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Argentine president feuds with media conglomerate

What's behind Argentina's attempt to decentralize the media?

Pedestrians walk past newspapers print with Argentina's first lady and elected presidential candidate senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Buenos Aires, Oct. 29, 2007. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

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.