Argentina: Will controversial media law help or hinder 30 years of democracy?

After four years of legal turmoil, the Supreme Court ruled that a media law aimed at reining in huge media players was constitutional.

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
A bus with the pictures of Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez and Martin Sabbatella, head of the Federal Audiovisual Communication Services Authority (AFSCA), is parked in front the National Congress as people gather to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling that upheld the government-sponsored media law in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2013.

Thirty years ago today, following the fall of a brutal, seven-year military dictatorship, Argentines voted in general elections.
 
The democratic process has remained unbroken since, and last night many here celebrated a media law that they believe is pivotal to strengthening that democracy. Opponents, however, say it is a dangerous tool whose only function is to silence anti-government voices.
 
After four years of injunctions, appeals, and advertising campaigns that polarized opinion, Supreme Court judges ruled yesterday that a controversial 2009 media law was constitutional.

The ruling means Clarín – one of the biggest media conglomerates in Latin America, which vigorously fought the legislation – must finally adhere to the law, which limits the size of broadcast media companies and supersedes legislation from the dictatorship.  
 
Clarín is an outspoken government critic, accused by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of lying, and it's now required to auction off many of its assets. Media companies, for instance, cannot own more than 24 broadcast licenses across Argentina. Clarín’s cable provider owns at least 158.

“This is a triumph for democracy, liberty, and pluralism,” Martín Sabbatella, who heads the government agency that is enforcing the law, said after yesterday’s ruling. The judges determined that “on limiting market concentration,” the law “favors freedom of expression.”

Clarín disagrees. Its CEO has called the law an attack on the independent press and, subsequently, on freedom of expression. But during the Supreme Court hearing in August, Clarín's lawyers fumbled for an explanation when asked how free speech would be affected.

In a statement, the company implied that the true intention of the government was to control the media. It accused President Kirchner’s administration of “colonizing” 80 percent of broadcast outlets through a number of strategies, including making them dependent on government advertising.
 
In their 392-page ruling, the judges warned against using government advertising as a means to “eliminate dissent and the pluralist debate of ideas.”
 
Kirchner – who was reelected with 54 percent of the vote in 2011, and held on to a slim majority in both congressional houses in midterm elections on Sunday – has also been accused of ruling Argentina by decree and trying to influence the courts. (But she is not alone: the same accusations were aimed at Carlos Menem, who was president from 1989 to 1999.) Last year, Kirchner nationalized an oil firm by emergency decree and, in 2010, used the same method to fire the central bank president.
 
Some analysts say her government has moved towards a “competitive authoritarianism,” in which there are free and fair elections but abuse of other democratic processes and the media. 

For Kirchner’s supporters, however, the constitutionality of the media law and the 30th anniversary of democracy are cause today for double celebration.

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