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Media and Policy Leaders See New Citizen Empowerment

April 6, 2011

The internet was abuzz with tweets announcing that the 33 trapped Chilean miners were safe hours before the country’s president Sebastián Piñera officially confirmed it.

Twitter and its cyber sidekicks have ushered in a new age, according to Juan Luis Cebrián, chief executive of the Grupo PRISA Spanish media conglomerate and former editor of El País. Technology has snatched control from the establishment to empower citizens instead.

“Once there was a canon. Today’s cannon is that there is no canon,” he said during yesterday's panel on "The Public Sphere: Media, Education, and Civic Culture in Iberoamerica."

Ricardo Lagos, former Chilean president and Brown Professor-at-large, also spoke on the panel, which was moderated by Gustavo Cisneros, president of Grupo Cisneros.

“We’re in a time of transition,” Cebrián told a full Joukowsky Forum. “We’re constantly meeting, in Davos, in Miami, to try and figure out a new business model. But there is no model – the model is in the hands of users, once again.”

By revolutionizing dialogue in the public sphere, the internet is also boosting democratic processes, according to Lagos.

“Today, we have a 2.0 democracy where politicians send messages and citizens reply,” he said. “The internet has allowed us to return to Athenian democracy.”

But Jorge Rendo, director of external communications for Argentine media conglomerate Grupo Clarín, stressed that political capture of media remains a threat.

“The Argentine government has succeeded in creating the largest state media apparatus in the country’s democratic history,” he said. “It’s a significant step backward. The government is looking in the rearview mirror and not through the windshield.”

Grupo Clarín claims it has been harassed by President Cristina Fernandez’ government since it opposed her administration in a 2008 clash with farmers over soy export taxes.

Cisneros shared Rendo’s concern over increasingly powerful state-run media in Argentina.
“As a Venezuelan, I have to say the situation in Argentina is very serious,” said Cisneros, the owner of a private media conglomerate. “It happened in Venezuela and could happen in Argentina.”

But ultimately, Cebrián underscored, new information channels are empowering citizens and eroding state control around the world.

WikiLeaks, for instance, revealed Saudi Arabia wanted Iran to be bombed, thus exposing the kingdom’s double discourse. And Jack Dorsey’s founding of Twitter in 2006 has been crucially conducive to the overthrow of autocratic regimes in the Middle East.

“Citizens are now making the agenda,” Cebrián said. “What is media’s role in a world where there isn’t any need for mediation anymore? How will knowledge change now that all knowledge is already online?”

In this time of transition, “it’s still totally unpredictable,” he concluded.

Natalio Botana, an Argentine historian, and Nélida Piñon, a Brazilian writer, also spoke on the panel, which was organized by the Transatlantic Project at Brown, with cooperation of the Watson Institute, the Office of the President, the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, Office of International Affairs, and the Iberoamerican Forum.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11