CPJ seeks comprehensive inquiry in Clarín tax raid

New York, September 11, 2009—Two hundred tax agents raided the offices of Argentina’s largest daily, Clarín, on Wednesday after the paper ran a cover story alleging that a government agency improperly granted a farm subsidy, the local press said. The action, which Clarín decried as government intimidation, has intensified a fierce debate between President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration and Argentina’s largest media conglomerate over a proposed overhaul of broadcasting laws.

Tax inspectors stormed the offices of the Buenos Aires-based daily Clarín in early afternoon, press reports said. Even as agents were seizing documentation, the director of the government tax agency, Ricardo Echegaray, called Clarín Editor Ricardo Kirschbaum to say he hadn’t ordered the inspection and that it was being carried out in error, the newspaper reported.

Echegaray later sent Clarín a letter apologizing for the action, and saying that he had ordered an investigation, the press reported. Clarín reported that two high-ranking agency officials, including the deputy director, were fired on Wednesday. But Cabinet Chief Aníbal Fernández insisted in a radio interview today that the tax raid was not an act of intimidation.

“Argentine authorities must get to the bottom of this and find out who was responsible,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ senior program coordinator for the Americas. “President Kirchner must publicly disavow any government efforts to intimidate critics of her administration, or opponents of the media bill.”

The raid came on the heels of a Clarín cover story alleging that a government farm trade agency granted a 10 million peso (US$2.6 million) subsidy to an agricultural company without the proper authorization. Echegaray also supervises the farm trade agency.

Clarín described the inspection as an “escalation of aggressive and intimidating acts” that have taken place in the midst of a debate on a Kirchner-backed media reform bill. In August, the newspaper’s offices in Rosario were vandalized. The same month, posters and graffiti attacking Clarín and its executives appeared in several Buenos Aires’ locations.   

On August 27, Kirchner brought a media bill to Congress that, according to the government, would diversify the public airwaves. Among other things, the bill would divide the airwaves in three parts: A third of broadcast concessions would be allocated to private companies, a third to state broadcasters; and a third to non-for-profit organizations. The bill would limit the number of licenses a company can hold, and it would set quotas for national programming. 

Many Argentine journalists and free press advocates acknowledge a need to overhaul broadcasting regulations enacted in 1980, during military rule, but have concerns about this bill.

A CPJ analysis found provisions in the bill that could restrict freedom of expression, particularly an article that gives the president authority to appoint most members of a new broadcast regulatory body. “We believe that the regulator must be autonomous and independent to ensure that broadcast concessions are not subjected to political interference,” said Lauría. “This week’s tax raid increases our concern about possible government intimidation and pressure.”

Local journalists are concerned the administration is urging approval of the bill before the new Congress takes office on December 10. Kirchner allies currently hold a majority in both chambers of the legislature, a position they will lose when the new Congress convenes. “We call on authorities to postpone the debate of the bill until Congress reconvenes on December 10. That will promote a more pluralistic and diverse discussion,” Lauría said. 

Analysts believe the media bill is aimed at weakening the Clarín Group; new regulations would force the media conglomerate to sell some of its assets. Clarín has strongly opposed the bill. Clarín Group owns newspapers, television and radio outlets, as well as cable and Internet providers companies.