causes of the protests are similarly complex, rooted in a dysfunctional political system and a history of social, racial, and economic stratification. Mass media, however, has continuously failed to capture these nuances in their coverage of the situation. To Diego Salazar, an opinion columnist who has covered Latin American politics for The Washington Post, the press has “taken a near-immobile attitude of support for government and police action," often to the detriment of their credibility. A recent survey conducted by the Institute of Peruvian Studies supports his stance: as of January 2023, six out of 10 Peruvians considered national media to be biased in their coverage of the protests.

While the country's public and private media are largely free from overt state influence, the industry has undergone an unprecedented level of consolidation in recent years, with just a few conglomerates determining the agenda of the press, radio, and television industries. According to Revista Ideele, a periodical published by the Legal Defense Institute, Grupo El Comercio controls over 80 percent of the print market in Peru, as well as a majority stake in América Televisión, the channel with the largest audience in the country, and Canal N, a major closed-signal channel. The four biggest TV channels hold over 50 percent of the audience share, while four media groups control the entirety of the radio market. Moreover, eight of the 10 largest conglomerates in the country are owned by members of the same families, with some major shareholders holding ties to multiple media groups.

This high level of corporate concentration not only limits the accuracy of mass media by increasing the potential for conflicts of interest, it also limits the diversity of viewpoints in the public sphere. Chávez experienced those consequences firsthand during her time in Ancash. “If [TV and radio] were one’s only source of information, which they are for many people,” she said, “I would obviously think that we are in a state of terrible turmoil, and that it has been caused by the protesters’ vandalism.”

"We are in a bid for dialogue”

The situation might be changing soon. While television remains the most popular vehicle for media consumption in Peru—82 percent of citizens have at least one TV at home—the internet is rapidly positioning itself as an alternative: around 71 percent of Peruvians used the internet in 2021, up from 36 percent at the beginning of the last decade. The trend is commensurate with broader changes in the Latin American technological landscape: the number of internet users across the region jumped from one-third of the population in 2010 to three-quarters in 2020. And while a third of households across the region do not have a fixed broadband connection, 95 percent of urban households and 93 percent of rural ones have at least one member who has access to a smartphone.

These rapid increases in internet and smartphone adoption have allowed new media outlets to emerge and bridge the gap between traditional media and citizens. Ojo Público, the digitally-native news outlet where Chávez works as a reporter, is one of the most prominent newsrooms born over the past decade in response to growing online audiences. Founded in 2014, the publication’s investigative journalism has gained regional recognition; still, Chávez notes, it has a significantly smaller reach than the website of El Comercio, Peru's largest newspaper.

Yet the growing presence of smartphones has also allowed citizens to take an active role in the news-gathering process, recording videos and capturing images that later are disseminated on social media. In Peru over the past few weeks, this has meant that political demonstrations have spread not only across the physical territory of the country, but also across its digital landscape. To Valeria Román Marroquín, a writer and militant who has been part of the protests, the rise of citizen journalism in the face of Peru’s political crisis is just another piece of a widespread movement hoping to “recover the ability of the public to intervene” in civic life.

"We're in a bid for dialogue, disputing both power and the use of the public word," she says. While she tries to take some distance from the country’s turmoil “to have a critical, responsible analysis of the situation,” the situation is so urgent that “we cannot take a step back. And it is exactly because we’re so close that our analysis is more complex, richer.”

The current crisis is Peru’s most violent episode of civil unrest since the 1980 Shining Path insurgency, which killed tens of thousands of citizens. This history is not lost on Marroquín, who notes that many victims of the internal armed conflict did not have access to cameras to document the abuses they suffered at the hands of guerrillas or agents of the state. But while recording and witnessing the country’s current unrest can be a way to honor those whose stories were left out of the record, the daily deluge of information can also be overwhelming. The day San Marcos was raided by the police, Marroquín says she felt distressed but couldn’t stop looking: “I felt guilty for not seeing it, not being informed, not saying something.”

Independent journalist Jimena Ledgard, who has covered the protests in Lima for the French public television network France 24, echoes her point. "I am trying to imagine what the protests would have been like if people hadn’t been able to tell their own stories. I have thought, through all these months, what it was like for Peruvians during the 80s to feel that their testimony and voice were worth so little—which is true even now, with thousands of videos and thousands of angles."

