Argentine president feuds with media conglomerate

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Every Sunday Fabian Lopez buys a copy of Clarin, Argentina's most widely read paper, at his neighborhood kiosk.

Lopez says he likes Clarin best, but he can't trust everything he reads in it.

Its owners, the Clarin Group, have been openly feuding with the government over a new media law that threatens their business.

"Opinions can be bought," Lopez shrugged cynically, handing over his coins for the paper. " Still you need something to inform you!"

Most Argentines like to stay informed. With a nearly universal literacy rate and high cable penetration, Argentina is one of Latin America's largest media markets.

And that has made the Clarin Group one of Latin America's most profitable media companies. In addition to several newspapers and magazines, it owns two major cable television operations, three radio stations and one of Argentina's five broadcast television channels. While profits wane for many media companies in the United States, the Clarin Group made half a billion dollars last year.

But Argentina's president believes the Clarin Group has become too powerful. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner ushered a new law through Congress to decentralize the media and break up monopolies. The law goes into effect Dec. 10.

Community news groups, universities, non-profits and other civil society organizations have long advocated changing the law to guarantee rights to information and communication outside the private sector. In October, when the law passed in the Senate, hundreds celebrated in the streets outside the National Congress building in Buenos Aires.

The new reforms divide Argentina's airwaves into thirds shared equally by the government, the private sector and non-profit organizations. The law requires 70 percent of radio content and 60 percent of broadcast television content to be produced in Argentina. It also reduces the number of television, radio and cable licenses that any one company can hold.

While many laud the new law as a significant improvement, the changes represent a drastic reduction in the amount of available broadcast spectrum for commercial media. All major media companies will be affected — Clarin especially.

The old media laws were enacted during the military dictatorship in 1980 and designed to keep the media in very few hands. For the last 30 years, only private companies could hold broadcast licenses and they grew without regulation. The Clarin Group prospered under dictators and presidents who spanned the political spectrum, including the current president's husband.

But if there was a cozy relationship between Clarin and the Kirchner government, it ended last year. The president publicly blames Clarin for her party's recent defeat at the polls. Clarin was highly critical of the government's new agricultural tax system ahead of the recent mid-term elections. Then just days before the new law went to Congress, the offices of the Clarin Group were raided by government tax inspectors.

All this has sparked debate as to whether the government intended to use the new law to punish the Clarin Group or to have more direct control over the media itself. Critics say the president has too much influence over the redistribution.

"This law is about controlling the licenses, but there's a problem if it controls content by determining who receives the licenses," said Andres D'Alessandro, executive director of the Argentine Journalism Forum (FOPEA), a group of more than 280 reporters dedicated to improving journalism ethics and quality in Argentina.

FOPEA hopes the new Congress will revise the law to ensure more transparency. It would also like the government to give media companies more time to comply with ownership restrictions.

Clarin and Argentina's other media companies have one year to sell their assets.

That kind of rush makes Bill Kovach question the government's intentions. Kovach is the founder of the Committee of Concerned Journalists and senior adviser for the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington, D.C. He says that while the new law mirrors anti-monopoly laws in the United States and Europe, changes there came about more gradually.

"Other parts of the world have dealt with the issue of concentration — but slowly over time. To try to enhance competition is a logical thing to do but it's a process, not a fiat. The government is using the law to eliminate its commercial competitors," he said.

A recent Harvard study of Argentine newspapers found a correlation between state-sponsored advertising revenue and reduced coverage of government corruption scandals. The study supports what many have long alleged is an institutional legacy of government influence over the press in Argentina.

But the researchers also found that corruption coverage in the larger newspapers, like Claron and La Nacion, was less sensitive to changes in government advertising than smaller newspapers. So the diversification of media may dilute the power of any one group to criticize the government.

"Of course we have some problems with press freedoms in Argentina, but it's nothing compared with other countries," said Edward Bartoni, director for the Center for Freedom of Expression and Access to Information at the University of Palermo.

Bertoni points to the government's decriminalization of libel last month as a major step toward media freedom in Argentina.

And Bertoni says he isn't too worried about the new media law: The new Congress can make changes to the law in its next session. Or Clarin can take their case to court.

"Concentration of media ownership is a problem — particularly in Latin America. Argentina is no exception," said Bartoni. "But the power of the media ultimately comes from their ability to convince people that what they're publishing is true."