Argentina: President Kirchner law set to punish critical media group

Attempts to push through a media law in Argentina could end up destroying one of the country’s most critical broadcast outlets. Ed Stocker reports

A bitter battle between Argentina’s largest media empire, Grupo Clarín, and the government shows no signs of ending. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, continues to try and force through a media law that would see the break up of the conglomerate, the most critical voice against her administration.

Three years ago Congress passed an anti-monopoly bill with broad aims of making the Latin American country’s audio-visual landscape a more democratic, plural environment. But critics argue that its real aim is to stifle dissenting voices, including Clarín.

The law has positive aspects on the surface, argued Guillermo Mastrini, a professor at Quilmes University specialising in media. He said the new bill allows non-profit organisations a third of Argentina’s much-coveted broadcast licences for the first time — potentially setting a benchmark for regional press standards.

“But the real idea that needs to be understood,” he explained, “is that the media law has been much more democratic in its drafting than its implementation. The government has used a decent law to punish broadcast media that doesn’t toe the official line.”

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Hugo Passarello Luna | Demotix

Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Hugo Passarello Luna | Demotix

The implementation of the law has proved difficult since Clarín went to a tribunal over the constitutionality of a clause stating that companies with too many licenses — the right to broadcast in a certain region — would have to divest.

While a ruling on the constitutionality is still pending, Clarín was granted a temporary injunction. [Update 17/12: a judge has ruled this clause constitutional, and Clarín will now appeal. In the interim the federal media authority says it will now forcibly step in and start the transfer of licences.

What has ensued has been a complex and heated legal scuffle, with the government initially arguing that the injunction would end on 7 December, citing advice handed down by the country’s highest judicial body, the Supreme Court.

The government prepared for the 7 December deadline — when the law would apparently come into force — with fervour, saturating pro-government channels with adverts about a date they had renamed “7D” to give it a catchy ring. Clarín retaliated on its networks.

Then, at the last moment, an appeals court extended the injunction, despite the Supreme Court’s stance, thwarting the law once again.

For Daniel Dessein, freedom of expression president at the Argentine Association of Journalistic Entities (Adepa) group, 7D was part of the government’s increasingly confrontational stance towards the media.

“The government elected the date of 7 December as a historic and symbolic moment when the application of the law would allow democracy to triumph,” he said. “It chose a number and a letter for the day, 7D, which clearly alludes to D-Day and the Normandy invasion. The government was basically announcing an attack.”

That “attack” hasn’t gone the government’s way, and it has launched an appeal while strongly questioning the judiciary’s objectivity. The Permanent Council for the Protection of Judicial Independence, a national body of judges, in turn denounced what it called “institutional aggression” against judges.

According to Afsca, the body charged with implementing the media law, the proposed legislation isn’t singling out one group. Earlier this month, its president Martín Sabbatella said that “the spirit of Afsca has always been that no one is different and the rules are the same for everyone”.

Afsca argues that Grupo Clarín is the only media conglomerate that has refused to present divestment plans, from among the some 20 companies that exceed the new licence rule.

The media law continues to divide international opinion. The Florida-based Pan-American Press Society (SIP) sent a delegation to Argentina for the failed 7 December deadline. It later released a statement denouncing what it saw as  “serious problems regarding the free exercise of journalism in the country”.

On the other hand, Frank La Rue, UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression, said on a visit to Argentina in October that the law was “a model for the whole continent and for other regions in the world”.

Clarín argues that its TV and radio stations are some of the few “independent” voices left in Argentina, a country where many stations are dependent on government advertising to stay afloat.

Advocates of the law say it provides a much-needed overhaul of legislation that dates back to the last military dictatorship (1976-83). But for Guillermo Mastrini, the turf war with Clarín is holding up its progressive elements.

“The government has focused its forces more on destroying Grupo Clarín than allowing new broadcast outlets, companies and ideas from civil society to flourish,” he said. “That is the great failure of this law.”

Ed Stocker is a freelance journalist based in Buenos Aires. Follow him on Twitter: @Ed_Stocker

Read more of his work on censorship and free expression here

Shooting the messenger

Argentina has found an effective way of stifling independent inflation data — fining economists who question the official government statistics. Ed Stocker reports

In Argentina, inflation is never far from the media agenda. Primetime news channels endlessly debate the monthly rises in the canasta básica — the basic monthly family shopping basket — and the apparent divergence from official statistics.

Expressing contrasting views about the level of inflation in the country has become a divisive issue, highlighted by the decision of Internal Commerce Secretariat to fine several companies in April over their price-rise data.

Companies fined include Estudio Bein & Asociados, Finsoport, M&S Consultores and GRA Consultoras, as well as Graciela Bevacqua, a former employee of Indec, the state organisation charged with gathering statistics.

The secretariat claimed companies were being fined for publishing information that lacked “scientific rigour”, adding that if it was broadcast by media organisations it could “lead to error, deception or confusion”.

Miguel Kiguel , a former economist for the World Bank and head of the Econviews financial consultancy, received a fine of AR$500,000 (£73,000) for his forecast.

Speaking to Index on Censorship, he said: “This whole episode [fine] is surprising. The process is based on fair commerce laws that don’t apply to professional services and misleading advertising –– but we don’t carry out any type of advertising.

“It’s a way of scaring professionals who suggest that inflation is higher than the figures published by Indec.”

Asked if the government’s actions amounted to a freedom of expression violation, he replied: “Effectively these fines limit freedom of expression. The whole case is based on public declarations that I made in newspapers and on the radio. It is very worrying that one can receive very high fines for expressing one’s opinion on inflation and monetary policy.”