A Fragmented Information Ecosystem

When assessing the impact of new technologies in society, a common mistake is to see their arrival as a point of departure from the trajectories of the past—to understand them in terms of disruption. Perhaps it is more helpful to think of them as tools that can either counteract or entrench existing dynamics within a given information ecosystem. In Peru, the rapid adoption of the smartphone has not only allowed young people to challenge hegemonic public narratives; it has also accelerated the unraveling of a media ecosystem that was in decay even before the arrival of social media.

In 2011, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa withdrew his fortnightly column from the newspaper El Comercio in a letter accusing its owners of “violating the most elementary notions of objectivity and journalistic ethics: silencing and manipulating information, twisting the facts, opening its pages to lies and defamation.” He was echoing a belief, held by Peruvians across the political spectrum, that became stronger as industry conglomerates expanded in the following years: mass media restricts national dialogue by placing their chosen political narratives above a supposed commitment to civil society. In extending the offer of available narratives, the internet has partially restored a plurality of opinions in the public sphere. Yet in allowing for the algorithmic fragmentation of audiences, it has further eroded trust in a shared set of facts needed for meaningful national debates.

WhatsApp's ubiquity in Peru, for example, has made the app fertile ground for the dissemination of misinformation within and across close-knit groups of family and friends. When unverified videos or politically divisive message chains are circulated in group chats across the country, the app’s private nature makes it difficult for fact-checkers to track and counteract the spread of false information inside social groups. And despite TikTok's emphasis on publicly-shared content, a similar phenomenon occurs on the platform. To optimize the content shown to users, the app sorts them into clusters based on their in-app behavior and demographic information; in doing so, it turns the For You page into a closed information feed that can reinforce any given user’s existing beliefs. In Peru, which according to some data rates among the highest TikTok usage in the world, this means that activists' reliance on traditional mass media outlets is slowly being replaced by a small number of corporate platforms chiefly driven by a drive to maximize advertising revenue.

As this shift takes place, old clichés of political discourse are gaining renewed strength. One particularly troubling example is terruqueo, the rhetorical technique linking protesters to terrorism and the Shining Path insurgency. Primarily employed by right-wing politicians and commentators and disseminated widely by the mainstream media, the tactic undermines the credibility of the demands of protesters in the public eye and provides a pretext for the excessive use of force against them. Other popular online narratives point to foreign intervention—generally from Chile, Bolivia, or Venezuela—as the cause of the current political turmoil. Rarely backed by evidence beyond social media posts, these claims are often first circulated online and later amplified by political actors seeking to delegitimize the motivations behind the protests.

The political crisis in Peru is rooted in a failure to create institutions that serve and represent all citizens. In this landscape, what makes the arrival of the social internet liberating is also what makes it dangerous: by allowing for a multiplicity of perspectives, technology has both opened up space for underrepresented voices and, simultaneously, deepened the nation’s epistemic crisis. “The atomization of audiences is irreconcilable with a common ground of information,” said Salazar. Before the internet, this common ground was already crossed by fracture lines. Now, he says, “it has been blown up, and it’s not coming back.”

The erosion of a common body of facts upon which to build a platform for national dialogue will make it harder for Peru to begin the widespread social reckoning its crisis demands. Still, the country’s political class must take significant measures to facilitate this dialogue by addressing the protesters' short and long-term demands. While the last few weeks have seen a temporary lull in the protests as Cyclone Yaku causes major flooding across the north of Peru, most citizens expect them to resume soon. And with Congress having recently dismissed an impeachment motion against Boluarte and showing no will to pursue either constitutional reform or new elections, lawmakers are effectively ensuring that the next wave of demonstrations will be even more volatile and intense.

When this happens, the response will likely follow the script set by the government at the beginning of this year—one exemplified by the death of 55-year-old Victor Santisteban Yacsavilca. On January 28, Santisteban—a civilian who had been placating some of the protesters—was hit by a projectile in front of the cameras of Canal N; shortly afterward, the live broadcast was interrupted. In the following days, authorities like Lima’s mayor Rafael López Aliaga and Boluarte’s health minister Rosa Gutiérrez disputed the details of his death, alleging that the man had been killed by a stone thrown by another protester. But online, videos of Santisteban’s death had begun to circulate, and an autopsy soon concluded that he was killed by a tear gas cartridge thrown at close range. In the recordings, he is surrounded by black smoke and protesters as he collapses in one of the colonial streets of central Lima. The blurry images are hard to tell apart from the many other videos of police brutality that users have collected and shared online since last December. Near the end of our conversation, Chávez reflects on the unambiguous reasons behind their staying power: “These images are strong. They are touching, but they are outrageous."

Brunella Tipismana is a writer and researcher from Lima, Peru.

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