05/10/2012 | Argentina’s political news agenda sometimes moves, overnight, from lethargy to vertigo. With news about armed security forces protesting over salaries and a key witness in a politically charged trial going missing reaches the headlines, the agenda moves away from media navel-gazing and touches base on that thing known as reality.
But this week had started with a new climax in the media/political war that continues to escalate between the government and the country’s largest media organization, Grupo Clarín. On Monday, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner signed the appointment of Martín Sabbatella as the head of the AFSCA federal broadcasting committee, the body in charge of enforcing legislation passed three years ago to reform Argentina’s mediasphere. Sabbatella is a national deputy and a former mayor of the Greater Buenos Aires district of Morón. He wields anti-corruption credentials and a sound public reputation. He is a supporter of the government.
Sabbatella’s appointment is the ultimate indication that the government views the implementation of the Audiovisual Media Act passed three years ago and entangled in a legal cobweb as a political issue — which it is. Sabbatella is a political figure replacing Santiago Aragón, a more technical cadre hailing from the world of academia. The Media Act is the result of the convergence of two forces: the Kirchners’ need to drive a wedge in Argentina’s media system — monopolized by the oppositionist Grupo Clarín — in the aftermath of its defeat in the 2009 midterm elections, and left-leaning organizations linked to grassroots broadcasters and public universities who have been debating media reform in the classrooms for decades. The Act, passed by a clear majority in Congress three years ago this Wednesday, replaced legislation introduced by the last military dictatorship and partially amended in the 1990s to fit free market rules.
The smooth Sabbatella voiced the right words and took the right steps during his first high-profile hours on the job. There will be “no exceptions and no privilege” when it comes to enforcing the law, he said in the Casa Rosada minutes after being anointed. “Media concentration harms democracy and we are convinced this law is important to generate more freedom of expression, more plurality and more diversity.” The next day, he rushed to Congress to gain commitment from ruling party leaders that a bicameral committee in charge of appointing a Media Ombudsman and opposition representatives to the AFSCA board will be set up soon.
Sabbatella’s mission number one is to build legitimacy around AFSCA’s work. The government has placed great expectations on a date fast approaching in Argentina’s political calendar: December 7. A Supreme Court ruling has said that day a court injunction granted to Grupo Clarín freezing a clause of the Media Act expires. The clause obliges all media outlets in the land to adapt to new anti-trust rules. Grupo Clarín, and most especially its big money making cable company Cablevisión, must trim down business. The President warned Sabbatella that advancing on “this tough and noble task” means his good reputation will go down the gutter. “You will be bad, ugly and dirty now,” she told him. Sabbatella insisted, “We will work so that the entire (media) market finds the best road toward compliance with the law and nothing but the law.” Others are not so sure.
Grupo Clarín is nowhere near ready to find any way toward compliance. The country’s largest media conglomerate, which still has massive firepower in the establishment of the public agenda, is sticking to its guns of staunch resistance and victimization. And it also seems to be setting the stage to go international if the going gets tough come December. One of Grupo Clarín’s directors, the oft-low-profile Jorge Rendo, bylined an opinion piece on the Washington Post on September 30 under the headline “Argentina’s press under fire.” Rendo wrote that the government is “selectively” enforcing the law “against political rivals” (sic) and that it plans to “dismantle” Grupo Clarín (oddly enough, Rendo says that the Media Act stipulates companies “cannot own both print and TV,” while in fact the law does not even mention the print market).
Rendo wraps up the article urging President Fernández de Kirchner to “look to the example of the United States and its commitment to protecting voices across the political spectrum.”
In the US, meanwhile, a very civilized first presidential debate starring President Obama and Governor Romney touched on politics and media issues on one of its few spicy moments. Pressed to explain how he would trim the budget, Romney said he would cut funding for the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), right in the face of PBS journalist Jim Lehrer, who served as debate moderator. “I like PBS, I like Big Bird, I actually like you too, Jim,” said the Republican contender. “But I am not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.” Lehrer, former anchor and now executive editor of PBS’s NewsHour, took the line with his best poker face and was then widely criticized for being too passive during the candidates’ exchange. “Part of my moderator mission was to stay out of the way of the flow,” he said the next day. If Romney gets his way, he might be out of the way for good.