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.

Victor R. Caivano/AP
Clarín Editor Ricardo Kirschbaum (r.) speaks with Clarin spokesperson Martin Etchevers during a news conference with foreign correspondents in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Oct. 30. Grupo Clarín executives said they have no intention of submitting plans to dismantle the company ahead of a Dec. 7 deadline announced by the Argentine government, but are instead focused on persuading the courts that Argentina's anti-monopoly law is unconstitutional.

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s battle with the press is set to intensify this week as Argentina implements a polemic media law that her administration says encourages a plurality of voices and that opponents call an assault on free speech and democracy.

The country’s biggest media conglomerate, Grupo Clarín, has until Friday to tell the government how it will divest itself of assets under a 2009 antimonopoly ruling.

Clarín, once an ally of President Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor, is now openly opposed to the government. The group owns Argentina’s best-selling newspaper, and controls 59 and 42 percent of the cable TV and radio markets, respectively, according to AFSCA, the body enforcing the law.

The government says the other 20 media companies required to divest are complying with the law, but Clarín, the group most affected, argues it is being deliberately targeted as Kirchner seeks to suppress criticism of her administration. It also claims the law is unconstitutional, something the judiciary has yet to rule on.

This Friday’s deadline falls days before the anniversary of Argentina’s 1983 return to democracy after a seven-year dictatorship. As the country prepares to celebrate, some fear the media law could lead to a deficit of independent reporting: Clarín is one of the few news organizations not reliant on the government via advertising subsidies.

“There’s no freedom of expression without an independent press,” said Héctor Magnetto, Clarín’s CEO. “If one is weakened, both could be at risk.”

‘Right to be heard’

This isn’t the first time Clarín and a president have clashed. Numerous bills to regulate the media were introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, but Clarín always played a part in blocking their approval, says Glenn Postolksi, who helped draw up the guidelines on which the current law is based.

Passed in 2009, the legislation supersedes a law from the dictatorship, and is designed to increase the range of voices in TV and radio. No one media group can control more than 35 percent of the market, while not-for-profit organizations will see their share increased to around a third.

“We also have the right to be heard,” says Armando Kispe, a presenter at Radio Pachakuti, a station founded last year for the indigenous communities of Jujuy in northern Argentina. “It would have been very difficult to have established the radio without the law,” Mr. Kispe says, noting it does not rely on public advertising.

A government publicity campaign hails Dec. 7 as a victory for “democracy, diversity, and liberty.” And many Argentines see the media law as an important tool to widen freedom of expression.

“A lot of people here are prisoners of a singular voice,” says Walter Rodas, a retiree from the northern Chaco Province, referring to Clarín’s majority share of the media market. “But now we’ll have true diversity – and that’s for the good of society.”

Critics, though, see the law as less about moving toward democratization of the media and more a blatant attempt to stultify and silence the administration’s adversary, Clarín.

“Clarín will be hugely affected economically,” says former federal communications secretary Henoch Aguiar, who predicts the group stands to lose an initial $1 billion from reduced subscriptions.

Clarín is required to sell the majority of its cable broadcasting licenses. The group has 237 in cities and towns across Argentina, according to AFSCA, but is allowed just 24 under the law. It will also have to sell eight of the nine cable television channels the government says it owns.

History of friendship…and rivalry

Clarín and the Kirchners have not always knocked heads. Néstor Kirchner, who was close to Mr. Magnetto, renewed the group’s broadcast licenses for 10 years in 2005 and later approved its acquisition of cable company Cablevisión. But relations collapsed in 2008 when Clarín backed farmers in a row over export taxes.

“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.

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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