Broaching broadcast reform

The timing looked suspect in light of the escalating clash between Clarín and the Kirchners. But media reform had been a pet cause of Argentine human rights and civil society groups since the country’s return to democracy in 1983.[1] The 1980 dictatorship-era media law––including its provision barring nonprofit enterprises from access to the airwaves––largely remained in force. Though the law had been amended 170 times, critics of corporate media argued that the amendments had only further concentrated Argentine media in too few hands––for example by allowing cross-ownership and raising the number of broadcast licenses a single company could own from four to 24.

In 2003, Argentina’s Supreme Court found the military-era law unconstitutional. The court decision had little immediate practical effect. But it spurred the consolidation of a diverse group of community broadcasters, academics, unions, human rights groups, and others under the umbrella of the Coalition for Democratic Broadcasting, which began to lobby the government to pass a media reform law. In May 2004, representatives of the group presented to then-President Néstor Kirchner a blueprint of “21 Points” on which the Coalition wanted reform of the media law to be based. The document called on the government to condemn censorship and, more specifically, to promote the diversification of broadcasters by expanding access to licenses and reserving a third of the spectrum for nonprofit and civil society groups.[2] A central contention was that the government should actively prevent the concentration of media ownership and introduce more transparency––including public hearings––to the process of granting and renewing broadcast licenses.[3]

To the Coalition’s bitter disappointment, Kirchner did not take up broadcast reform, instead renewing for another 10 years the existing broadcast licenses of Argentina’s main media conglomerates, among them Clarín.[4] In 2005, however, Congress passed a revision to the 1980 law allowing nonprofits access to the airwaves for the first time. Now in 2009, Fernández revisited the “21 Points” as the basis for a complete overhaul of the existing media law.[5]

She vowed to host open and transparent town hall style discussions about the bill throughout the country. Several such meetings took place through the spring and summer of 2009; Clarín representatives and some outside observers dismissed them as photo-opportunities, stocked with Kirchner supporters, designed to legitimate rather than truly debate the law. Remarks one reporter who had long covered Latin American politics for Reuters but had no relationship to Clarín:                               

[The Kirchners] said they were open forums, to discuss [the law] all over the country. There were, but they were very fake. They were packed with people who supported the deal… In Chile, when they want to reform a law, they really, really have real civic discussion on it. And here… it’s kind of a joke. Now the government clearly would not agree with me when I say that.[6]

Clarín opposes. Clarín stood to lose money from the proposed media reform, as did a handful of other large players in Argentine media, all of whom opposed the law. Rather than send representatives to government-sponsored meetings it viewed as illegitimate, Clarín took to the pages of its flagship newspaper to explain its opposition––which it maintained was not purely commercial in nature. Clarín warned in an editorial in May, for example, that though expanding the number of voices in Argentine media was a worthy goal, the government’s current initiative risked expanding state discretion over broadcast licenses, potentially granting access only to supporters and withholding it from critics like Clarín. This was certainly a threat to Clarín’s own profitability, but Clarín argued it was likely to threaten the Argentine free press more generally. The paper maintained that the law could

influence the editorial policy and content of independent media and, under the guise of community purposes, build… a vast network of media that looks diverse but becomes one voice obeying and serving a single ideology.[7]

Meanwhile, Clarín’s news reporting––in print and broadcast––focused on opposition to the bill among legislators, free press advocates, and media owners. Clarín outlets also underscored how the bill differed from media laws in other countries, such as Spain and the United States, whose governments had in recent years revised their laws to facilitate––rather than discourage––media conglomerates’ further expansion.[8] Such stories relied almost exclusively on sources opposed to the law, rarely including quotes from Kirchner allies.

In a mid-term Congressional election widely viewed as a referendum on the Kirchners’ leadership, Fernández’s unpopularity led to electoral defeat for her party in congressional elections on June 28, 2009. The party emerged with 115 of 257 seats in the lower house of Congress, an even split in the Senate, and nationwide support at around 30 percent of voters.[9] Néstor Kirchner, who had himself run for a congressional seat in Buenos Aires in a high-stakes bid to shore up the national ticket, came in second place. Though still entitled to a seat in Congress under Argentina’s proportional representation system, Kirchner had suffered an embarrassing setback.

Still, the new opposition-dominated Congress would not be seated until December, giving the Kirchners several more months to pass laws through a supportive legislature. On August 27, Fernández presented Congress with a draft of her media-reform bill, saying that the legislation would “allow everybody to speak their minds.”[10] Fernández argued that Clarín was a media monopoly.[11] Clarín responded that it held only four of 42 television broadcast licenses nationwide, 9 of over 5,000 radio licenses, and only a 47 percent market share in cable, which was less than the market share held by the dominant cable companies in many other countries. [12]

[1] Liliana Chiernajowski, “The 21 Points of the Coalition for Democratic Broadcast Regulation are Now Law,” Trans. Brandon Brewer, Americas Program, Center for International Policy, November 4, 2009.

[2] Nonprofit groups already operated a handful of radio and television stations extralegally. Though they were not granted licenses, they were for the most part allowed to operate unmolested.

[3] Liliana Chiernajowski, “The 21 Points of the Coalition for Democratic Broadcast Regulation are Now Law.”   

[4] Liliana Chiernajowski, “The 21 Points of the Coalition for Democratic Broadcast Regulation are Now Law.”

[5] Liliana Chiernajowski, “The 21 Points of the Coalition for Democratic Broadcast Regulation are Now Law.”

[6] Author’s interview with Fiona Ortiz in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on February 10, 2009. All further quotes from Ortiz, unless otherwise attributed, are from this interview.

[7] Luis Pardo Saίnz, “No violar la libertad de expresión,” Clarín, May 18, 2009.

[8] In 2003, for example, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) relaxed media ownership rules, allowing broadcast networks to expand their reach from a 35 percent to a 45 percent market share and lifting a ban on broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership in the same market, except in the smallest markets. Advocates of independent media vociferously protested the new rules.

[9] “Argentina’s mid-term election,” Economist, Jul 2, 2009.

[10] Carlos Lauria, “Attacks on the Press 2009: Argentina,” Committee to Protect Journalists, February 16, 2010.

[11] Eliana Raszewski, “Argentine Senate Approves Fernandez’s Media Bill,” Bloomberg, October 10, 2009.

[12] “64 años creyendo en el país y construyendo medios argentinos,” Clarín, October 4, 2009. The market share of dominant media companies elsewhere, according to Clarín: France (65%), Italy (75%), Spain (57%), Germany (52%), United Kingdom (50%), Chile (67%), Peru (82%) and Venezuela (50%), Brazil (46%), Colombia (46%), and Mexico (46%).