Page last updated at 12:49 GMT, Saturday, 19 September 2009 13:49 UK

Daggers drawn in Argentine media fight

By Candace Piette
BBC News, Buenos Aires

Clarin newspaper office
Clarin newspaper is part of the Grupo Clarin empire

After a long and at times acrimonious session, Argentina's Chamber of Deputies this week passed a new media law proposed by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

More than 100 opposition lawmakers stormed out in protest at the bill, which comes amid an ongoing tussle between the presidency and one of the largest media groups in Latin America, Grupo Clarin.

President Fernandez has said her aim is to get rid of a hated media law from the military era, and establish a new regulatory framework for the media.

She argues that the new law will increase competition, allowing smaller players more access to frequencies and restricting the number of licences granted to dominant media players.

But critics have questioned President Fernandez's intentions, as the law, if it is also passed by the Senate, is likely to curb Clarin's influence and force the group to divest itself of some of its interests.

Political tensions

The bad blood began in March 2008 when Clarin criticised the government over its handling of a dispute with the agriculture sector.

Clarin editor Ricardo Kirschbaum
Society needs a new law, but not a law constructed against one group, but one for the whole of society
Ricardo Kirschbaum
Editor, Clarin

It was a sharp reversal of allegiances, as Ms Fernandez's predecessor, her husband Nestor Kirchner, had enjoyed Clarin's support.

He had rewarded the group by approving a cable TV merger which created a near-monopoly for a company that already owned newspapers, magazines, internet portals, television channels and radio stations.

Clarin cable now reaches 80% of the homes in the capital and around 50% nationwide.

But Mr Kirchner had entered a game played many times since the military governments of the 1970s, says political commentator Sergio Kiernan.

"First Clarin supports a government, getting economic concessions and licences as a result, but then when the political wind changes and the government begins to lose support, Clarin moves into opposition. It's been very lucrative for them," Mr Kiernan said.

Since 2008, Clarin has published numerous articles accusing government officials of illegal enrichment and abuse of power.

In response, President Fernandez's adminisitration has attacked Clarin.

For Ricardo Kirschbaum, the Clarin newspaper editor, this has been an assault on media freedom.

"The presidency can't stand critical thought," says Mr Kirschbaum.

"We are the biggest group in Argentina and we don't form part of their universe of official viewpoint".

'War to the death'

Earlier this month, President Fernandez persuaded Argentina's football association to break its pay-per-view cable contract with Clarin and begin broadcasting for free on a government channel.

Argentine President Cristina Fernandez
Clarin once supported the president's husband - when he was leader

And then on 10 September, 200 tax agents made a surprise visit to Clarin's offices in what was seen by many observers as a direct attempt to intimidate.

The law passed by deputies sets up a new regulatory body responsible for interpreting and applying the law.

Much debate in Congress centred on the heavy involvement of the presidency in deciding who would make up the seven-person panel.

Discussion also grew heated over the allocation of licences to providers of non-satellite broadcasting, a process that could also be potentially open to interference from the government.

But more crucially, for Clarin, the law also set the limit on the number of television and radio licences a single owner can hold.

"This is a war to the death," says Sergio Kiernan.

However, just days before the congressional debate, President Fernandez made a major concession.

She removed a clause from the bill that would have allowed telephone companies to compete for television customers by being able to package television, internet access and phone services while limiting cable TV companies - currently dominated by Clarin - to no more than a third of Argentine homes.

For Sergio Kiernan, the depth of debate in society and in Congress about the new law means that what might finally emerge, despite dubious government motivation, is a modernised media law that is badly needed.

"We will probably get rid of the monopolies in our media. Clarin is almost totally dominant in many provinces, and we will also probably have more state intervention.

"Clarin won't get exactly what it wants and neither will the government."

And for Mr Kirschbaum, the battle this time round may have served some purpose.

"Society needs a new law, but not a law constructed against one group, but one for the whole of society," he said.

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