Thursday, December 20, 2012

Power Struggle: Argentine President and Media Empire Clarín Battle Over New Media Law - By Savannah Hart

Based on the historically controversial relationships that have existed between the government of Argentina and its national media, it comes as little surprise that the current President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is tied up in a heated battle with Grupo Clarín, one of the largest media conglomerates in the Spanish-speaking world. The New York Times boldly describes it as “one of the most contentious struggles over power and public influence in Argentina in years.” While Clarín has dealt with political clashes before, the media empire now faces President Kirchner’s media law, which will force Clarín to shed some of its valuable cable operations.

This “tug-of-war” for influence over the Argentine public between the media and politicians has been going on since the first presidency of Juan Perón, who injected the media with his populist influence and went so far as to close the opposition newspaper at the time, La Prensa. The newspaper Clarín began its publication in 1945 alongside Perón’s first term, although it remained as politically neutral as it could at that time. Later in 1976, after openly supporting the coup d’état, it was selected by military leaders as one of two newspapers that was allowed to be printed, giving it a clear advantage over its competitors. Once Argentina’s democracy was restored in 1983, Clarín began to aggressively expand its influence by pressing democratically elected leaders to loosen antimonopoly measures. The Grupo Clarín that exists today has transformed over the last two decades into a multimedia conglomerate that owns two radio stations, two widely viewed television channels, a sports newspaper and at least three provincial papers, as wells as the new agency DYN.

The relationship between Cristina Kirchner and Grupo Clarín was inherited from her late husband, and predecessor Néstor Kirchner (president from 2003 to 2007). For years, Clarín openly supported Mr. Kirchner who regularly hosted Héctor Magnetto, Clarín’s chief executive, for lunches and contributed exclusive stories to the publication’s journalists. At that time, political opposition from some of Clarín’s top competitors resulted in Mr. Kirchner instructing officials to approve Clarín’s acquisition of Cablevisión, a major cable television provider, as one of his last acts as president. It was this deal that resulted in Clarín acquiring some of its most valuable properties including magazines, an Internet provider and television channels with some of Argentina’s highest-rated news and entertainment. So why the sudden change of heart? This relationship between Clarín and the Kirchners began to go south in 2007 when Clarín published reports alleging that a businessman from Venezuela brought $800,000 in cash as a secret contribution to Mrs. Kirchner’s presidential campaign. This relationship deteriorated further in 2008 under President Cristina Kirchner when Clarín openly opposed Mrs. Kirchner’s raising of export taxes on agricultural producers. These supposed “attacks” on the Kirchner government, combined with the recent plunge in her approval ratings has put President Kirchner on an aggressive mission of minimizing Clarín’s influence in the region. This battle between politicians and the media in Argentina calls into question whether or not political leaders have the right to diminish the power of media if it is affecting their public approval negatively. Or, on the contrary, whether political leaders have the right to support certain news organizations if they are presenting them to the public in a favorable way? Clarín has watched many of its competitors that favorably cover Mrs. Kirchner gain a surge of public advertising from government officials.

During her battle with Grupo Clarín, President Kirchner has raided the company’s headquarters with 200 tax agents, refers to Mr. Magneto as a “Mafioso”, and accused Clarín’s largest shareholder of adopting two children that were thought be have been abducted from women killed during Argentina’s “dirty war.” Drawing on Argentina’s painful past may be Mrs. Kirchner’s most dramatic attempt to turn public opinion back in her favor. According to Héctor Magnetto, the Kirchner government is not seeking justice but rather their efforts to break up Clarín are part of a broader plan to change Argentina’s Constitution so that Mrs. Kirchner can seek a third term in 2015. Amending the constitution in order to allow for longer terms in office has become commonplace in Latin America (i.e. Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador); however, extending terms can also mean extending a tradition of public corruption and political patronage that ultimately hurts these countries.

