The End of Free Press in Puerto Rico?

Former Gov. Rafael Hernández Colón said in an interview with El Vocero that if his version of “commonwealth” were ever to become possible the local government in Puerto Rico would have full control of TV and radio on the Island. That sounds like one more good reason Congress would never approve the conversion of territorial status with the present “commonwealth” system of local government into the unrealistic “autonomous associated nation of Puerto Rico” status model that exists only in RHC’s mind.

The former Governor has sold his mythical status to his political party, but no one in Congress is thinking seriously about his party’s platform on status.  What the U.S. Congress does care about is regulation of First Amendment freedoms at the national, state and local levels.  Government control of media content intended to protect decency and morals is easily abused, and without restraints of federal standards of free press regulation quickly can become political censorship and propaganda.

It is absurdly unrealistic to assume Congress will allow freedom of the press for millions of U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico to be treated as a “purely local matter” subject to regulation by an “autonomous associated state” government without federal oversight and First Amendment limitations.  If the local government could operate outside federal authority and secure irrevocable power over information and communications freedom, it would only be a matter of time before U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico have to move to the mainland to enjoy freedom of speech and press.

U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico already must go to the states to enjoy other rights of citizenship currently denied in Puerto Rico under “commonwealth.” Do we want to add freedom of ideas, speech and press to the reasons for migration to the states?  Giving local territorial government control of content produced by private sector owned and operated media will put freedom of the press in the hands of local politicians who may or may not prove tolerant of freedom when the civic discourse becomes heated.  As we also know, where the government owns television, radio and print media there have been periodic incidents of abuse that include undue influence by special interest financial gift donors and advertisers euphemistically called “sponsors.”  If abuses occur at the national and state level the risk of abuses and even use of public media for government propaganda are greater at the local level, particularly in a federally subsidized “autonomous” territorial client state.

No doubt the former Governor will give us eloquent reassurances Puerto Rico will protect press freedom more resolutely than federal law does now, but we won’t know what that means until the local government has acquired the power and it is too late.  And no doubt the former Governor then will be the first to demand that press freedom be regulated in ways it is not now to promote the common and collective good of the autonomous regime.  Before we buy that used car from our esteemed former Governor, we better do some comparison shopping.

Currently, the Federal Communications Commission regulates media in Puerto Rico as well as in all 50 States and the other districts and territories. The FCC is an independent agency which is overseen by the U.S. Congress. It is led by five Commissioners who are appointed by the U.S. President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, and only three of the Commissioners can be in the same political party. That is, there could be three Republicans and two Democrats, or there could be two Democrats, two Republicans, and a Libertarian, but there cannot be four Democrats and one Republican. None of the Commissioners can have any financial interest in any business overseen by the FCC, and each may serve for only five years.

All these rules are designed to ensure that the FCC stays objective and that it does not support one political or business position over another. In addition, the FCC has practices in place to make sure that there is input from the public on all rules affecting communications.

The FCC’s job is to make sure that communications such as TV and radio stay free and fair. They are required to encourage new technologies, to maintain competition among media outlets, and to keep the infrastructure strong. Since the FCC is not part of any political party or associated with any state, and since its internal rules are set up intentionally to keep anyone from gaining an ongoing basis of power, it is able to remain as neutral as any agency can.

Puerto Rico has a rich history of public media. The first newspaper was published in 1806. By 1867, the Spanish government was attempting to regulate the press with laws including an interesting law from 1896 that allowed newspapers to criticize the government if they paid a 500 peso fee.

Over 100 newspapers were established in the two years after Puerto Rico became a possession of the United States. Hundreds of newspapers flourished in Spanish and in English throughout the 20th century, and radio broadcasts began in 1922. TV broadcasts started in the 1950s, with Telemundo, and by the end of the 20th century there were 21 channels in Puerto Rico.

Now the Internet makes even more media options available on the Island. Should the governor of Puerto Rico or his political appointees control the media? Should government owned media be expanded?

Will Puerto Rico come up with a regulatory board as impartial and carefully overseen as the FCC?   Without that, freedom of speech will suffer and forever be at risk of restrictions that will shock the people.

Today Puerto Rico is on a track leading to statehood, so why not stick with the FCC? As a state, Puerto Rico can expect to enjoy the same freedom of the press that is customary throughout the United States — and in Puerto Rico at this time.

If the current trend toward statehood is reversed and territorial status with “commonwealth” continues, termination of FCC jurisdiction here is not going to happen. If the island moves to separate nationhood then U.S. citizenship will be phased out and people who want U.S. citizenship rights will move to the states.

Like every other issue the former Governor raises, this issue of local control of the press raises the basic question of whether Puerto Rico will be the 51st state or a new nation.  Either Puerto Rico is better off in the U.S. system of federalism and needs to participate on equal footing as a state or it will be better off as a nation.

If people want to be part of the U.S. and have state sovereignty and local control over non-federal issues, but also have the liberty and freedom now protected under federal law, then statehood is the answer.   If the people want to be one more Latin American/Caribbean nation with its own nationality and citizenship, its own national sovereignty and supreme law, with a separate insular governing regime, then nationhood is the answer.

The issue of FCC jurisdiction must be answered in that context, not in the context of abstract notions touted in a political narrative of the former Governor for which he and his party have no accountability because it will never be taken seriously by Congress.

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