Argentina’s press under fire

The administration of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner took to the public airwaves last month with a four-minute attack on Grupo Clarin , the largest media company in Argentina. This was the latest in a long string of abuses. Unlike in previous attacks, the message wasn’t that “Clarin miente” (Clarin lies), or that there is “no such thing as an independent press” — as Fernández claimed in her speech Wednesday at Georgetown University.

This time, during a commercial break of a widely watched soccer match, the government declared Grupo Clarin a threat to Argentina’s democracy and announced that the company will be forced to auction off a large segment of its operation on Dec. 7.

The government’s message was chillingly simple: Come December, Grupo Clarin will be dismantled. Every opposition political party, the Inter-American Press Association and media organizations around the world have criticized the government of Argentina’s unprecedented intervention in the private media market.

The government argues that its actions are necessary because of a 2009 law that stipulates media companies cannot own both print and TV companies and that restricts the number of licenses a group can own. The government claims that Clarin, whose holdings exceed the limits set by the law, must be immediately stripped of its offending assets.

This claim is false. For one thing, the law clearly stipulates a yearlong grace period that doesn’t start until related legal proceedings have ended. And not only have legal proceedings not been exhausted, but several groups in the Argentine media market would be subject to the law, while only Clarin has been singled out for a forced sale of assets.

Fernández and her allies engage in near-constant attacks on Clarin, its shareholders and its reporters. The law and its implementation have become just another chapter in an ongoing battle against one of the few independent media outlets remaining in Argentina.

And it does not appear that the government will stop once it dismantles Grupo Clarin. The Argentine government has increasingly used its political and economic clout to favor its allies and harass its opponents, including independent economists who dare to publish the country’s true economic statistics rather than those doctored by the state. Government advertising funds — which have risen from about $40 million in 2003 to more than $600 million last year — are overwhelmingly funneled to friendly media outlets. The pro-Fernández Grupo Spolski, which has a much smaller circulation than Clarin, received $125 million in 2011, while Clarin received a mere $3.3 million. Favoritism is so blatant that in 2011 the newspaper Perfil won a case before our Supreme Court, arguing that there was widespread discriminatory treatment in the distribution of advertising funds. (The government has yet to comply with the court’s ruling demanding proportional distribution of public funds.)

Fernández should look to the example of the United States and its commitment to protecting voices across the political spectrum. President Obama gave a rousing defense of freedom of expression at the U.N. General Assembly last week. He argued eloquently that political leaders have no right to be thin-skinned about criticism, saying that “in the United States, countless publications provoke offense. . . . As president of our country, and commander in chief of our military, I accept that people are going to call me awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.”

Just as we accept the principles of open markets and fair competition, we also support the notion of an open marketplace of ideas in Argentina. The 2009 law can have a positive effect on Argentina’s media, but it cannot be selectively applied and used as a tool to harass opponents. Selective enforcement against political rivals is eroding the rule of law, with dire implications for freedom of expression. I hope Argentina changes course before it is too late.

Jorge Rendo is director of Grupo Clarín, the largest media company in Argentina.

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