Grupo Clarin presents plan to split into 6 parts, vows to keep fighting anti-monopoly law

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Argentina's Grupo Clarin announced Monday how it would break itself into six separate companies to comply with the country's law against broadcast media monopolies.

Clarin's four-year challenge to the law was finally denied last week by the Supreme Court, which upheld the law in its entirety. But Clarin still says the law is unfair and may sue in international courts as well as file new challenges domestically as the government tries to implement the law, which is intended to dramatically reshape Argentina's broadcast media industry.

"Grupo Clarin has decided to separate its audiovisual licenses into six different business units, each one respecting the limits" of the media law," Clarin announced. "It's a decision forced upon us by the circumstances. We are convinced that in no civilized country can the state retroactively refuse to recognize the licenses it granted, that have years still go. They didn't even do this in countries like Venezuela or Ecuador."

The media law limits the number of radio, broadcast television and cable television licenses that can be held by the same owner, and enables the government to auction off licenses of those that don't comply.

It isn't clear whether creating separate business units within the same corporation would satisfy the government of President Cristina Fernandez, whose fight with Grupo Clarin's news outlets has dominated the country's political discourse for years.

The licenses are essential to Clarin's cable television networks, and synergy between the finances and news content of the group's TV and radio stations, websites and newspaper are key to its power. Many government supporters want nothing less than Clarin's defenestration as a viable opponent.

The law says licenses can't be transferred without approval, and changes must avoid vertical and horizontal concentrations of private media power.

But the justices also said that any company forced to give up its licenses must be fairly compensated, with oversight from a truly independent broadcast media regulator, and with a transparent and equitable distribution of government subsidies and advertising. Otherwise, the court warned, the law will only convert those surviving media companies into "government mouthpieces."

The regulatory agency is currently dominated by appointees of President Cristina Fernandez, who has funded and fostered a huge expansion of pro-government media in the last few years while denying government support to opposition voices. By Clarin's count, 80 per cent of Argentina's media are now directly or indirectly beholden to the government for financial survival.

But the president's hand-picked agency chief, Martin Sabbatella, denied any lack of independence or fairness when asked to respond to that part of the court's ruling last week.

Clarin said that it won't implement the breakup plan until it has to, but that its plan should be enough to fend off a threatened government takeover.

Meanwhile, it said it plans to file new legal challenges unless changes in the media industry are overseen by "an authority that is independent, impartial and technically competent, and that can insure transparent and equal treatment under the law, which is contrary to what is happening today."