Argentina should halt obstruction of top dailies

New York, March 29, 2011–The Argentine government should ensure that the nation’s two largest dailies can be distributed without interference, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. CPJ’s appeal comes two days after union demonstrators blocked trucking exits at the printing facilities of Clarín and La Nación, preventing Clarín from distributing its Sunday edition. 

Clarín and La Nación reported on their websites that their adjacent printing facilities in Buenos Aires were blocked early Sunday by dozens of union members. Protesters allowed La Nación operations to resume after four hours, but continued obstructing Clarín until noon, which prevented the distribution of its sports paper Olé along with the paper’s Sunday edition.

Unionized press workers for Artes Gráficas Rioplatenses, or AGR, a company owned by Grupo Clarín, said in a statement that they had conducted the demonstration to protest workplace discrimination. In an interview, Labor Minister Carlos Tomada characterized the demonstrations as the product of a labor conflict and not an attack on press freedom, The Associated Press reported. On its website, Clarín denied having a labor dispute with press workers and pointed instead to a pattern of official harassment and union-initiated interference at Clarín and La Nación‘s printing facilities.

Clarín reported that Sunday’s protesters also included members of the Teamsters, Argentina’s largest and most influential trade union. The protests followed March reports by Clarín and other media outlets that the Swiss government had asked Argentine officials to investigate the financial dealings of Teamsters leader Hugo Moyano. According to an article in Clarín, some of Sunday’s protesters were chanting: “If you touch Moyano, there will be trouble.” Moyano denied that Teamsters participated in the demonstration, other press reports said.

Moyano is a prominent supporter of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose administration has been at odds with Grupo Clarín.

Sunday’s protest was the fifth demonstration to interfere with the papers’ distribution since November, according to news reports. Following the initial demonstration, the Clarín media group sought an injunction to prevent further obstruction. In January, a judge ruled that “a group of demonstrators cannot obstruct the circulation of print media,” and ordered the Ministry of Security to prevent further interference, Clarín reported. La Nación reported that federal police did not disperse Sunday’s blockade; Security Minister Nilda Garré asserted that she had “strictly complied with the judge’s order,” Clarín reported.

“Illegal interference with the circulation of any news media constitutes a violation of press freedom and on the public’s right to stay informed,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior coordinator for the Americas. “We condemn Sunday’s obstruction of La Nación and Clarín and call on Argentine authorities to enforce the ruling and prevent such actions in the future.”

On Monday, Clarín’s print edition featured a blank cover in protest of Sunday’s obstruction, which they say violated the public’s right to information. In a statement, the Argentine press freedom group Foro de Periodismo Argentina condemned the interference as an attack on freedom of expression and expressed its solidarity with the newspapers and their journalists.

Relations between Grupo Clarín, the nation’s largest media conglomerate, and the Kirchner government have long been antagonistic, CPJ research shows. The government has accused Clarín and other private media of biased coverage while Clarín has been subjected to official harassment. In August, Kirchner presented the findings of an official investigation into the history and economic activities of newsprint manufacturer Papel Prensa alleging that Clarín and La Nación conspired with military dictators to gain control of the company, then leveraged their newsprint ownership to drive other publications out of business.