Fear Mongering in Chile

By Andrés Kogan Valderrama

HAVANA TIMES – According to a study by IPSO, Chileans are the most worried about crime and violence on a list of 29 countries across the world, for the fifth month running, which is really attention-grabbing and should push us to find an answer for this.

Let me point out that Chileans’ fear is well above the average of people who were asked the same questions and are from countries such as Israel, South Africa, Colombia, Brazil, Peru and Mexico; but the crime rate in Chile is nowhere near the crime rate in many of these other countries, nor can this level of fear be justified by a war. 

It’s rather a matter of looking at the Global Peace Index, where we figure as one of the safest countries in the region to live – alongside Uruguay and Costa Rica-, which is in stark contrast with the above fact, which should make us reflect upon what is actually happening in Chile and why fear is off the charts.

Before doing that though, we have to ask ourselves what makes Chileans so afraid and what consequences this might have on the constitutional process that is currently underway, as fear creates suspicion, stagnation and a constant feeling of danger, which puts us in a very vulnerable situation.

When answering the first question, it’s impossible not to think about the role concentrated mass media play in Chile, misusing news linked to crime and violence, which has been proven by different studies, and reveals a huge lack of public responsibility for the country.

Looking at a study by the Center for Citizen Security Studies at the University of Chile, we can see the traditional patterns of how the media handles news regarding safety and the effect they have in the way they inform, with an exaggerated narration of events, intense drama and negative adjectives to describe security systems.

Meanwhile, it’s interesting to think about a point that sociologist and researcher Alejandra Mohor raises, who points out the huge impact the media has on how the population perceives insecurity, especially on those with a lower education level, proving that when asked about crime in Chile, their perception of insecurity is always extremely high and is only increasing.

However, this perception of insecurity drops when people are asked about their own town or the nearest neighborhood, which is more in keeping with real numbers, which proves the toxic effect the idea of a dangerous country has, automatically making it the top priority for Chileans, as surveys show us day in and day out.  

This is in no way to say that there isn’t an insecurity problem, that there aren’t more weapons and violence in the country, which was made worse with the pandemic, and that we shouldn’t be placing an emphasis on government policy and programs, especially in the areas that are hardest-hit by territorial injustice. However, it’s inept for mass media to fall into a discourse of terror that is out of touch with reality.

Such discourse opens the door for populist politicians to appear, who legitimize an idea of citizen security that is completely outside the framework of human rights and only centers around control and punishment. They propose a war-like discourse against crime, as if lots of danger factors, social factors and a lack of local prevention policies didn’t bear any relation to the problem.   

As a result, why the media gives so much space to the issue of security can’t be totally explained by ratings alone, but also by the fact that it has established a discourse of national security against a domestic enemy, which, after the return to democracy in the country, has morphed from a rebel into your common criminal, as a great enemy you need to fight and defeat by any means possible.

That said, this fear constructed by the mass media was also surely an important factor in the rejection of the Constitution proposal on September 4th last year, which could get worse this year with the new process currently in the works, which looks quite uncertain, despite an agreement between political parties for a Carta Magna.

In other words, Chileans should continue to be more and more worried about crime and violence, despite improvements in numbers about citizen security, as the media’s narrative is more firmly rooted now than ever in Chile, which is serving the far-right everything they need on a silver platter to discredit the constitutional process once again.

Thus, it’s no coincidence that the rise in the Chilean people’s fear continues, despite there not being a significant surge in crime compared to last year, like the last Citizen Peace Index revealed, showing that the problem has deeper roots and that it is in fact the media who produce this fear at the end of the day.

A short-term solution would be to pass a much-needed media law that seeks to regulate this problem and to recover TVN as a truly public channel. However, this would have fierce opposition from the Right and be used by large economic groups to accuse the Government of being interventionist, authoritarian and against freedom of the press, so it wouldn’t be a good idea given the current situation and correlation of forces.

Therefore, security needs to be a key issue, not only to get greater funding, but a new national policy and a specific ministry, as well as police reform and local laws, like Gabriel Boric’s government is rightfully doing. It should also be given importance within the new Constitution that is being written up, so as to counteract the idea that crime is out of control, running rampant and that nothing is being done about it, despite the evidence telling a very different story.

Read more from Chile here on Havana Times.