The fight for the fourth power in Latin America

While president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner's government took a hit during midterm elections, Argentina's supreme court ruled her restrictions on the country's media were constitutional. (Photo: Claudio Santisteban / Demotix)

While president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government took a hit during midterm elections, Argentina’s supreme court ruled her restrictions on the country’s media were constitutional. (Photo: Claudio Santisteban / Demotix)

The Argentinian supreme court recently ruled to uphold the country’s controversial media law. The decision represents a big victory for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who argued that the law helps break up the power concentrated in the hands of Argentina’s biggest media conglomerate Grupo Clarín. Opponents, however, says it stifles freedom of expression and press as it would force media companies to sell off some of their outlets. Concerns have also been raised about the law being a way of punishing Clarín, which fell out with the government after negative coverage during tax protests in 2008.

This is only the latest chapter in the ongoing story of the media business in some Latin American countries, with left wing governments and private companies locked in a decade-long fight for control of what will be shown on TV, heard on the radio, printed in newspapers, and posted on websites. New communications laws, persecution of journalists and closure of television networks, however, shows who is really in charge.

Governments like Venezuela and Argentina are waging war against big media companies, while more moderate ones, like Brazil, are using milder means to try and balance the power of communication in their countries. But far from being presented as a straightforward issue of freedom of expression, most of these cases have two opposing and radical interpretations.

On one side, there is the pro-government camp. They believe the governments are democratising the media, which has traditionally been in the hands of the few. In Brazil, for example, eight families control almost 80% of all traditional media companies. The aforementioned Grupo Clarín owns national and regional newspapers, radios, TV channels and more.

Those opposing these measures, however, say they amount to censorship. Again, a good example comes from Argentina: there are some rumours that Kirchner’s administration is trying to suffocate Grupo Clarín by not allowing big chain stores to advertise in their papers. There is also the infamous case of the the closure of Venezuela TV channel RCTVI in 2010.

Both sides talk of freedom of expression, arguing they want to show what is better for the public. But the public – those with the most to benefit from a good and transparent media – are not being allowed to decide for themselves. This is not happening just in Argentina and Venezuela, but across the continent – in Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia, and, albeit in a much gentler way, in Brazil.

Professor Mirta Varela, specialist in history of the media at the University of Buenos Aires, is among those who believe governments are not repressing the big companies or trying to dominate the industry. “The measures taken have shown the political and economic power of the main companies, the spurious origin of their economic growth and their relationship with the dictatorship”, she explains, referencing Grupo Clarín and the military regimes that held power in almost all the Latin American countries from 1960 to 1980. But she also sees some problems with this polarisation: “There is a little room to set a new agenda; to make independent criticism, not overtly for or against the government.”

Cecilia Sanz works for Argentinian TV show “Bajada de línea”, which roughly translates to “Under the Line”. The show is hosted by Uruguayan Victor Hugo Morales, a well-known journalist connected to what Sanz calls “the progressive governments” in Latin America. Here she groups together a number of different left-leaning governments from across the continent – from moderates Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, to the more radical Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador.

The show comments on the state of the media in Latin America, mainly arguing against the big private companies. “Our main goal is to put in context and show how the media owners have the intention, above all else, to accomplish their economic objectives,” she says. “The are using ‘freedom of expression’ as an excuse for this”. She mentions the case of powerful Mexican TV Azteca, which according to her, supports all the candidates from the hegemonic party PRI, and Chilean paper “El Mercurio”, which used to attack Chilean ex-president Salvador Allende in the 1970s – again putting very different cases in the same group.

The more radical of these “progressive governments” accuse the media industry of trying to destabilise the authorities or to encourage coups d’état. Venezuela’s putsch in 2002 is always mentioned. In this case factions of the media was directly fighting against Hugo Chávez – so Chávez took them off the air.

“This is an insult to the audience because in all of cases it is about the most popular media channels”, counters Claudio Paolillo, president of the freedom of press and expression commission of SIP, Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa (the Inter-American Press Society). “No one has put a gun to the audience’s head to force them to choose what to read, listen or watch, and on what channel.”

Paolillo says the government engages in “Goebbels’ style” propaganda, sustained by public resources, to oppress independent or critic media and journalists. He adds that, ironically, these radical “progressive governments” act like the conservative military regimes of the past. “It is an ideological posture. They want to nationalise communications media as if it was a regular business that offers services or products.”

Paolillo says SIP is against Latin Americas state-controlled monopolies or oligopolies, but reaffirms it is the audience that has the real power to decide what to watch, and where. If they want to watch the same news program, the government shall not interfere. “Unfortunately in Argentina as in Venezuela (and we must add here Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia), governments have created their own media companies, expropriated and bought private ones – in some cases even working through a figurehead”, he complains.

Brazilian political scientist Mauricio Santoro brings up another common problem in the region – organised crime targeting reporters in Mexico and Colombia. But he says this is not a new situation. In his opinion, what is new, is “progressive governments” using the power of the state to control its opponents.

“The alternative proposed by these leftist governments is not based on the construction of an alternative model that privileges pluralism and gives a voice to social and community movements. It is about breaking business groups and giving power to a state press that acts like a government representative and not a public one.”

Worried about the poor quality of the media across Latin America, Santoro suggests the continent needs a more dynamic media, more capable of listening and understanding the true necessities of the people of a region going through “profound change”.

“Looking at the local scene”, he asks, “are we able to find any country where the traditional media meets this expectation?”

Not really.

This article was originally posted on 11 Nov 2013 at

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