BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — The future of broadcast television and other news media in Argentina now rests with its Supreme Court, which began hearing arguments Wednesday over a law the government says will foster competition by breaking up privately held monopolies in the information business.
The 2009 law's stiff limits on cable TV ownership would force Grupo Clarin to break itself apart, demolishing a leading opposition voice against government power. Clarin is Argentina's biggest media company, with holdings that include one of Latin America's biggest newspapers, magazines, a major cable TV system and broadcast TV and radio stations.
Each side offered five "friends of the court" who took sides arguing for freedom of expression in the hearings, which were broadcast live on Argentine television.
Speaking in favor of the government, rector Carlos Ruta of the National University of San Martin said the judges must decide whether it's better to trust the "savage power" of private companies or the "institutional guarantees of the state" to deliver the truth. "Constitutional democracy is at stake," he said.
Attorney Luis Pardo, speaking in favor of Clarin, countered that "without an independent media, the right to inform will be held solely by pro-government media."
The courtroom was packed with journalists from around the world who came to see the debate. A pro-government crowd gathered outside, cheering and booing while following the action on a big screen.
The hearing continues Thursday with arguments by lawyers for Clarin and the government of President Cristina Fernandez.
In the years since the governing Front for Victory party and other leftists in Congress approved the anti-monopoly law, injunctions have preserved Clarin's interests while the government has tried to diminish the conglomerate's power in other ways. Fernandez wrested control of broadcast rights to Argentine football from a Clarin cable subsidiary, paying millions in state subsidies to broadcast games for free. Tax agents raided the company's headquarters, unions blocked newspaper deliveries, and government allies constantly try to discredit the group's journalism.
Meanwhile, a growth industry in pro-government newspapers and magazines, radio and TV stations is being sustained through official advertising, subsidies and other preferential treatment, providing a constant counterpoint to news coverage critical of government policies.
The stakes are big not just for Clarin and the government, but for many small players who hope to benefit from a law the government says will create a more level playing field in media competition.
"This law permits the weakest to get broadcast license through open bidding," in a process that gives the biggest media companies equal status, Ariel Weinmen, a director of the small Radio Grafica station, told The Associated Press outside court.
"This law regulates something that belongs to everyone," he added, noting that it was based in part on ownership limits enforced in the United States by the Federal Communications Commission.
Speaking for a confederation of small media cooperatives, Miguel Rodriguez Villafane pleaded with the judges to issue an opinion so powerful that concentrations of media power will no longer have a dominant presence. "More than just give the word, you should ensure that the volume of some don't cover up the volume of others," he said.
Clarin's newspaper Diario Clarin is one of the biggest in the region, and the company owns stakes in three other metropolitan dailies and about 200 papers in towns across the country and a national news agency. The Cablevision cable operation, the company's biggest business, owns cable systems throughout Argentina. Clarin's Channel 13 is the most watched broadcast TV channel in Buenos Aires.
Clarin commands an outsized share of Argentina's media industry, but its experts said it makes no sense to impose "arbitrary" limits on the number of broadcast channels that can be owned by companies with interests in cable TV, where there is no technical limit to the number of channels offered.
They also noted that the Inter-American Human Rights Convention establishes that no country should impose anti-monopoly laws exclusively on news media. A consumer rights advocate said the law unconstitutionally limits a citizen's right to choose from a variety of news sources, while at the same time imposing no limits on voices aligned with the state.
Associated Press writer Michael Warren contributed to this report.