The three-member executive committee of Clarín Group, Argentina’s largest media conglomerate, convened an emergency meeting on October 1, 2009––one day before a crucial Senate vote on a media reform bill might force the company to break up. Advocates of the bill, which had been introduced that summer by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, argued that it rectified some shortcomings of Argentina’s still-young democracy, which had emerged from a military dictatorship in 1983.[1] The existing media law, for example, barred nonprofit groups from access to broadcast licenses. In a stated effort to expand the variety of voices on the airwaves, the new bill reserved part of the spectrum for nonprofit and civil society groups and imposed new limits on the number and kind of media properties any one company could own––which meant Clarín would have to sell off lucrative properties or face legal consequences.

The bill had been debated in a toxic atmosphere as the once-congenial relationship between the Fernández government and Clarín deteriorated. In response to negative coverage of a controversial farm tax, Fernández and her husband and predecessor, former President Néstor Kirchner, had accused the powerful conglomerate of using its clout to discredit––perhaps with the aim of toppling––the government. Clarín denied the charges––explosive accusations in a country accustomed to military coups––and counterattacked with blistering editorials, while its news pages dug into evidence of government corruption. Meanwhile, over the fall of 2009, Clarín faced an unprecedented degree of government interference with its various business properties––including a raid by tax police on its flagship newspaper. Few viewed such events as mere coincidence.         

The Kirchners were known for using a heavy hand when dealing with Argentine industry, and threatening disfavored corporations with tax raids was a favorite tactic. Both Kirchners’ presidential tenures were marked by expanded state control over the economy.[2] Further, the Kirchners’ conflict with Clarín had escalated against a backdrop of hostility to the press more generally. In a nation of voracious news consumers, both Kirchner governments shunned press conferences and, like many Latin American governments, were alleged to have spied on journalists and political opponents.[3]

Clarín viewed the media bill as yet another manifestation of the Kirchners’ contempt for both private industry and media. Yet the law wasn’t solely the government’s initiative. Civil society groups had been agitating for broadcast reform for decades; many felt that Clarín’s dominance in most of the media sectors in which it operated was a threat to democratic pluralism. Clarín was scheduled to testify before Congress on October 2 and hoped to use the opportunity to convince legislators that the bill’s steps toward dismantling Clarín set a dangerous precedent for free media in Argentina. But on October 1 at 6 p.m., Senate Majority Leader Miguel Pichetto announced that the Senate had the votes to pass all 164 articles of the bill without revisions.           

Clarín’s executive committee––and crucially, CEO Héctor Magnetto––now faced the decision of whether to appear before the Senate to testify as planned, knowing that there was no way to influence the outcome of the vote. Was there anything to be gained by participating in the political process? What about editorial coverage? Was it best to treat the bill as any other political issue to be discussed in its editorial pages and on its news programs? Did Clarín’s responsibilities as a corporation conflict with its responsibilities as a proprietor of news organizations? If the law passed, as now seemed certain, Magnetto and the executive committee would have to decide whether––and how––to fight back.

[1] For clarity, this case study refers to President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner as President Fernández and to her husband and predecessor Néstor Kirchner as President Kirchner.

[2] “Hand of Gold,” Economist, August 13, 2009.

[3] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Attacks on the Press in 2009: Argentina.