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.

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