Attacks on the Press 2009: Argentina

Top Developments
• New broadcast law sparks contentious debate, raises concerns.
• In major victory, criminal defamation laws are repealed.

Key Statistic
200: Tax agents who raided Clarín in apparent reprisal for the newspaper’s coverage.

Press freedom advocates won two important victories as congress decriminalized defamation, and a federal court issued a ruling that, while still under appeal, could lead to the dismantling of the government’s manipulative distribution of official advertising. But those advances were obscured by a contentious debate over broadcast regulatory legislation backed by the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The measure, signed into law in October and immediately challenged in court, apportioned broadcast frequencies among private, government, and nonprofit outlets, while creating a new regulatory body.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In the Americas,
Big Brother is watching reporters

Country Summaries
United States
Other developments

The administration said the legislation would curb monopolies, making radio and television more democratic, but media owners and opposition politicians saw it as a means for the government to exert greater control over news content and force large media companies to divest some holdings. The debate worsened overall relations between the administration and the media, and fueled confrontations between the administration and the country’s largest media owner, the Clarín Group.

Individual journalists were split on the legislation, which was based on an initiative drafted by a coalition of civil society groups called the Alliance for Democratic Broadcasting. The law replaced an anachronistic measure, enacted during military rule in 1980, that gave the executive branch sole regulatory power over broadcasting. Kirchner unveiled the new legislation in late August, saying that it would “allow everybody to speak their minds.” By early October, after heated debate and more than 100 legislative revisions, the sweeping measure had become law.

The legislation 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 also limits the number of licenses a company can hold, and sets quotas for locally produced music, films, and programs. Companies that own both broadcast networks and cable channels must divest one of the two types of holdings. Divestiture and other aspects of the law were immediately challenged in federal courts. In December, a judge in Mendoza ordered implementation of the law be suspended while the challenges were pending. The government said it would appeal.

Most Argentine journalists said the military-era broadcasting rules needed an overhaul, but some worried the new law would limit free expression. The composition of the new regulatory body was at the center of the argument. The law requires the new regulator be composed of seven members—two appointed by the president, three by Congress, and two by a federal council made up mostly of governors with some civil society representatives. “The regulator will rely heavily on political appointees, and the executive will have a lot of power in nominating its members and controlling its functions,” warned Adrián Ventura, a columnist for the daily La Nación and a tough government critic. Detractors also pointed to vague definitions in the text that they said could allow the new regulator to revoke broadcast licenses.

Supporters countered that if the government wanted to exert control over the media, it already had an effective tool in the 1980 law. Backers included Frank La Rue, a U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, who called the new law “an example to other countries.” Horacio Verbitsky, famed columnist for the daily Página 12 and president of the human rights organization Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, said the law represented “a significant step forward toward the enrichment of a democratic debate through a more pluralistic access to information.” CPJ found that while the legislation is an important improvement over the 1980 law, its provisions could be misused for political purposes. In particular, CPJ said it would monitor whether the regulatory agency is subjected to undue political influence.   

Despite government denials, many analysts said the legislation was also aimed at weakening the Clarín Group, owner of newspapers, radio stations, and both broadcast and cable television outlets. Clarín, an Internet service provider as well, has produced critical coverage of the Kirchner administration. The legislative debate escalated existing animosity between the administration and Clarín. The administration and its allies lashed out at Clarín for what they perceived to be biased coverage, most notably in June elections in which Kirchner’s Peronist party lost its congressional majority.

Amid the deteriorating climate, Clarín was subjected to a direct government attack. On September 11, about 200 tax agents raided the offices of the group’s newspaper, Clarín, after the paper ran a cover story alleging the government improperly granted a farm subsidy. Clarín and others decried the raid as government intimidation. The tax agency immediately backpedaled, saying the raid was conducted in error and claiming to fire two officials for carrying out the action.

The administration also claimed to be investigating who ordered the raid and why, but it disclosed no findings by late year. La Nación, citing tax agency documents, reported in December that Ricardo Echegaray, the agency’s director, had ordered the raid and that the two officials were never actually dismissed. No government tax probe was ever carried out against Clarín.

Clarín was targeted in another episode with political overtones. The Teamsters, headed by close administration ally Hugo Moyano, briefly blocked the distribution of Clarín, La Nación, Perfil, and other newspapers in November, demanding that the papers’ drivers be represented by the union. The newspapers and the publishers group Asociación de Entidades Periodísticas Argentinas complained that the union’s move was politically motivated.

In November, in a major advance for press freedom, Congress decriminalized libel and slander. The measure followed recommendations made by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in a May 2008 ruling. The court, an arm of the Organization of American States, voided the 1999 criminal defamation conviction of journalist and author Eduardo Kimel. The case stemmed from Kimel’s book, La Masacre de San Patricio (The San Patricio Massacre), in which he criticized an investigation into the 1976 slaying of five priests during the military dictatorship. The court also urged Argentine leaders to reform defamation laws in line with regional standards.

Journalists and free press advocates also hailed a January ruling by a federal appeals court that found the government was improperly withholding state advertising from publications owned by the media group Editorial Perfil in retaliation for its critical coverage of the Kirchner administration. The government appealed the decision, and the case was pending in late year. 

CPJ and other analysts have found that Kirchner, following a system institutionalized during her husband’s presidency, has manipulated the distribution of state advertising by withholding ads to critical media and rewarding friendly outlets with government spots. Free press advocates have contended that manipulative government advertising violates Articles 14 and 32 of the Argentine Constitution, which bar censorship and guarantee press freedom, respectively; and Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights.