Argentines May Gain Little from Media Group’s Breakup
By Mark Keller, Guest Blogger
December 7 will mark the death of press freedom in Argentina, if the country’s largest media conglomerate, Grupo Clarín, is to be believed. That date is the deadline by which Clarín must divest many of its assets or see them forcibly auctioned off in accordance with a 2009 media law. As in much of Latin America, Argentine media are controlled by a relatively small collection of private owners, and the law aimed to open the media landscape to a greater diversity of voices by limiting the number of licenses a single company can hold. However, Grupo Clarín and free speech advocates have argued that the government-backed legislation violates property rights and threatens freedom of the press. Given the contentious relationship between Clarín and the government, the group insists it is being unfairly targeted for political reasons.
Although they were once allies, Grupo Clarín and Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) fell out in 2008 over the group’s coverage of protests against her government’s policy on agricultural taxes. Since then, the relationship has grown extremely tense. In a country with no unified or convincingly competitive political opposition (CFK beat her closest challenger by a margin of 36 points in last year’s presidential election), Clarín has become the leading voice of those opposed to the present administration. The company’s flagship newspaper, Clarín, and its Cablevisión television network frequently criticize the government, especially for its refusal to release accurate inflation data, its imposition of tight currency regulations, and its alleged contemplation of a constitutional change that would permit CFK to seek a third term. More recently, the group’s outlets provided extensive coverage of antigovernment protests on November 9, in which largely middle- and upper-class demonstrators warned against CFK’s “dictatorial tendencies” and the country’s transformation into what they have dubbed “Argenzuela.”
Such reporting has provoked the ire of the CFK administration. A favorite refrain of the government—including in state advertising—has been “Clarín miente” (Clarín lies). Forces from the national tax agency and the military police have raided the company’s newspaper and television offices, government-allied unions have frequently called strikes to prevent the newspaper’s distribution, and the state has withheld advertising from the group’s print publications despite their large circulations. The government has also made personal attacks: It alleged that Clarín’s largest shareholder adopted children who were abducted from leftist families by the right-wing military dictatorship during Argentina’s “Dirty War,” and called the company’s chief executive a “mafioso.”
Grupo Clarín argues that the 2009 media law—officially Law 26.522 on Audiovisual Communication Services—falls into this larger pattern of government pressure. Indeed, many analysts agree that the law was designed to target Grupo Clarín specifically. It limits the number of licenses a single media company can hold to 24, whereas Clarín currently controls more than 250. The law’s goal is to break up conglomerates, promote local, independent news outlets, and provide a greater diversity of opinion. It has been praised by supporters, including UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Frank La Rue, who called it a “model” for Latin America and the rest of the world.
Grupo Clarín does control a huge share of the Argentine media market. Detractors of the licensing law claim that dominance of traditional media is less relevant in the age of the internet, but the company’s assets include popular cable-based internet services. Moreover, television remains the most influential medium in the country, and Latin America has often seen media conglomerates play a questionable role in national politics, making or breaking political careers depending on the caprices of their wealthy owners.
Even so, politicized enforcement of the 2009 law remains a concern. The administration’s practice of selectively allocating state advertising could be used to control any new outlets created by the dismantlement of Clarín. The Global Editors’ Network estimates that the government already directly or indirectly controls some 80 percent of the country’s media through such means. CFK has also displayed a lack of respect for freedom of speech. Independent analysts who publish inflation figures that differ from those released by the government can face jail time, and tax officials have been dispatched to investigate the administration’s critics. Finally, just as there are other regional examples of overweening private media monopolies, a number of Latin American governments—in Venezuela and Ecuador, for instance—have similarly attempted to silence media critics in the name of free speech and diversity of opinion.
Promoting media pluralism is certainly important for a healthy democracy, and the concentration of outlets under Grupo Clarín is far from ideal. However, the government’s increasing control of the local media through state advertising and its broader track record on freedom of speech make it unlikely that Argentina’s media landscape would be any more diverse after a Clarín breakup—indeed it might even be less so. The government seems to be replacing one form of biased journalism with another, leaving the Argentine public with a dangerous shortage of truly independent sources of information.
* Mark Keller is a Latin America specialist who focuses on the politics of the region.
Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.