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Showdown looms between Argentina's Kirchner and her biggest media critic

Argentina implements a media law on Dec. 7 that President Kirchner says encourages a plurality of voices and opponents like Grupo Clarín call an assault on free speech and democracy.

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“What’s up Clarín, why are you so nervous?” Mr. Kirchner asked in a now famous speech, made in 2009, during which he accused the group of “misinforming” Argentines.

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Today, President Kirchner and her ministers regularly accuse Clarín of lying and crafting a “distorted” view of Argentina to destabilize her administration. On a recent mission to Vietnam Trade Secretary Guillermo Moreno travelled with balloons reading “Clarín lies,” a slogan also brandished on a banner hanging from the building of the government statistics agency, itself accused of fudging inflation data.

The government has said the protagonists of recent social unrest, including a mass protest against Kirchner and a general strike last month, are either influenced by, or allied with, Clarín.

Many here echo that view. “Clarín is trying to put the government on the rack,” says analyst Leandro Bullor. “[The group] is a political actor … going blow for blow in the ring [with the government],” said Horacio Verbitsky, a prominent journalist.

Martín Etchevers, Clarín’s spokesman, insists its outlets are dedicated to rigorous journalism, which includes holding the government to account over alleged corruption and distorted statistics.

Andrés D’Alessandro, executive director of the Argentine Journalism Forum, says Clarín’s journalists have taken on an investigative role to which other outlets – for example Página/12, a newspaper that receives substantial government advertising – were once dedicated before 2008.

The Kirchner administration’s advertising budget in 2011 was a little less than $400 million, up from $10 million in 2003. Around a third of it was spent on publicity during soccer matches transmitted on state TV, and recent spots have demonized Clarín. The rights to show games were bought by the government in 2009 after the Argentine Soccer Association broke its contract with a Clarín-controlled sports broadcaster.

Three years

It has taken three years to enforce the law because of an injunction taken out by Clarín that expires on Dec. 7. But the legal battle continues with the group refusing to recognize the deadline.

Martín Sabbatella, president of AFSCA, said the government will intervene and auction off Clarín’s licenses if the group does not present a plan to sell them off by midnight on Friday. “The law is the law,” he said. “Nobody is above it.” 

Mr. D’Alessandro says there is a risk the government will not be objective when it oversees the redistribution of licenses. He fears it could apply the same “friend or enemy” criteria seen in the handing out of public advertising. “That could lead to a [limting of] freedom of expression,” he says.

Clarín has also contested the law’s constitutionality, saying its private-property rights are being violated: The only way the government can confiscate licenses is by expropriating them, explains constitutional lawyer Andrés Gil Domínguez.

Divisive policies 

The disagreement over the law is the latest issue to divide Argentines. Kirchner’s policies of economic protectionism, extensive welfare plans for the poor, and a recent law lowering the voting age to 16 have all split opinion.

Some observers say they see a movement toward similar clashes with the press as in Venezuela and Ecuador.

“Argentina is running the risk of turning into a competitive authoritarianism,” says Sergio Berensztein, an analyst at the Poliarquía consultancy, referring to a political model in which there are free and fair elections but violations of other democratic processes.

Kirchner, who was reelected with 54 percent of the vote last year, has concentrated power in the executive while her administration is accused of trampling on the judiciary in the build-up to Dec. 7. It has forced the resignation of judges, alleged to favor Clarín, and today ordered the recusal of those deciding whether to extend the group’s injunction.

“On Dec. 7 we say ‘enough’ to the impunity of monopolies,” reads one of the thousands of posters plastered throughout Buenos Aires. “Goodbye Clarín,” it signs off.

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