News Media and Added Value, a necessity for overcoming the digital divide in Latin America and the Caribbean

A recap of the Session One discussion that explored The Digital Divide in LatAm and the Caribbean through surveys and ground research, causes and consequences, public policy, and democracy.

“When Digicel started in Haiti, there were only about 4,000 phone users, so the first thing we did was to make it affordable.” says Maarten Boute, the chairman for Digicel Haiti, a telecommunication company in the Caribbean. “The second one was to educate and lastly we built infrastructure. There were only 2 generators.” Now, Digitel serves almost 5 millions users.

During Mobile Media Culture in the Americas 2017 (MMCA) — the 34th Annual Journalist and Editors Workshop on Latin America and the Caribbean — media entrepreneurs, journalists, and scholars explored the division among those who have access to the internet and other communication technology, and those who have not. Some, as Boute´s company, have been able to bridge it for a while, and have become legends. Digicel Haiti played a key role restoring communication in the aftermath of the Hurricane Haiti in 2010. Still, during the introductory session, all panelists agreed that complexities and commonalities make impossible to devise a simple strategy for confronting the digital divide in Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, El Salvador or even Russia and China.

Juan Pablo Ferro, left, and Maarten Boute during the session one of MMCA 2017. (photo by Samuel Navarro)

“It is a multiple faceted problem that includes infrastructure, economics, government policy and certainly, access by individuals,” according tp Alan Albarran, professor and chair at the University of North Texas. Although, according to Albarran, each national government needs to address it, and make it a priority. For start, said Albarran, governments should stop trying to control information, but instead focus on bigger problems, such as applying the communication technology for educating the public on water conservation.

“It is a multiple faceted problem that includes infrastructure, economics, government policy and certainly, access by individuals.” — Alan Albarran

Public initiatives, sometimes combined with private investors, have played important roles in bridging the digital divide and spearheading development. “Technologies change people’s mentalities,” emphasizes Juan Pablo Ferro, a Colombian journalist specialized on digital education. His studies show that digital technology has been instrumental in rural communities in Colombia. It facilitated education and helped to shape the identity of families in extreme poverty.

Finally, the Media companies have to become conscious players, agreed the panelists. Although the revolution of the Internet in Latin America has both help and harm this industry, says the Executive Director of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), Ricardo Trotti.

Ricardo Trotti (photo by Samuel Navarro)

In many regards, the internet has been disruptive for the bottom line as many news companies rely on traditional methods, like subscriptions and advertising, to gather money. Because of this, companies are now in a process of trying-and-testing in order to reach economical sustainability, sometimes falling in issues that before were seen as ethically wrong. “Now, sponsored content in the media is a way of profit,” Trotti says.

However, Trotti still insist that journalists must keep practicing “watchdog journalism” to expose corrupted institutions and totalitarian governments and regain the audience’s trust that has been so lately damage with the term “fake news.”

“A government’s greatest fear is the press,” said Trotti. “The political drollery [in Venezuela and Ecuador] weakens the public’s trust toward the media.”

To redefine the media industry, Ferro, Boute, Trotti and Albarran all think that news media outlets all over the region must establish a new sense of added value. “News media cannot keep operating the same way,” Albarran said. “We’ll lose the battle.”

From left: Juan Pablo ferro, former news director of El Expectador in Colombia, Maarten Boute, chairman for Digicel Haiti, Ricardo Trotti, executive director of Inter American Press Association and moderator Eduardo Gamarra. On the screen, Alan Albarran, professor at University of North Texas. (photo by Samuel Navarro)