Although the media law was first passed in 2009, it has been challenged by Clarín and brought to the courts. While initially the Supreme Court ruled that Clarín had until Dec. 7 to comply with the law, a reprieve was granted earlier this month. The media group is continuing to argue that the law is unconstitutional but, if the law is pushed forward, it could result in a process that will strip the organization of a large portion of their licenses. For Grupo Clarín, it appears as if freedom of expression is being diminished for those that oppose the government, while it flourishes for those that support it.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Pope Has a Twitter! - Social Media's Impact on International Relations

Today, Pope Benedict XVI set a milestone for the Catholic Church when, for the first time (and with a lot of assistance), he used an iPad to tweet to his 1 million+ followers all over the world. Okay, maybe he is a little behind the times in terms of exponentially evolving technology, but I find this to be indicative of a changing global landscape, one where technology (and more specifically, social media) will increasingly influence the way states interact with their citizens, and how they interact with each other. Whether this influence is positive or negative, however, remains to be seen.

Social media's influence on foreign relations is not necessarily a new trend. The Arab Spring is perhaps the first example of a major international conflict being substantially impacted by the Internet. Before the Internet's inception, many of the atrocities carried out in the Middle East and Africa were unbeknownst to the rest of the world, save for the few individuals who could physically visit those regions. What the Arab Spring demonstrated was that with a few cell phone cameras and web access, pictures and videos could be widely and rapidly distributed to the rest of the world. There was also increased coordination between rebels and protestors, as they were able to communicate via online forums when their cell phone service was cut. Ultimately, all of this resulted in the pressure put on leaders in the Middle East to provide aid and assistance being enormous and unprecedented.

Sometimes this rapid dissemination of information is not necessarily beneficial for a country, though, as indicated by Sweden's twitter experiment earlier this year. Things started off well when Sweden decided to let one ordinary citizen each week use the country's twitter account, but the concept quickly deteriorated when one citizen began tweeting offensive remarks directed towards Jews. This marked the end of the Swedish experiment and set an example for other countries of how Twitter can sometimes be a dangerous weapon.

This has not stopped countries all over the world from trying to adapt to the ever-changing technological environment. Most heads of state have their own twitter account, and the U.S. State Department, USAID, the U.N., and many other important foreign policy-related bodies tweet constantly every day. While many interactions remain strictly formal, twitter and facebook have become easier ways for people all over the world to stay connected and communicate, and leaders everywhere are understanding this more and more.

Pope Benedict XVI joins the ranks of the Dalai Lama, President Obama, and many other influential leaders on twitter today, and I'm glad. Social media is just the next step forward in globalization, and a more connected world. And who knows? Maybe soon we'll be seeing Obama giving shoutouts to Putin and vice versa over the twitterverse. That will be the day.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Violence Reemerges in Northern Ireland

Sectarian clashes made the headlines yet again last week, but this time in a region people seem to forget has religious divides as deep as those in the Middle East. In the Western European nation of Northern Ireland, loyalists to the United Kingdom clashed with police officers over a vote determining how many days the Union flag would be flown over Belfast city hall. A move that in any other city would be relegated to the back page of the newspaper took on heightened significance and showed that tensions still run high between the Catholic and Protestant parties of Northern Ireland. Yet the vote also came at a time when the economy is flagging, one in four shops in Belfast stands empty, and the young generation is starved for jobs. To choose to vote on such an inflammatory issue at this time could only have led to more violence and damaged relations between opposing parties.

Murals depicting political affiliations adorn the gable walls of many Belfast homes (left is Protestant, right Catholic)

For over thirty years, Northern Ireland went through civil unrest known as The Troubles, in which over 3,000 people were killed. The violence stems from deep cultural divides between its Protestant and Catholic communities. The Protestants largely come from the “settler” generations and have Scottish, English, Welsh and Huguenot roots. The Catholic community on the other hand is largely from the pre-settler days and many within it view the Protestants as interlopers and colonialists. While The Troubles officially ended with the signing of the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement) in 1998, the most recent violence makes clear that trouble may be far from over. Many republicans still hope to join southern Ireland as made possible by the Agreement’s provision for a popular referendum to break from the U.K. With demographic shifts moving Catholics towards holding the majority, such a vote is more possible than ever.

