BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — President Cristina Fernandez appealed to Argentina's Supreme Court on Friday, trying to enforce a government-imposed deadline for dismembering Grupo Clarin, a media company that has become her leading rival in the court of public opinion.
The midnight Friday deadline for media companies to announce how they'll sell off properties that exceed anti-monopoly limits imposed by Congress three years ago was stayed Thursday evening despite concerted efforts by Fernandez's ministers to enforce the law.
The judges' decision to extend an injunction guarantees that the two forces commanding the largest audiences in Argentina won't stop fighting until the Supreme Court rules on limiting the power of private media corporations, which Fernandez has made a centerpiece of her presidency.
Indeed, Fernandez still plans to celebrate her campaign against corporate-funded speech with a Sunday rock concert and presidential address in the historic Plaza de Mayo.
Meanwhile, the media landscape here has mostly been reduced to warring alliances of newspapers, television and radio stations, lined up for and against the government, both of which devote vast resources to rewarding friends and attacking enemies in the insular world of Argentine politics.
Journalists in Buenos Aires say the collateral damage is painfully evident: The quality of news coverage has declined, media credibility is abysmal and democracy itself is therefore endangered, with any efforts to hold officials accountable dismissed as low blows across the partisan divide.
"Between the government and Argentina's leading papers, they're destroying journalism," said Roberto Guareschi, a former Clarin editor and professor at University of California at Berkeley who now edits Project Syndicate, which publishes opinion pieces internationally.
This fight "has diminished the quality of journalism in general," agreed Andres D'Alessandro, director of the Forum for Argentine Journalism, whose survey of 1,000 reporters last year found that declining standards of their craft is their highest concern, after salaries.
The government asked the Supreme Court Friday to rule directly on the law's merits, bypassing multiple lawyers of lower courts where the case has been stuck for three years without a decision. Media regulator Martin Sabbatella said any additional delay "damages democracy."
"The Argentine justice system isn't prepared to fight against the corporations, because much of the courts have been colonized by the same corporations," Sabbatella alleged.
Clarin Executive Editor Ricardo Kirschbaum called such claims "politically inept" in a Friday editorial.
"This frontal offensive shows how this administration conceives of politics and democracy: all or nothing. And in this dichotomy, when it comes to connections, reasonable negotiations, the exploration of accords that bring solutions and progress, their position is win or lose," Kirschbaum wrote.
Fernandez has described her efforts as a moral imperative: In speech after speech, she says democracies stop responding to the people when corporations can use media power to pressure governments to rule in their favor.
The idea of the 2009 reform was to decentralize the media industry and empower a constellation of new voices to come forward with a plurality of views. Unfortunately, the president's obsession with Clarin has overwhelmed efforts to foster this diversity, said Martin Becerra, a communications professor at the National University of Quilmes, outside the capital.
Instead, she's spent millions of dollars assuring the loyalty of pro-government newspapers and broadcast stations by showering them with lucrative government announcements — the same official advertising Clarin once benefitted from when it was aligned with previous governments. With both sides "playing the victim," the goal of media reform has been forgotten, Becerra said.
Also lost is common ground needed for solving Argentina's many problems. Threats to the economy, safety and the environment; corruption; decaying infrastructure; unpaid pensions and other important issues are ignored, and journalists themselves feel compromised: Only three in 10 surveyed by the Forum have a positive view of media ethics in Argentina.
"Issues that should be on the daily agenda are eliminated because they benefit or affect the government or the media companies," said D'Alessandro. "Many sources refuse to talk with certain media organizations, and some media companies only look for sources that agree with their editorial line."
Most of the media companies with properties exceeding the law's limits have submitted their divestment plans. Sabbatella had threatened to show up at Clarin with a notary on Saturday, announcing a schedule for auctioning off its non-conforming licenses.
The law would limit each company's licenses to 24 cable systems and 10 television stations nationwide, and three radio stations in each city. Cable networks could reach no more than 35 percent of the population, and foreign investors would be limited to 30 percent of each company.
While about 20 companies exceed some of these limits, Clarin alone violates all of these clauses, Sabbatella said.
The two sides don't even agree on how many licenses Clarin has. Sabbatella counts 238 overall, while Clarin counts 11 for broadcast and radio signals and 158 cable licenses, one for each town where Cablevision now operates.
Limiting Cablevision to 24 localities would kill its businesses, but the law provides no limits on reaching homes through satellites or telephone lines: Cablevision's competitors can reach all 2,200 localities in Argentina with a single license. This is not only unfair, but blows apart the claim that Fernandez is promoting diversity, Clarin spokesman Martin Etchevers said.
"This government can't put up with the existence of independent entities that can have an influence in society," Etchevers said. "It seems to me the government just wants political control over the media."
Clarin and the Kirchners used to be allies, of sorts. In one of his last acts as president, Fernandez's late husband Nestor Kirchner approved the Cablevision merger that enabled the company to become dominant. Then Fernandez succeeded her husband and tried to raise taxes on commodity exports, hitting the pocketbooks of Argentina's landowning elites. Clarin came out swinging with critical coverage, and the Kirchners considered it a betrayal. "What got into you, Clarin?" Kirchner famously asked, and the battle was joined.
The Kirchners took a project to reform Argentina's dictatorship-era media law off the shelf, adding clauses designed exclusively to punish Clarin and pushing it through Congress in 2009. Clarin blocked it with injunctions, and both sides have done all they could to influence the judiciary ever since. The Supreme Court had urged judges to decide the case by Dec. 7; now the stay erases that deadline.
The stay also seriously harms the president's attempt to show who's boss, said Ignacio Fidanza, who directs a website that follows Argentine politics, www.lapoliticaonline.com.
"December 7th had become the single-minded goal of the State of Cristina, and a symbolic question because it meant showing that she dared act against Clarin, that she reduced its power somewhat and that she wasn't left with mere words," Fidanza said.
Given the tensions, the Inter-American Press Association sent a delegation to Buenos Aires. Thursday night's injunction came as a relief to Claudio Paolillo, who runs the association's Freedom of Expression commission. "It's the most reasonable thing that could have happened. This country was on the road to a situation with no exit."
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