Congress speaks

Debate over the bill in the Chamber of Deputies, Argentina’s 257-member lower house of Congress, was brief and contentious, lasting about two weeks in September 2009. Over 100 members of the opposition walked out of the vote in protest, saying the bill had been rushed through committee and that there had not been enough time to analyze it. “There has not been a proper debate… We couldn’t even finish reading [the bill],” remarked one legislator on Clarín channel Todo Noticias.[1] Clarín had not been invited to testify before Congress on its own behalf, though numerous press associations had appeared during the two weeks of debate to protest the bill. The Argentine Press Association (ADEPA)––which represented Clarín as well as many of its competitors––cautioned that the bill was being debated in a “strongly politically biased environment” and would “silence” existing media voices in its attempt to expand access to new ones.[2] Nonetheless, on September 17, the Chamber of Deputies passed the bill without changes, 146–3.

The bill then moved to the Senate for debate. Senators of different parties announced that the Senate would take a more deliberative approach to the bill, would invite more interested parties to participate in the discussion, and would work to revise some of the legislation’s more controversial articles. Clarín secured a place on the agenda for Friday, October 2, the last day of debate.

On Thursday, October 1, however—the day before Grupo Clarín’s scheduled testimony—Senate Majority Leader Miguel Pichetto, a Kirchner ally, announced that the body had the votes to pass all 164 articles of the law without changes.

Clarín’s testimony on its own behalf would therefore be irrelevant at worst and symbolic at best. It was up to Clarín’s executive committee—especially CEO Héctor Magnetto—to decide whether to go before the Senate anyway as a gesture of protest. Would doing so legitimate a process Clarín executives saw as corrupt and exclusionary? Were Clarín’s own media properties—including its television news station and the editorial page of its flagship newspaper—better outlets for protest? To what extent could the conglomerate, as a corporate actor, defend its commercial interests while maintaining its editorial integrity?

Further, if the law passed the Senate, as now seemed virtually certain, Magnetto and the executive committee would face another set of decisions. An opposition-dominated Congress would be seated in December, and Fernández’s current approval ratings suggested it was unlikely that either she or her husband could win another term as president in the upcoming 2011 presidential elections. Could Clarín rely on a new Congress to redress the aspects of the law it found objectionable? Should it lobby legislators to ensure that outcome? Should it sue the sitting government on the grounds that it was attempting to revoke legally obtained broadcast licenses? Or should it simply accept mild commercial damage and comply with the law? Was it unreasonable to have to sell a handful of channels in the name of pluralism? What was really at stake?

[1] Todo Noticias via Luis Andres Henao, “Argentine Congress debates media reform law,” Reuters, September 17, 2009.

[2] Argentine Press Association press release, April 7, 2009.