On 10th October, a vote of 44-22 in the Senate sealed the fate of president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s controversial new media law.
It took 16 hours of debate for the law to be passed without any concessions to a vociferous opposition and be celebrated by thousands of supporters outside Congress.
The bill had been previously approved in Congress by a substantial margin of 146 to 3 on 17th September, although more than 100 opposition lawmakers stormed out in response, providing yet another manifestation of the heated debate this controversial proposal has provoked.
The real battlefield, however, is principally between the government and the Grupo Clarín, one of the largest media groups in Latin America.
The current media law derives from legislation passed during the dictatorship and carries the signature of ex-dictator Jorge Videla. Its update is intended to adapt it to suit the technological advances of the past 30 years as well as provide more democratic access to and distribution of information. This is to be achieved through the limitation of licenses controlled by the more powerful media groups, with more frequencies to be freed up for smaller independent companies.
Effectively, the aim is to encourage competition and avoid monopolies. It also will permit tighter state control over who owns the airwaves as another consequence of the bill would be a division of broadcast frequencies into thirds: one-third for private media, one-third for the state and one-third for non-governmental organisations and civil groups.
Furthermore, the new law aims to give more state control to Papel Prensa, the paper-making company which is part owned by La Nación and Clarín. This move is aimed to decrease the groups’ ability to set paper prices, thus increasing competition, and making things fairer for small, independent publications.
The new law is designated solely towards audio-visual media, leaving newspapers unaffected. This impacts Clarín as although it is most known for its newspaper, the company also has important business interests in cable, television and radio, owning two-thirds of Argentina’s cable network. As the law stipulates that no cable business may own any over-the-air broadcast channels, Clarín’s radio stations, television stations and part of its dominant cable TV network will be forcibly sold-off or restructured within one year after the law comes into power.
“It hits other media groups, but Clarín is the one it hurts,” said Daniel Kerner, an analyst at Eurasia Group.
The president justified the bill in a speech last month in which she declared it to be “for everyone who wants to live in a more democratic and more pluralistic Argentina.” She claims that allowing media monopolies to exist is detrimental to freedom of speech and that a modernised regulatory framework is urgently required.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, “many Argentine journalists and free press advocates acknowledge a need to overhaul broadcasting regulations enacted in 1980, during military rule, but have concerns about this bill.” Indeed many sceptics believe there to be an ulterior motive at play behind the new legislative proposal. They consider it to represent an act of retaliation against the critical attitude that Clarín has maintained towards the current government. The president herself has blamed media coverage, and in particular the conglomerate Grupo Clarín, for her party’s defeats in the recent elections. This was particularly aggravated by the recent ‘campo crisis’, in which Clarín heavily criticised a controversial new agricultural taxation system.
It is a complex situation as some accuse Clarín of consistently acting in its own interests by strategically currying favour with the government in order to be granted privileges. According to political commentator Sergio Kiernan, “first Clarín supports a government, getting economic concessions and licences as a result, but then when the political wind changes and the government begins to lose support, Clarín moves into opposition. It’s been very lucrative for them.” Clarín’s editor Ricardo Kirschbaum, however, defends attacks on the newspaper’s recent condemnations of governmental action on grounds that “the presidency can’t stand critical thought.”
Although the president was quick to sign the law, it is clear that the battle is not over yet. The opposition has hopes to revise the law when Congress is updated with newly elected members from June’s elections in December. Clarín has also declared that it intends to take the matter to the courts, claiming the new limits violate constitutional property protections.