Latin American efforts to democratize media access have been treated as an assault on the press in U.S. corporate media. The latest supposed offender against freedom of the press is Argentina’s center-left government, headed by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Following her government’s decision to open investigations into the nation’s two largest newspapers’ collaboration with the bloody 1976-83 military dictatorship, outlets in the U.S. characterized her as a ruthless tyrant harboring a grudge against the nation’s most important media group.
Fernández de Kirchner’s government has made a number of radical moves to curb corporate control of the media and to democratize the nation’s media laws, something previous governments had left unchallenged since the country’s military dictatorship, when the laws were implemented. The dictatorship-era law restricted media ownership to private corporations, and allowed media conglomerates to hold dozens of broadcast licenses. The new law reserves 33 percent of broadcast media for community groups and restricts the market share and number of radio and television licenses any one corporation can control (New York Times, 10/11/09; Inter Press Service, 10/12/09).
The current investigation concerns whether the two largest newspapers, Clarín and La Nación, conspired with the military government to take over the newsprint company Papel Prensa, now a multi-billion dollar enterprise jointly held by the two papers and the government. In addition, the government asked the Argentine congress to declare the paper mill of “national interest,” which would transfer control from the Clarín group. The investigation has revealed that Papel Prensa has maintained a virtual monopoly on paper production and distribution. Since the Clarín group acquired a majority share in Papel Prensa, more than 46 local newspapers have gone out of business, as less-favored buyers must pay 50 percent more for paper than the Clarín group (Veintitrés, 8/29/10).
During the dictatorship, the military government conspired with the nation’s media to black out any reporting on human rights abuses; the military guaranteed media holders record profits (Mucho Ruido, Pocas Leyes, 2005), while their news outlets supported or at least kept silent about the kidnappings, detention centers, torture and disappearances. (Not all journalists were willingly silenced, of course; the junta disappeared 84 media workers and assassinated another 12—Agencia Nacional de Comuni-cacion, 3/22/06.) In the midst of the violent repression, Clarín (12/1/77) compared the torture centers to spas.
These media corporations find recent trends in regional democracy unsettling, as independent and state-supported media now have the structural conditions to compete with them. Prominent U.S. corporate media outlets, as well as the World Editor Forum (Clarín, 9/17/10) and the Inter American Press Association (8/23/10), are taking the side of their Argentine counterparts, accusing Fernández de Kirchner of violating press freedom with the aim of muzzling her opposition before the 2011 presidential elections.
In “Argentina: The Latest Latin American Censor,” Newsweek reporter Mac Margolis (9/13/10) wrote that Fernández de Kirchner has followed a regional trend in which governments are “muzzling the press in the name of some supposedly greater social good,” which, along with “stacking courts and buying or bullying legislatures” has “gutted democracy.” Margolis cited Argentina’s “shutter[ing]” of the country’s leading Internet service provider, Fibertel, a subsidiary of Clarín; he failed to mention that Fibertel did not have a license to operate in Argentina (Página/12, 9/16/10).
At the Wall Street Journal (8/25/10), reporter Shane Romig omitted historical information in his report of the government’s move to seize Papel Prensa. The Journal suggested that the junta had reason to take over Papel Prensa, repeating military allegations that the Graiver family that formerly owned it had “ties to the Montoneros, a Peronist guerrilla group that was fighting the military dictatorship.” Such charges were the military’s rationale for a generation’s worth of crimes against humanity.
The Economist has consistently depicted Fernández de Kirchner’s defense of human rights—a trademark issue for her and her husband, former Argentine president Néstor Kirchner—as a threat to the country’s democracy. In a post on its Americas View blog (10/8/10), the Economist argued that her attempts “to weaken and possibly break up [Clarín]” were “weakening Argentina’s democratic institutions.” In the very same piece the blog notes that Clarín says it currently controls 47 percent of the market, owns 13 radio and television licenses and owns both a broadcast channel and cable-distribution network in the same market; apparently the effect this sort of tight grip on media power has on democracy does not concern the Economist.
And contrary to the Wall Street Journal’s claims (8/25/10), the investigation into Clarín’s conspiring with the military dictatorship is not based on hearsay and rumors, but on the painful testimonies of survivors and relatives as well as painstaking collection of more than 27,000 pages of documentation (Tiempo Argentino, 9/8/10).
Clarín director Ernestina Herrera de Noble has also faced allegations from the human rights group Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo that her two adopted children were kidnapped from victims of the dictatorship. The two children, now 34 and heirs to a $1 billion fortune, have refused to undergo court-ordered genetic testing as part of a criminal investigation opened in 2001. The Wall Street Journal (8/25/10) treated the investigation as part of “a growing offensive by Ms. Kirchner to gag the media,” even though the investigation was opened in 2001, before the government took power, and despite an open letter published by Herrera de Noble (12/1/03) admitting that the children’s biological parents could be among the disappeared.
Democracy returned to the South American nation decades ago, but for the first time the Argentine government has challenged media groups that benefited from dictatorship-era laws. “We don’t have to be afraid of speaking out. The media can be voice carriers or they can hide the truth,” said Estela de Carlotto, president of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. As the nation revisits its painful past, business owners who acted as accomplices to the dictatorship will inevitably face questions.
Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and translator based in Argentina.