Last Thursday (28 April ) members of the Internal Commerce Secretariat defended their decision to impose fines. El Cronista Comericial, a newspaper that had previously questioned the reasons behind the fines, published an article by Internal Commerce national director Fernando Carro and Graciela Peppe, entitled “The truth will make us free”.

In the article they wrote: “One cannot assume that the resolutions behind the fines violate rights guaranteed by the National Constitution… Claiming that the fines infringe constitutional rights has no basis.” They added that suggesting government actions were an act of censorship showed a “profound confusion”.

The article continued: “From the ongoing investigation it has been possible to prove that the levels [of inflation] ascertained and disseminated by the firms that have been punished are little more than an artificial invention, based on reflections lacking the smallest hint of reliability.”

Earlier this year Indec published its figures for 2010, stating that inflation for the year was 10.9 per cent. Other economists suggest the unofficial figure is closer to 25 per cent.

Last April a group of pro-government activists interrupted the launch of a new book criticising Indec at Buenos Aires’ annual Feria del Libro (Book Fair). Gustavo Noreiga’s Indek: historia íntima de una estafa (Indek: the intimate story of a fraud) criticises the running of the statistics body, claiming President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner exercises political control over it.

Ed Stocker is a freelance writer based in Buenos Aires and London

Children of the disappeared

Dirty War abductions: A case involving the adopted heirs to an Argentinean media empire has reignited a row about press freedom. Ed Stocker reports

In a twist worthy of a telenovela, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, owner of Argentina’s largest media empire, Grupo Clarín, is at the heart of a court case that has reopened old wounds from the country’s 1970’s ‘Dirty War’.

De Noble stands accused of adopting two children of the ‘disappeared’— those tortured and murdered by the military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983.  The case, which has already taken eight years, is aimed at determining the true identity of her adoptive children and whether they are two of the 500 children estimated to have been illegally taken from their parents by the military.

De Noble’s media group owns Clarín, the most widely read newspaper in Argentina. Some commentators claim its high-profile owner has affected the paper’s coverage of the case but the newspaper denies the accusations.

Now the argument has moved onto whether journalists have compromised their credibility by working for the newspaper. On Friday posters appeared around Buenos Aires featuring 12 journalists who work for the media conglomerate. Above their individual photos a slogan asked: “Can you be ‘independent journalists’ and work for the owner of a multimedia company who is accused of appropriating children of the disappeared?” So far no group has claimed responsibility for the posters.

Posters in Buenos Aires accusing Grupo Clarin journalists. Photograph: Ed Stocker

Posters in Buenos Aires accusing Grupo Clarin journalists. Photograph: Ed Stocker

Clarín was quick to respond. In its Saturday edition the paper called the posters an “anonymous attack”. Gabriel Michi, president of the Foro de Periodismo Argentino (Argentine Journalism Forum) called the fly-posting a cowardly act, adding that it generated “a climate of pressure that could descend into much worse situations.”

The Senate approved a law in November 2009 that allows the compulsory collection of DNA in cases involving children of disappeared (1976-83). The posters surfaced after judges on 9 April rejected a legal application by Herrera de Noble’s adoptive children, Marcela and Felipe, aimed at preventing their DNA from being compared to samples in the National Bank of Genetic Data. The database preserves the genetic data of relatives of disappeared children; so far it has identified more than 100 children. Meanwhile the case is still working its way through the courts, and a decision about when the examination will take place is pending.

The Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, an organisation of mothers of the disappeared searching to identify their adopted grandchildren, celebrated the ruling as an important step. Abuela Buscarita Roa, reunited with her own granddaughter in 2000, said that she believed Clarín’s coverage, questionable in the past, had become more open in the last few months. She added: “Clarín has a very special power, as much economic as it is political. Due to this, censorship does exist.”

For Diego Martinez, journalist at the left-leaning daily Página 12, both Clarín and La Nación, Argentina’s other major newspaper, are guilty of obscuring the truth. He said: “Self-censorship in the de Noble case is evident as much in Clarín as La Nación which always twists the facts to fit in with the lawyers of the accused.”

A La Nación article on the Herrera de Noble case on 11 February stated that “the young children were adopted legally”, brushing over “Supposed irregularities” in the adoption proceedings. Clarín, too, has frequently printed interviews with lawyers representing de Noble’s adoptive children while denying a forum to those who question the children’s identity.

Martinez argues the papers report the story but fail to mention the “gross irregularities” surrounding the adoptions, including the fact that de Noble claims she found one child in a cardboard box on her doorstep.

Those opposed to Clarín and La Nación cite the papers’ close alignment with the military dictatorship that ran from 1976 to 1983 as one of the reasons they are reluctant to confront contemporary stories linked to the abuses of the past. For Buenos Aires-based journalist Juan Salinas, the papers were “accomplices and benefactors of the dictatorship.”

President Cristina Kirchner introduced a new media law in October 2009 aimed at breaking media monopolies, including the Clarín empire. Although approved by the Senate, the legislation is currently being held up by the courts, which caused thousands of protesters to take to the streets of the capital on 15 April in support of the law.

Opponents argue that it is a cynical way of trying to censure Grupo Clarín, which could be forced to sell of much of its assets and to a lesser extent La Nación, both of whom have been critical of the Kirchner governments.

Supporters claim the law is a much needed overhaul of a current system that can trace its roots to the establishment of the semi-monopolistic Papel Prensa, a news print producer formed by Clarín and La Nación in 1976,overseen by junta leader Jorge Rafael Videla.

Up to 30,000 people are thought to have been abducted and killed by the military dictatorship and as many as 500 children taken from their parents.

Ed Stocker is a freelance writer, currently based in Buenos Aires