16/11/2012 | Sabbatella, AFSCA, Grupo Clarín (Versión original en Inglés)
The appointment of Martín Sabbatella to enforce the 2009 Media Act is arguably the wisest political decision President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has taken in a so-far thorny first year into her second term in office.
Fernández de Kirchner is at war with Grupo Clarín, Argentina’s national media champion. And this week, Sabbatella proved to be a good choice for the President’s decision to steer the war to the finish. The head of the AFSCA Federal Broadcasting Authority faced the cameras to explain exactly what the government plans to do on December 7, a.k.a. 7D. Since his appointment on October 1, Sabbatella has been repeating that he is “here simply to enforce the law” passed by Congress in 2009. On Wednesday, he openly explained how his office plans to do it and revealed the information he has about the state of the media market.
The Media Act passed in the heat of the government’s political conflict with Grupo Clarín and other mainstream media introduces stricter anti-trust rules and orders media market players to fit into them (or adecuarse, in Spanish) pretty quickly. According to a Supreme Court ruling, a court injunction filed by and granted to Grupo Clarín freezing the anti-trust clause will be no more on December 7. The government is presenting 7D as the crossing of the Rubicon for its media policy.
“The objective of the law is that there are no catch-all giants,” started off Sabbatella.
There is only one true giant in the private media sector, but Sabbatella did not fall in the temptation of drafting all-Clarín talking points. He detailed the information AFSCA has about all media outlets standing in line for the anti-trust chopping and said they all have until December 7 to voluntarily submit their downsizing plan. If they don’t, AFSCA will take the reins of the process and force them down. Clarín notably topped the list —especially when it comes to its main moneymaker, the cable TV distribution company Cablevisión. Critics indicate Sabbatella’s plan omitted Telefónica, the Spanish phone company whose ownership of TV channels here is incompatible with the law. But his hour-and-a-half presentation and press conference was the best the government has done so far to make State policy sense out to its media drive.
Voluntary submission by all would be the best-case scenario for Sabbatella but it is unlikely to happen. “Every media organization but one has expressed their will to adjust to the law,” he said. He did not need to name the odd one out. Even if Grupo Clarín decided to file a downsizing plan, there would be room for a legal fight over its fine print. As media expert Martín Becerra put it, the implementation of the Media Act might be moving from a fully-fledged political war to guerrilla legal warfare.
Sabbatella has many assets many in government top ranks lack. His political career has been built on an anti-corruption reputation he gained after slaying vested mafias as mayor of his home district Morón in the Western city suburbs. His “I am here to enforce the law” line is giving him a shield against criticism. “We are only stating the obvious: the law is the law and it is equal to all. You may like it or not, but it is a law and one cannot choose to abide by it or not,” he said on Wednesday. He also delivered an all-out press conference, taking all the questions the journalists attending wanted, including some hardball from Clarín Group reporters. The format was unusually adequate for a government not used to engaging in open conversation with the press.
His main liability is that he is not a media market expert. For the ultra-Kirchnerite, he is also not an insider: His centre-left party Nuevo Encuentro challenged Néstor Kirchner in the 2009 midterm election in the province of Buenos Aires, a vote Kirchner lost narrowly to a centre-right candidate, Francisco De Nárvaez, in the worst electoral defeat the Kirchners have suffered during their decade in office. Nuevo Encuentro is now part of Unidos y Organizados, the political superstructure sheltering government backers.
The President is putting Sabbatella to the test of completing a job that her administration once described as “the mother of all political battles.” If he succeeds, his future could be bright within the Kirchner world, even if it is still uncertain what the future might bring for the ruling party come the next presidential vote in 2015.
Grupo Clarín is of course buying none of the Sabbatella glitz. A day before the AFSCA show, CEO Héctor Magnetto gathered his management in the coastal city of Mar del Plata for an annual meeting taking place since the mid 1990s, when Clarín formally became a conglomerate. Magnetto said he would resort to “our commitment and intelligence” to defend “the symbolic and business capital” of the organization. “We happen to be massive and independent under a regime incapable of tolerating massive and independent (media) other than its own,” said the CEO. Grupo Clarín, which is listed in Buenos Aires and London, will post its financial results for the third quarter of 2012 this Monday. It might not have much good news to report.