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Media Pie

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Issue: 65 Section: Media Analysis Geography: Latin America Argentina Topics: media reform

November 26, 2009

Media Pie

Argentina’s bold new law and the future of the press

by Samara Chadwick

Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner has redivided the country's media pie, but many wonder if she has cut herself too big a slice. Photo: Samara Chadwick

BUENOS ARIES—In 1867, as Canada became itself, every town big enough to have one newspaper had two. Why? When our constitution was fresh and new, the notion of democracy demanded people be informed. And, informed, the people demanded partisanship. Toronto, for example, had the liberal-backed Globe and the conservative Mail, each directly funded by their respective parties. The political ties were clear, and each paper kept its alter ego in check.

With the rise of advertising at the turn of the century, and the ties between the press and the government waned, the responsibility of many newspapers drifted away from the citizens en mass to land in the padded laps of the citizen elite. The private media empires were born, and the invisible hand of the market has fed a few enough to grow them into giants. Meanwhile, this year alone our government’s starvation tactics have lost the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation 800 jobs and a string of programmes.

Yet, just as last century saw its rise, this century is witnessing the fall of advertising. Canwest’s publishing revenues dropped 19 per cent in one year; its staff lost 560 jobs; and Izzy Asper’s empire teeters on the edge of bankruptcy. NewsCorp CEO Rupert Murdoch announced in November that his model is failing, while experts predict that in the next two years, 85 per cent of newspapers will cease to exist.

The model we know is collapsing. And although both are certainly kicking, the public press is too enfeebled and the private is too panicked to propose a viable alternative.

So how about an old-time duel, the kind Canadians used to demand from their local papers? In Argentina the battle between public and private has been raging around a radical new law that redistributes broadcast licences into three equal parts: private, public, and NGO.

As this law comes into force, the Argentinian example serves as a case study of how fascinating things can get when press, politics and power take off their masks—and fight.

While Argentinians protest in favor of media reform, the Clarin Group, which holds a virtual media monopoly in the country, shouts censorship. Photo: Simon Schnetzer

A Newspaper

This September, Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner hauled a media bill through Congress and the Senate in record time: in October it was signed and became law. The Audiovisual Communication Service Law (LSCA, by its Spanish initials) certainly appears to be popular if you ask the crowds of people marching to mark its victory in the streets of Buenos Aires: “Our current law was passed in 1980 by the dictatorship—it had no place in today’s democracy!” insists an elegant young woman.“ Only commercial interests have been able to publish or broadcast under the old law,” says an elderly man with a soft face.

This was October 10 at 2am: the moment the Senate passed the LSCA 44 votes to 24. Half an hour later, Argentina’s biggest newspaper, El Diario Clarin, responded on its website, claiming, in bold font, that “many [members of the crowd] conceded that they didn’t know what they were supporting or what had happened, and that they had been paid.” The others, the article claimed, “repeated by memory the slogans the government has launched against Clarin.” It was with this exasperated article that Clarin, Argentina’s largest media conglomerate, conceded its defeat.

The media group had fought with claws and teeth for months, throwing all its weight and hate across the countries’ airwaves and front pages. Pick up any copy of Clarin from 2009, and you will be stunned: the newspaper, its vicious headlines and vile adjectives, bold fonts and awful photographs, had become a war cry.

It turns out the now-ousted dictatorship-era law had one principle beneficiary: Clarin. The newspaper reported the 1976 military coup to be “inevitable,” and then reaped the bounty of the new regime: censorship, privatization, and the nation’s press controlled by the State Intelligence Agency. Private media holders in turn supported the dictatorship by silencing reports across the country of systematic murders, in which an estimated 30,000 civilians disappeared.

The dictatorship saw to the eradication of Clarin’s competitors, and the subsequent neoliberal reign of the 1990s brought a series of conglomerations and shady backroom deals that have lifted the newspaper’s parent company, Grupo Clarin, to a close monopoly of Argentina’s television, radio and print. Today, the media group holds more than 264 broadcast licenses nationwide, over a dozen print publications, two of the three nation-wide television networks, and two national radio stations. Clarin is the most watched and read newsgroup in Argentina: El Diario Clarín circulates half a million copies daily, and its electronic version is the most visited Spanish language newspaper on the Internet, whereas Clarin cable reaches 80 per cent of the homes in Buenos Aires and half of homes nationwide.

And just as it had cajoled the dictators during their terror, and president Menem during his infamous beeline into national bankruptcy in 2001, Grupo Clarin faithfully supported Peronista president Nestor Kirchner when he was elected in 2003. At the height of his presidency, President Kirchner enjoyed a 70 per cent approval rating nationwide.

A President

When Nestor Kirchner’s wife, Cristina Fernandez, won the 2007 elections with a sweeping majority (22 per cent above her closest opponent), Clarin was enthusiastic about her win and what they called the continuation of Modelo K. On the front page of the post-election paper, El Diario Clarin affectionately called the new president "Cristina," and quoted her saying that she wanted to call together “the whole society, because a country is not only its government.”

