Freedom of Press as Understood by the Argentine Media Monopoly

A recent New Yorker article describes Upton Sinclair's surprising gubernatorial race in California, and how he was defeated in large measure by a "Lie Factory" run by his opposition's political consultant. Notably, The Los Angeles Times, ran a negative Sinclair quote every day - often taken from characters in his novels, casting aspersions on the candidate's belief in marriage and other social bulwarks. The same article, by Jill Lepore, later describes how lobbyists for the American Medical Association convinced Americans that Truman's proposal for a federally-funded health insurance plan represented "socialized medicine," a bogey-man that resonates to this day.

On a more contemporary note, in 2010 twenty percent of American citizens continued to believe that Barak Obama was born outside of the country. Only 48 percent believed he was born in Hawaii as stated on his birth certificate. In the meantime, Jon Stewart has made a career of lampooning slanted news coverage, showing his audience that "media objectivity" is often just fig-leaf. Unfortunately, media corporations' varied agendas often have interests that stray far from keeping audiences abreast of serious issues. Being an informed citizen in the 21st century, means deploying media analysis as well as political. Or rather, understanding the politics of media coverage.

In Argentina the stakes are very high. Front-page headlines every day of the week make the case that Argentina's democracy has turned into a menopausal autocratic government - despite all evidence to the contrary. In a country where President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was reelected a year ago by 54 percent of voters, where Congress debates presidential proposals with vehemence, and where protesters freely gather to demand less oversight of their tax returns, we are every day warned of our waning liberty. More generally, mainstream media puts a consistently negative slant on every aspect of government, including never-ending belittling of a woman's capacity to lead. Commentators pop-psychoanalyze Kirchner, linking her personal life to political decisions. A recent newsweekly's cover showed a cartoon of the president in mid-orgasm (for comparison, note the outcry over the New Yorker's satirical cover showing an Obama in Arab garb, fist-bumping his armed afro-toting wife.

What is missing in the mainstream discourse is often the counter view: who is benefited by this view of Kirchner's government? Those whose economic interests are negatively affected by her policies. One need not dig deep to find the issue: a nationally debated and Congressionally approved law in 2009 created a new framework for broadcast media. It incorporates international best-practices, assuring frequency for community and local media, as well as ensuring a plurality of voices. Social organizations and indigenous groups receive support to ensure their voices are heard under the new law, while nationally produced content is promoted, as in France and Brazil. In the three years since the law was passed, small cable companies have produced more than 2,800 hours of content, creating over 6,000 jobs in diverse parts of the country.

Since the return of democracy, and as a son of a persecuted journalist and a journalist myself, I have joined the cry for a democratic media law that would replace the dictatorship norm which was designed by a government with no affection to the right to information. Ninety journalists, among 30,000 Argentines, disappeared during the bloodiest period of our history.

The new bill's criteria on radio spectrum distribution is aligned with the latest international principles and has received public recognition from Mr. Frank La Rue, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression of the United Nations, when he visited Argentina in July 2009. The most prominent champions of freedom of press have supported the two-year-long process that ended with the bill, as well as many of the opposition left wing parties that, after participating in the floor debate, proposed the inclusion of several amendments that gained their support of the bill introduced by the Government.

However, the law also moves incisively to limit media monopolies, which have the effect of homogenizing the views available in mainstream media. The rationale is much the same in the United States, where the FCC limits market share of any one media corporation (including limiting cross-ownership of radio, television and print media). In practical terms, in Argentina the new bill collides directly with an existing media conglomerate, the Clarin Group, that clearly dominates the communication spectrum. After three years of the law approval but yet to be fully applied it has triggered the most acrid confrontation between a Government and part of the media ever known in a country accustomed to polarizing debates.

The history of the rise of Clarín Group explains by itself the need of media anti-monopoly regulations as a general rule to fight the threat represented by corporations with the capability to manipulate the Administration decision making process. In 1977, with the help of the Military Junta, the newspaper Clarín acquired the company Papel Prensa in a case yet to be solved by the Argentine courts for alleged tortures to the previous owner linked to the sales agreement. Papel Prensa is since then the only national producer of newsprint paper.

This communication super power, even at his serpent's egg stage, had among his victims the father of the modern Argentine democracy. During Raúl Alfonsín Presidency (1983-1989), just following the dictatorship, Clarín started its push to expand to radio and TV. Not surprisingly Alfonsín fiercely criticized Clarín in a famous speech in 1987 but was incapable to stop the process of acquisition of its first radio station, Radio Mitre. After a law that prohibited newspapers from controlling other mass media was repealed, Clarín, in 1990, purchased one of the three main television stations, Channel 13 and added an FM station as well. By 1997 Radio Mitre was Argentina's largest station. The following year it purchased a fledgling cable television venture, Multicanal S.A., and in 1993 it established the first Argentine news channel. Along with another newspaper, La Nación, it purchased two large provincial newspapers, Los Andes of Mendoza and La Voz del Interior of Córdoba. By 1998 the Clarín Group was reaching three out of every four Argentine homes. Its eponymous newspaper had the highest circulation in the Hispanic world, and it had the largest cable system in Latin America.

The reaction to the anti-monopoly law had reached in many occasions the United States, either by corporative representation as a case of "freedom of press" or by direct lobby in the US congress paid by Clarín. The amazing thing is that such conglomeration of mass media including the major newspaper, the second TV and radio station, hundreds of cable channels, and the only newsprint paper producer would never be possible in the US.

And so the quiet corollary to the delegitimization campaign against Cristina Kirchner tells us that if the elected Argentine President is not a democratic president, then perhaps, her opponents would be justified in resorting measures outside of the democratic procedures. Since she is not beaten at the ballot-boxes, she is excoriated daily on the evening news (and morning, and mid-afternoon). But the media's actions speak louder than their words: It is difficult to imagine any other country where alleged restrictions on press freedom result in years of venomous newspaper covers, critical television programs and snarky radio programs with an utter lack of meaningful official retaliation. Would that all autocrats permitted such a plethora of negative voices.

Héctor Timerman is the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Argentina and former Ambassador to the US. He is a graduate of Columbia and co-founder of Americas Watch.