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Showdown over media law in Argentina

A bitter conflict is raging in Argentina over the country's new media law. Some see the law as delivering more democracy, others as a way for government to silence critics. It's now come to a showdown.

The Radio Sur studio is whirling in stress. The editor is speaking simultaneously on two cell phones, the audio engineer has all ten fingers on the controls, and the presenter on the microphone is trying to concentrate for her next interview.

A general strike has paralyzed Argentina on this particular day. Radio Sur listeners have been asked to call the station and express their opinions. And they are. Students, workers, housewives and many others talk about how the strike is affecting their daily lives and why they support or reject the walkout.

Good for society

There are no commercial breaks, no music, just genuine community radio.

Inés Farina © Marc Koch Buenos Aires, 20.11.2012,

Radio Sur presenter Ines Farina sees a big fight ahead

"The new media law was and still is very important not only for the non-profit, alternative community radio stations but for society as a whole," said presenter Inés Farina after her broadcast.

Radio Sur in Buenos Aires is one of the so-called "radios comunitarias," or small, non-commercial radio stations operated by various organizations, universities or indigenous groups. These community radio stations benefit from the law by receiving broadcasting licenses more easily.

Under the previous media law approved by the military dictatorship in the 1970s, only individuals and institutions could operate radio and television stations.

The new law was designed to ensure more diversity and democracy and prevent the media landscape from being dominated by giant companies. It requires, for instance, that frequencies are allocated in three chunks to private, public, and commercial broadcasters. Any one group with surplus licenses must return them.

Growing government influence

The law was also passed to help communities start their own media projects. But because the community radio stations are frequently dependent on the government for funding, its influence over the media has grown. The state is also in charge of granting broadcast licenses every two years.

Martin Etchevers Foto: Marc Koch

Clarín spokesman Etchevers warns of growing government influence

But proponents of the law argue that the law curbs the influence and power of giant media companies. "We believe all of this will evolve into a long and hard fight against the big multimedia companies," said presenter Farina. "They benefitted from the situation over the past few years. That must now stop. The law applies to everyone."

Three years ago, the Argentinean parliament approved the new media law. But it remains a hotly debated piece of legislation.

Grupo Clarín, South America's second largest media company, refuses to return its surplus of licenses. The company has embarked on a course against the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

"The best proof of this is that more than 80 percent of all radio and television broadcasters have fallen under the direct or indirect control of the government over the past three years since the law has been in force," said Clarín spokesman Martín Etchvers. "That's why we have brought proceedings against two articles of the law since we believe they are unconstitutional."

Freedom of expression

Logo Grupo Clarín © Marc Koch

Grupo Clarin is at the heart of the media dispute in Argentina

Now it's come to a showdown. The government has stated that Clarín must abide by the law and return its surplus licenses by the end of the week. And should the judges not uphold it, all this could be seen as a "rebellion."

Even politicians who approve of limiting the market power of media giants question the government's motives.

"The president's move against the judiciary turns a purely economic issue for Clarín into a question of freedom of expression," said opposition Senator Mario Cimadevilla. The legislator was among those who opposed electing a government-friendly judge to handle the Clarín case.

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