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The media v. Kirchner: The case for a free Argentinian press
You won’t hear me say this a lot, but Argentinian President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (CFK) has a point about the media. It’s just not the point she meant to make when she came to the Hilltop last week.
For those of you who don’t follow Argentine press politics (including me, until last Wednesday), a little background is in order.
President Kirchner has long feuded with the media in her country, especially Clarín, the nation’s largest paper, and La Nación. Both papers are owned by Papel Prensa, the sole domestic publishing company that controls more than 75 percent of the market, and are vehemently critical of her administration. Both Clarín and La Nación also have spotty histories, including allegations of collusion with Argentine dictators in the ‘70s and ‘80s and conspicuous silence about the ‘dirty war’ the despots waged against their own citizens.
Even the two newspapers’ acquisition of the publishing company is still under dispute in court. Opponents, including CFK, claim the military junta conspired with the papers to force the leftist owner, David Graiver, to sell Papel Prensa in 1976. Some members of the Graiver family confirm Kirchner’s claims, while others have taken out full page advertisements in La Nación and Clarín refuting them. Local media studies (of course, contested by the papers) indicate that up until 2010, Papel Prensa would routinely sell paper to the two large outlets at a 25 percent discount, allowing them to be more competitive than their opponents.
Given all these problems, it must have seemed only natural to the Peronist president to intervene in the media market as she did last year. But she didn’t go in and break up the monopoly outright. Instead, CFK and her legislative allies wrote up a law that demands Papel Prensa satisfy the entire domestic demand for newspapers. If it does not, the state has the right to increase its stake in the company (currently a bit less than 28 percent) to help it fill the void. Supporters echo Kirchner’s claim that she is trying to ‘liberalize’ the media market, while many journalists and other opponents see the act as a thinly-veiled attempt to bring the two largest papers under government control.
I’m not Argentine, but I can’t help but be suspicious about both sides of the debate. As a leftist, I’m naturally inclined to support trust-busting, especially in the media. With so much of the market under its control and so many uncomfortable questions about its history, I too probably would have wanted to break up Papel Prensa if I were in Kirchner’s thousand-dollar shoes.
But instead of eliminating the private monopoly, Kirchner seems inclined here to transform it into a public one. A particularly contentious line in article 41 of the law referring to the government’s power to help the publisher satisfy domestic demand admits “…the State’s shareholding in Papel Prensa S.A. will eventually increase through this mechanism.” That, of course, does much less to liberalize the media than give the government the power of the press.
Furthermore, the advisory commission set up to oversee enforcement and implementation of the law includes representatives from all the nation’s newspapers except La Nación and Clarín, the two outlets it targets. In essence, the government is relying on an enforcement body under the purview of its Finance Ministry and stuffed with Papel Prensa competitors to tell it if and when it should take a majority stake in the two newspapers most critical of it.
If that all sounds a bit backwards to you, you aren’t the only one. But, Argentine reporters rarely get the chance to ask the president about media policy, or any policy for that matter. As famed Argentine journalist Jorge Lanata put it on his Facebook page last week, “Hecho: CFK ganó las elecciones sin dar una sola entrevista,” or “Fact: CFK won the [presidential] election without giving a single interview.” I figure that limited access is why the Argentine press jumped all over me last week when I asked the president why Georgetown students had the opportunity to ask her questions when she doesn’t speak freely to journalists at home.
In the end, I think I understand Kirchner’s reasoning when it comes to Papel Prensa. But here, as in other places, she has the politics right and the policy wrong. If Kirchner really wanted to foster a free and independent press in Argentina, it would have been easier and more effective to slice the media conglomerate up, separating the papers from the publisher and calling it a day. If the president ever makes good on her offer to fly me to Argentina to see a press conference, this is the first question I’d ask. And until I have an answer from CFK or her surrogates, I’ll stand with the millions of Argentines suspicious that the president wants to be the not only the commander-in-chief, but the editor-in-chief as well.