CPJ to monitor implementation of Argentine broadcast law

New York, December 8, 2009—The proposed appointment of four members of a seven-person Argentine media regulatory agency created under a government-sponsored broadcast law raises concerns about its independence, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ will monitor the law’s implementation to ensure that the agency is not subjected to undue political interference.

The structure of the regulatory agency is at the center of the debate over the broadcast overhaul. The agency will consist of two members appointed by the executive, three by Congress, and two from a federal council made up of a majority of governors and civil society.

The executive branch has proposed the appointment of Gabriel Mariotto, director of the previous regulator, and Congressman Manuel Baladrón with the official Frente para la Victoria (Front for Victory) party, according to local news reports. Both are close government allies. The federal council has nominated Chaco Governor Jorge Capitanich—who is a member of the ruling party—and Eduardo Seminara, an academic from Rosario University.   

The other three members, who must be selected by a bicameral congressional committee, including a member of the ruling party, have not yet been selected. The political opposition and civil society members have challenged the candidacy of Mariotto, alleging that he owned an illegal FM radio station at one point. They have also challenged Capitanich’s candidacy, saying that as governor it would be a conflict of interest for him to take another full-time position, among other reasons, according to news reports. The challenges were brought under a presidential decree signed after the law was promulgated that provides a 10-day period of civic participation in the selection of the regulatory body.

“While this legislation represents a significant improvement over the dictatorship-era law that it replaced, we have concerns that the implementation could be subjected to political manipulation,” said CPJ Americas Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría. “Based on the recent nominations for the regulatory board, we are concerned about its autonomy. We will be monitoring its implementation to ensure that it achieves its stated objective of creating a more diverse and pluralistic media environment.”

The media legislation, introduced by Kirchner on August 27, was approved by the Senate on October 10 after more than 100 revisions in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress. The president immediately signed it into law.

The law reserves a third of the television and radio spectrum for nonprofit organizations; the other two-thirds are to be divided between private companies and state broadcasters. It limits the number of licenses a company can hold, and sets quotas for locally produced music, films, and programs, according to CPJ research.

The legislation replaced an archaic provision passed in 1980 during military rule, which gave the executive branch discretionary power over broadcasting. The government has said the provision will democratize radio and television; the local press has been deeply divided. While critics are concerned that excessive political interference could threaten freedom of expression, supporters told CPJ that if the government wanted to exert control over the media, it already had an effective tool in the 1980 law.

The legislative debate took place in an antagonistic environment that worsened existing hostility between the Kirchner administration and Clarín, the country’s largest media conglomerate. The Kirchner administration, blaming Clarín and other private media for biased coverage, verbally abused the press with charged rhetoric. Clarín accused the government of targeting the media group for its criticism, and pointed to a series of incidents described as an “escalation of aggressive and intimidating acts.”