To complicate matters further, it is believed that the paramilitary groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) may be orchestrating further violence. The UVF has already been blamed for coordinating the violence that broke out in protests last week that left 28 people injured and 19 people charged with crimes. Death threats against members of parliament have led to several having to leave their homes, including cross-community Alliance Party of Northern Ireland member Laura McNamee.

The vote on the flag did no more than determine that the Union jack would only be flown 17 days out of the year instead of 365. Seventeen is the number of days it is flown over the Parliament buildings at Stormont, so this could have just been a move to unify governmental procedures; however, such actions are never seen as innocent in Northern Ireland. Every move that has even a whiff of partisanship has the potential to set the country back and recall the horrors of The Troubles.

Indeed, observers have noted that the flag vote could not have come at a worse time. It is the height of the holiday season when many tourists are visiting downtown Belfast, where the shopping district is located directly next to the City Hall where the violence took place. Such an image would only ingrain the image of a violent and unstable Northern Ireland in the minds of visitors, hurting the much needed tourism industry and discouraging economic recovery. To an outsider, a simple solution seems to be that both flags, Irish and British, are flown on all government buildings every day of the year in acknowledgement of the multiple identities of the Northern Irish. Yet in sectarian conflicts, simple solutions are rarely as easy as they appear to be and there will always be forces interested in perpetuating tumult, not assuaging it. 

*Author’s Note: My boyfriend lives and works in Northern Ireland and grew up in Newtonards, a small town outside of Belfast. When I visited Northern Ireland last year I could not have found a more enchanting and lovely country, and the vast majority of people I met would never take part in the violence described above. The preceding is simply an illustration of how small groups of extremists can place hardship on an entire country, not a warning against visiting Northern Ireland.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Morsi's Last Decision?

Unrest in Egypt due to President Mohammed Morsi's power-grab nearly two weeks ago has finally culminated in what are the most violent protests Egypt has suffered since ex-President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown during the Arab Spring in 2011. Reporters on the ground in Cairo are reporting hundreds injured, with the crowds still rapidly growing as the sun goes down and darkness arrives. It is not difficult to imagine that by morning, the death toll could be rising, while leaders around the world scramble to figure out how to remediate the situation.

When I initially heard of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood party being elected several months ago, I, like much of the Western world, was leery of the overbearing Islamic influence it would bring to a country that had quite literally fought to the death for a new era and a more modern state. Over time, however, I began to genuinely like President Morsi, and saw nothing of concern in the messages he put forth and the way he treated the Egyptian people. As I have written before, it is possible for terrorist organizations to reform themselves into viable and authentic political parties, and it quickly became apparent that this was what Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood intended to do in Egypt.

I am still of this mindset. Mohammed Morsi's power-grab was for the good of the Egyptian people: time and time again, the Egyptian legislature has been deadlocked when it comes to drafting up a new constitution, something the new Egyptian government cannot function without. As Americans, we are no strangers to the perils of partisan deadlock; therefore, it should be obvious why Morsi has decreed himself above the law until a new constitution is drafted. Without this hoarding of power, the Egyptians may very well never have the constitution they fought so hard to have passed.

The question now is whether Morsi's stubbornness will outlive the animosity of the Egyptian citizens, or vice versa. I am scared to think of what may happen in the coming days, should Morsi continue to refuse to back down. Egyptians are terrified of authoritarianism and will refuse to settle for it, and it would be no surprise if they rose up again in defiance of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially now backed by the likes of Mohamed El Baradei, Morsi's primary opponent, and others. Is hammering out the constitution worth the degradation and potential collapse of a nascent state? Morsi will need to seriously consider this. Because if Morsi decides not to renege on these powers he has granted himself, well-intentioned or not, it may be the last decision he makes as President of Egypt.