Argentina ups the ante in battle with Clarín media group

Conglomerate ordered to divest holdings or face public auctions

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner takes a question from a Georgetown student on Thursday.
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner takes a question from a Georgetown student on Thursday.EFE

An ongoing battle between Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the publishing group Clarín, which owns the country's largest daily, has reached new dimensions these past weeks after the government ordered owners to divest some of its holdings by December. Non-compliance will lead to a public auction, the government has threatened.

The announcement was made in television spots broadcast during breaks in widely watched soccer matches over the September 22-23 weekend. The commercials start off with an announcer saying: "We want you to mark a very important day on your calendars: December 7. Or better, let's call it 7-D - the 'D' is for December but it could also mean diversity and democracy."

The announcer goes on to say that if the Clarín Group doesn't comply with the 2009 Media Law, "the government will be obliged to hold a public bid" to "sell off licenses that exceed the maximum authorized under the law." The deadline for Clarín to do so is December 7.

Clarín Group is the largest media company in Argentina, with vast holdings in free-to-air television stations and AM and FM radio outlets - most with the biggest audience share - as well as the major daily Clarín, which has been a stern critic of Fernández de Kirchner's government.

The government "engages in near-constant attacks on Clarín"

In a Washington Post opinion piece published Monday, Clarín director Jorge Rendo said that the president and her allies "engage in near-constant attacks on Clarín, its shareholders and its reporters." Rendo explains that Clarín, according to the media law, cannot be "immediately stripped of its offending assets" until all its legal appeals have been exhausted. The Argentinean Supreme Court ruled against Clarín in May but it still has not made a decision on whether the publisher's constitutional rights are being violated.

"The Argentine government has increasingly used its political and economic clout to favor its allies and harass its opponents, including independent economists who dare to publish the country's true economic statistics rather than those doctored by the state," he wrote.

Under the law, media conglomerates can only hold a maximum of 24 cable-television licenses and 10 broadcast radio and television licenses. Clarín has 240 cable networks, 10 radio and four broadcast TV licenses, according to the government.

Until 2008, Clarín's relationship with the president and her predecessor and late husband, Néstor Kirchner, was good. But the latter that year accused the newspaper of siding with farmers in a dispute over export taxes for their products. Since then, the relationship between the publishing giant's directors and the government has soured. The following year, the law restricting media ownership was passed.

Last year, Clarín editors accused the government of using the human rights group the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in a smear campaign against the publishing group's owner, Ernestina Noble. She was publicly accused of adopting two children that were stolen from other families during the past military dictatorship. But DNA samples showed that Felipe and Marcela Noble were not linked to the two families who presented a claim in 2010 against the family. The government has also been fighting to break the monopoly of a printing press owned by Clarín and the other leading daily, La Nación.

"La presidenta" vs Harvard students

More than a year had passed since President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner took questions at a press conference. But this time was different. On her visit to the United States last week to attend the UN General Assembly, Fernández de Kirchner decided to answer six questions during a conference she held at Georgetown University in Washington and 10 questions from students at Boston's Harvard.

In some of her responses, she attacked students for their impressions of her government and Argentina. Here is one such encounter that took place at Harvard.

Question. I am also Argentinean and I feel privileged to be one of the few Argentineans who can ask you questions. After seeing the little information available regarding the inflation, crime and poverty indicators, don't you think that it is time to take a critical look at yourself and start to accept different opinions?

Answer. First of all I am going to answer you because I didn't answer your little school companion earlier [whistles break in the auditorium for her "little companion" remark]. About this 'I am one of the few privileged...' Guys, we are at Harvard, please these things are said at La Matanza [a university in Buenos Aires], not Harvard. This fresh little phrase: 'I am one of the few privileged Argentineans.' Look, maybe it is because you are at Harvard and don't realize that I speak with millions of Argentineans in the 20,000 events that I attend.

You are intelligent kids, with an academic level. I don't think you write to the same tune as do two or three journalists.

It amazes me that I have to come to a university to speak about this. I didn't come to a journalism school; I came to a school of government, and I am the president and it really grabs my attention that all of this is centered on who I speak with and who don't I speak to, and what journalist. Really, to me, if you don't mind my saying so, this is a bit unscholarly. I really expected another type of analysis or other types of questions that have to do with my government or the school of government, which I believe is an issue that concerns all of you. Now, what was it that you wanted to know? Could you please repeat the question?

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