Argentina President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner

A law passed on October 10, 2009 in Argentina that will place controls on the media has generated suspicions that the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner hopes to actually restrict freedom of the press. The Law on Audiovisual Media came up for a vote in the Argentine Senate amidst widespread accusations of vote buying by the current executive. President Kirchner signed the bill in record time despite howls of protest, especially by the owners of Clarín – a centrist newspaper that also controls television holdings.

Opponents of the legislation affirm that it was approved by Congress in haste and without necessary debate over its merits and whether it would restrict constitutional freedoms. Observers in Buenos Aires claim to see the hand of former president Nestor Kirchner, the husband of the current executive, in the passage of the bill before the new Congress assembles on December 10. The climate of suspicion was heightened in view of the disdain with which the Argentine power-couple treated journalists, and harassment on the part of the government. According to some analysts, the Kirchner’s effort to restrict the media resembles that similarly used by their ally, President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

The measure was introduced in Congress following a show-down between the Kirchners and Grupo Clarín – the largest media conglomerate in Argentina and the one most affected by the new law. Difficulties arose between the Kirchners and Grupo Clarín following the March, 2008 sliding-scale taxation scheme that raised the ire of farmers and farmers associations, sparking violent confrontations between pro-Kirchner factions and those opposed. President Kirchner’s popularity continued to slide throughout 2008 and 2009 as accusations have continued to fly that she is controlled by ex-President Nestor, her husband. Accusations of illicit enrichment and real estate chicanery have also dogged the Argentine power-couple, who were once compared to President Bill Clinton and Secretary Hilary Rodham Clinton. Supporters of the new law on the media contend that they were seeking to reform a law that was put into effect during the dark days of Argentina’s military dictatorship of 1976-1983, and eliminate an effective “monopoly” over the nation’s media.

Critics, however, see in the new law as an attempt by the government to control the media through the creation of an agency that will have the power to re-certify the licenses of the various media every 2 years. They also accuse that government of endangering the rights that have been sorely won by the media in the decades since Argentina’s return to civilian government.

Several judges have advised that Kirchners’ Law on the Media has several constitutional flaws and that putting into effect will unleash a tidal wave of lawsuits against the state wasting millions of pesos in public funds.

Freedom of expression in danger

The signing of the law sparked protests by the Uruguay-based International Broadcasting Association, which represents more than 17,000 affiliated associations and broadcasters in Asia, Europe and the Americas. “It is shocking that Argentina – a civilized country that loves liberty – should have imposed such a restrictive law that not only endangers the constitutional rights of hundreds of broadcasters but also would legalize the pressures and interference on the part of whichever government is in power in the contents of media,” said the Association’s president, Luís Pardo Saínz of Chile.

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), which represents media from both North and South America, warned that the discretionary power of the state over journalists would increase because of the new law in Argentina. The IAPA expressed concern that the law does not deal directly with the issue of propaganda distributed by the government. It is understood that the system erected by the new law could chastise or reward media outlets for their criticism or support of the government in power.

The Argentine Association of Journalistic Entities (ADEPA) warned what it views as a serious degradation of freedom of the press in Argentina. “Journalism is seen by part of the government as an enemy to be defeated, so therefore it buys the media through flacks,” read a statement by ADEPA. “With faltering daily newspapers, the freedom of the press is made enfeebled. But, with media made rich by government favoritism, the freedom of the press actually disappears.” In addition, UN expert on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, also severely criticized the measure. La Rue has long been a champion of human rights in his native Guatemala who long lived in exile due to death threats.

Winners and Losers

The new law on the media divides Argentina’s radio broadcasters into three equal parts: 33 percent for commercial purposes, 33 percent for non-profits, labor unions, universities and churches, and 33 percent for the government. The government claims that this will avert concentration of ownership and would give voice to now-excluded sectors of society. However, it remains to be seen how labour unions and non-profits would be able to fund their transmissions, causing the law’s opponents to wonder whether the government would have a hand in funding them.

The law would also reduce the number of licenses from 24 to 10 for businesses to operate radio stations and television stations. An owner of a broadcast open TV channel would not be allowed to also have a cable channel in the same city. In addition, cable operators would be able to offer services in 24 different locales so long as they do not have more than 35 percent of the viewers in the whole country.

Therefore, Grupo Clarín will have to choose between El Trece (Channel 13) – which is the main broadcast TV station – or the CableVision/Multicanal cable network. It will also have to reduce the size of its cable enterprise from its current 50 percent market share to the regulated 35 percent. Another business to be affected by the new law is Grupo Uno, which owns SuperCanal – the third largest television network in Argentina that also owns 19 radio stations and channels. It will have to sell nine of these in order to conform to the law. Grupo Prisa, a Spanish company, will see its licenses reduced to 10 from 19.

The new law will require foreign concerns to reduce their share in local companies by 70 percent. This will affect the Spanish companies Telefónica (owner of the Telefé channel and 8 broadcast TV channels in the provinces), Prisa and, also, CIE-Rock & Pop of Mexico, owner of radio stations Rock & Pop and FM Metro.

Potencial beneficiaries of the new law are landline telephone services Telefónica and Telecom, which will now be able to enter into other media. In order to do this, each will have to create a new company with separate accounting so as to avoid cross-over of corporate funds. Since Telefónica is Spanish, it will be allowed only 30 percent of the control of the new company. But Telecom has everything to gain: it is now about to be purchased by Argentine interests.

In addition, according to the new law, radio stations must use a playlist that is 30 percent domestically-produced music and 10 percent independent production. This means a significant change for broadcasters that focus on foreign music. Also, they will not be allowed to broadcast material that is deemed sexist or discriminatory.

Kirchner, Menem, and Maradona

The heated debate over the new law grew more feverish over the weekend of October 17-18 with an incident that involved the Crónica newspaper, which has been linked to the Kirchners. According to the morning daily, Perfíl, the Friday October 16 editon of Crónica was re-printed under orders of the government. Crónica had published a story to the effect that former President Néstor Kirchner and Diego Armando Maradona – international star of soccer who is currently the coach of Argentina’s national team – were together playing soccer and eating at a barbeque organized by the mayor of a Buenos Aires suburb. The title of the article was “They kick for the same side.”

According to Perfíl, the publishers of Crónica had already printed 50,000 copies of the cover story when they received a call from someone in the Kirchner camp. They then dicided to replace it with a new run of newspapers. According to observers, nothing similar had occurred since the time of the military government in 1980s.

The publishers at Crónica claimed that they did this because information was incorrect, while sources in the editorial staff confirmed the version of the story published by Perfíl. “What the episode reveled is that the government sees the front pages before they reach the street,” said Perfíl. The reason postulated by local observers is that Nestor Kirchner did not want to be associated with an image that was very common in the 90s, that is: former president Carlos Menem playing soccer with Maradona. Long the icon of Menemism, Maradona is now allied with Kirchner with whom he shares a common enemy: journalists. Maradona is in hot water himself and may be sanctioned by the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) for obscene language he used in a recent press conference.

Eduardo Szklarz heads of the South America desk for The Cutting Edge and Martin Barillas is Senior Correspondent.

Source: Cutting Edge News


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