03/11/2012 | This column said two weeks ago that the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was mistakenly paying little attention to the adverse narrative mounting abroad over its decision to clash heads-on with Argentina’s largest media conglomerate, Grupo Clarín, come December.
A few days later, call it pure coincidence, the AFSCA Federal Broadcasting Authority organized a press round with foreign correspondents, in a first orchestrated attempt to revert the standard line circulating in most of the Western press that Argentina is gearing toward suppressing freedom of the press.
This week, it was Grupo Clarín’s turn to bring in the foreign envoys to listen to their truth.
Part of the story the D-day December 7, or “7D,” will be told by foreign eyes and pens. That day, the government has promised to enforce the controversial clause 161 of a broadcast media act passed by Congress three years ago and force media outlets in Argentina to adjust to new anti-trust rules. A Supreme Court ruling has said December 7 is the deadline for a court injunction Grupo Clarín filed against that clause. The government is saying every media company in Argentina but Grupo Clarín is willing to abide by the law. “The question is why does (Grupo Clarín) think it can flout the law?” AFSCA head Martín Sabbatella was quoted as telling the Financial Times during a press round on October 24.
Grupo Clarín had a different story to tell during its own meeting with correspondents representing very much the same foreign media.
Clarín spokesmen said that the organization is complying with every aspect of the law but clause 161, which is “totally suspended” for the Group. And, they added, the Group would “exhaust” every legal means available to challenge the government’s intention to enforce the new anti-trust rules, which could mean next to business cataclysm for Grupo Clarín’s main money-maker — the cable television distribution company Cablevisión, which would have to be dismembered. The “exhaustion” of legal inroads, the spokesmen said, could include a court-ordered extension of the injunction that froze the anti-trust clause for Grupo Clarín or a first ruling on the core of the dispute, which is whether it is constitutional to oblige a company to trim down its business in such short period of time (one year, according to the Media Act of 2009).
If none of that happens, the clock will continue to tick toward a showdown early December. It remains to be seen what format that showdown would take, but, with all communication severed, there seems to be no room for peace talks.
In the meantime, the rivals continue to seek outside endorsements as they enter the final sprint. Sabbatella met this week with former Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzón, a human rights crusader who said he does not believe Argentina’s Media Act suppresses freedom of expression. “On the contrary, what surprises me about Argentina’s media map is the accumulation of power by some groups that control too high a share of the information, turning it into a political tool.”
Grupo Clarín CEO Héctor Magnetto, who cultivates a low profile, also did his share of foreign politicking. He appeared in an award-giving ceremony organized in Montevideo by the IAB International Association of Broadcasting and said that Argentina is spiralling down the Venezuela way when it comes to freedom of expression. “Unfortunately we are in a process similar to the one in Venezuela, although we have not reached that level yet,” said Magnetto. “Freedom of expression and court independence are being subjected to a lot of pressure.” IAB declared Magnetto and three Venezuelan media men “members of honour” of the organization. A number of foreign pro-business organizations are sending down delegations to see the 7D outcome from the front row — and report abuses if necessary.
Magnetto also said he was optimistic Argentina’s public was “starting to react.” Anti-government groups are planning to take to the streets Thursday. The government claims Grupo Clarín — and not the political opposition — is the main sponsor of the demonstration.
The real problem for the Argentine public is that some journalists are acting as if the war between a political elite and media business elite was theirs: some of them, blindly. Journalists could be thankful there’s very little real accountability on behalf of the public for them (for now).
On Monday, to name the latest example, prestigious radio host Magdalena Ruiz Guiñazú bylined a story in the conservative broadcast La Nación accusing the government of deleting the signature of late writer Ernesto Sabato from the foreword of Nunca Más, the report on human rights violations drafted shortly after the end of the last military dictatorship. The title of her piece was “Stealing from the dead” and it looked Ruiz Guiñazú, who was a member of the Nunca Más commission, was really angry. It took the twittersphere no more than two hours to reveal that, although he is widely known to have written it, the Nunca Más prologue had never been formally signed by Sabato. In the spur of anti-government passion, Ruiz Guiñazú made a mistake but she never admitted to it, let alone apologized. If there were accountability, Ruiz Guiñazú’s Sabato faux pas would have become what the Killian documents were for the legendary CBS anchor Dan Rather in the US: a virtual career end.