Follow the money: Government influence on private media in Argentina

The Argentine government was the largest ad buyer for private media in 2010, and some say their financial influence damages the potential for independent reporting.

The abrupt removal from the air of a political talk show is raising questions about the Argentine government's increased use of ad spending to gain influence over private media outlets – an unregulated tool in the ongoing battle for position in the country's polarized media environment.

Former cabinet chief Alberto Fernandez was criticizing the Kirchner government in an interview on the C5N cable channel March 13 when – according to former CNN anchor Alberto Padilla, who was set to be interviewed next on the show – a call from a high-level government official came in to pull the broadcast. The station owner said the show simply went over its time limit and had to be ended, denying accusations of censorship. But the story quickly splashed across the Internet and social media sites, and many remain skeptical.

C5N is part of an arsenal of media outlets that have benefited from government ad purchases, a practice that can sway press allegiance and breed reluctance to antagonize the government, experts say. Argentina and other Latin American countries have no laws controlling how tax dollars can be spent on advertising. That lack of regulation allows public money to be used for propaganda, experts say, giving more media power to incumbent administrations. And the increased government presence in the ad market creates incentives that weaken the voices of independent media, something that does not bode well for press freedoms in Argentina.

"It's not censorship in the traditional sense but rather self-censorship," says Martin Becerra, a professor of communications at the University of Buenos Aires. "It depends on a tacit agreement, whereby the press understands that in order to receive money from the government, they need to be uncritical."

Largest ad buyer

A recent report, written by Mr. Becerra, reveals that the national government was responsible for 9 percent of all media ads in 2010, almost double the second biggest advertiser, Unilever. The report also shows a high level of political discretion in the distribution of ad purchases, with the government purchasing more from uncritical media and punishing those with opposition coverage like large newspapers Clarín and La Nación.

The publisher of a newspaper critical of the government, Perfil, recently had to close a weekly sports magazine due to a lack of government publicity buys and low sales, according to owner Jorge Fontevecchia. In a scathing editorial, he wrote that newer, unestablished newspapers were receiving millions of dollars per year from the government, while his has received nothing since 2004.

A court ruling requiring the national government to buy equal ads in media outlets of similar size, and pay a retroactive fine to Perfil, has been ignored. But the Argentine media is dominated by a few large outlets, and some say Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner should be able to choose whom to purchase ads from. It's one way to even out the playing field among concentrated media powers like Grupo Clarín, supporters say.

Information about the use of state spending on advertising is not readily available, says Becerra, and "seems like it's designed to be unintelligible." A new media law, passed in 2009, requires recipients to disclose funding sources, but that provision and many others in the law have not yet been implemented. 

Local leaders play a role as well. The city government of Buenos Aires and the Buenos Aires provincial government engage in similar ad-buying practices, according to the study. However, they were far outpaced by the national government, whose spending on advertising increased 25-fold – from roughly $11 million to $285 million – since the Kirchner administration came to power in 2003.

Independent coverage

The discriminatory use of public funds for government publicity represents an impediment to the free circulation of ideas, and "must be explicitly prohibited by law," according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

But the practice is not new, says Silvio Waisbord, a professor of media politics at George Washington University, in Washington D.C.

"Governments across the region have used discretionary advertising for decades," but favorable economic circumstances have freed up more cash for governments to finance their own state media arms along with mushrooming ads in private media, says Waisbord.

In addition, he says, the governments of Argentina, Venezuela, and Ecuador, among others, have engaged in targeted battles with media groups and are "decisively trying to make changes in media systems," making the phenomenon more visible. The tendency of governments to use state media as their own megaphone and private media’s reliance on advertising creates a dearth of publicly funded, independent media in Latin America.

A quid pro quo dynamic has long existed between states and private media groups in Latin America – such as the consolidation of Grupo Globo in Brazil, based on its close ties with that country's military dictatorship, which ruled from 1964 until 1985 – “but it’s crystallized when you see this kind of data,” says Waisbord.

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