Not two years later, every copy of Clarin discharges the name "Cristina" alongside a string of insults: oligarchy, colonialism and corruption have boldface priority. Dreadful photographs of the president, poorly cropped, red-eye enhanced, and features skewed—a photo editor’s vengeance—relentlessly depict her as a furious despot: and this is exactly how she is now perceived by a great number of her country’s citizens. In a country in which every citizen between 18 and 70 is subject to enforced compulsory voting, recent polls place the president’s popularity at 20 per cent.

Cristina Fernandez has blamed Clarin directly for her fall from grace.

As of December 10, 2009, having lost the midterm vote, president Kirchner will sit seemingly powerless atop the last two years of her coalition government. And so, in her last two months at the helm of Argentina’s quickly sinking Kirchnerism, she has rushed to sign the new media law, which, many people claim, is nothing more than a dagger of retaliation, aimed right at the heart of the writhing Grupo Clarin.

A Law

The people are partly right: the new law is daring and drastic, the kind of law necessarily born from fear and loathing. It has echoes of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s media reform, but it has a singular approach.

By this time next year, Argentina’s media pie will be reallocated in three even slices of 33 per cent each: one will be retained by the private conglomerates, including of course the Grupo Clarin, whereas the other two will be redistributed between state-funded press and non-governmental organisations. Seventy per cent of radio content and 60 per cent of television content be produced in Argentina, and cable TV companies, now fountains of North American media, will be required to carry channels operated by universities, unions, Indigenous groups and other NGOs.

Clarin, furious, is now being forced to sell its empire, at a minimal price, to what has become its enemy: the government.

In a crucial editorial titled, "Don’t violate the freedom of expression," Clarin denounced the State as an imperialistic oligarchy, under whose control Argentinians will be left with nothing more than “a gigantic network of media outlets, apparently diverse, but actually obeying a single voice and serving one single ideology.” What "Cristina" is planning, another editorial fumes, is “to colonize our media.”

The president has been vilified before her entire country, and her attempts to redeem herself by buying expensive commercials and publicly denouncing the mighty Clarin, have, in the eyes of her voters, done nothing but discredit her. Cristina Fernandez has held but three press conferences in two years: her relationship with journalists is clearly reluctant—when not altogether confrontational. Does she now propose herself to be guardian of the media?

A recent poll found most Argentinians agree it is high time for a new law. Yet, almost unanimously, people interviewed on the street have more trust in Clarin than they do in their democratically elected leader.

Although the Argentinian government has perhaps won the airwaves, it seems to have lost the public trust.

A prominent Argentinian journalist, whose anonymity is required to protect his job, pointed out how the situation—Clarin’s arrogance and the government’s vicious new law—is a symptom of the country’s immature democracy. Both Clarin's and the Kirchners' bully tactics have reduced the discussion of the new law to a petty contest, he says, instead of a critical debate about democracy, information, and the future of the press.

The changes in Argentina's media landscape point to a debate that should be worldwide. Argentina has taken a significant step: while journalism is dying elsewhere, it is being turned on in Argentina.

The fall of Argentina’s old law effectively refutes the notion that media is a commercial venture. The Internet negates it; the newspaper gravestones confirm it. In the last two years, the United States has laid off a quarter of its journalists. We have all been watching: “The free market,” as American journalist John Nichols claims, “is killing journalism.”

There is no money in media. But is there no future?

Let's return to the beginning, back when our constitution was shiny and new: At the time, the newspapers in Canada and the US were the most subsidized newspapers in the world. “If there is to be journalism,” says Nichols, “there has to be government intervention,” through a free, federally-subsidized press. It is, he argues, the only answer.

Maybe Argentina is on to something.

Samara Chadwick is a Canadian journalist/filmmaker currently traveling through Latin America. More at http://justsostories.org.

QUICK FACTS

- Percentage of Argentinean media privately owned in 2009 and 2011, respectively: 80, 33
- Percentage of broadcast licences reserved specifically for NGOs in 2009 and 2011, respectively: 0, 33
- Approximate number of hours per day allotted to local television production in 2009 and 2011, respectively: 3, 15
- Grupo Clarin net profits in the third quarter of 2009: 103 million pesos (US$27.1 million)
- Grupo Clarin estimated net profits in the third quarter of 2011: much much less

LINKS

Maria Trigona’s well-researched article on the media law (there aren’t many!): http://upsidedownworld.orr/main/content/view/2166/1/, including a map of Argentina’s current media landscape: http://upsidedownworld.org/main/images/stories/Oct09/medios.gif

Another good article by Eduardo Szklarz: http://ciempre.com/bin/content.cgi?article=846&lang=en

The government-funded, pro-LSCA website, featuring tv-spots and the testimonies of recognized artists, Indigenous leaders, and Diego Maradona himself: http://www.argentina.ar/_es/pais/nueva-ley-de-medios/

"The Future of Journalism" by John Nichols: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zuie5rSlY9c

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