Media Law Reform Pits Argentine Executive Branch Against Judiciary

December 7, 2012

by Simon van Woerden

After a massive demonstration on November 8, Argentines planned to take to the streets again Thursday night to protest the enforcement of a new media law scheduled to go into full effect today. In the end, a subway strike, torrential rains and a toxic gas cloud significantly reduced enthusiasm and left the streets of Buenos Aires mostly empty, save for some small scores of pot-banging citizens.

Nevertheless, the day ended largely as a victory for those opposing the Kirchner government's controversial 2009 media law. A court ruled in favor of Grupo Clarín, the largest media conglomerate in Argentina, effectively protecting it from the forcible sale of an important part of its licenses.

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The court ruling last night established that Grupo Clarín’s licenses cannot be sold  until the Supreme Court can rule on the constitutionality of articles 45 and 161, which limit the amount of licenses companies can hold and establish a divestment procedure for companies who hold more than  24 cable television licenses and 10 open frequency radio or television licenses. The Argentine government claims Grupo Clarín has over 200 licenses; Grupo Clarín says the number is 158.

The government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner today filed an appeal to last night's ruling before the Supreme Court, making use of a special per saltum procedure to bypass the lower courts. Depending on the Supreme Court's acceptance of the appeal and subsequent ruling, Grupo Clarín and other media groups may still have to comply with the new media law before the court can rule on the constitutionality of articles 45 and 161. That judgment would also be open to appeal. Since neither side in the current conflict is expected to back down, the current legal battle will likely continue.

Although the confrontation between the Argentine government and Grupo Clarín has become increasingly ugly—and government officials have launched a "Clarín Lies" campaign—the media law as a whole is not generally seen as detrimental to free press or freedom of expression. Hailed by Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, as an example for the entire continent, it replaces the current law which dates back to the days of Argentina's military dictatorship. A majority of journalist respondents in a 2011 Foro de Periodismo Argentino (Argentine Journalist Forum—FOPEA) survey said the new law represented partial or even substantial progress compared to the previous one.

What critics do fear, however, is that the new legislation will be selectively applied against dissenting media and journalists, squeezing out critics and boosting supporters. As Jorge Fontevecchia, the CEO of Editorial Perfil who won a Supreme Court case against the Kirchner government over the allocation of official advertising to broadcast media, said in a recent article: "I have a feeling that we will only see a proliferation of government media, protected by the state.” Additionally, the FOPEA survey showed that 58 percent of journalist respondents felt that the media were "influenced" and 38 percent said that they had first- or second-hand experience with coercive messages from politicians.

The current legal tug-of-war is the most direct and intense confrontation between the media and the Fernández de Kirchner government yet. Some press freedom groups believe that all Argentine journalism has suffered as a result. Mónica Baumgratz of FOPEA told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that "when all news gathering has been discredited, even the truth becomes suspect." In such a highly polarized, with-us-or-against-us climate, it is becoming nearly impossible for Argentines to obtain accurate and balanced information on their own country from national media.

*Simon van Woerden is Buenos Aires-based freelance journalist originally from the Netherlands. Read his stories here.

Tags: Grupo Clarin, Argentina media law, Press Freedom

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