In Argentina, breaking up a mighty media corporation is hard to do.
Especially when so much of the international press lines up to protect the media conglomerate that has long dominated the national discourse, positing that diminishing its power imperils freedom of expression.
Just as 2011 drew to a close, Argentina’s president passed a landmark law designed to foment press freedom in a nation where one company, Grupo Clarín, owns the overwhelming majority of news outlets. The law will require Papel Prensa, the paper company majority-owned by Grupo Clarín, to sell news print paper to all newspaper outlets at the same price.
The law, says the government, will weaken Grupo Clarín’s decades-long stronghold on the media, allowing new voices to compete. Grupo Clarin, which controls 50 percent of total newspaper and magazine circulation in Argentina, as well as the largest TV network in Latin America, has metastasized in recent years. It now laws claim to an extensive list of newspapers, radio stations, television channels, publishing houses and production companies, placing it among top dogs like News Corp and Time Warner.
With its dominance clearly in peril, Grupo Clarín has launched a savvy marketing campaign against the law, reporting across the country that the president is launching an attack on press freedom and independent media. Unfortunately, the campaign has won over many foreign journalists, including individuals at the Associated Press, Brazil’s O Estado and Spain’s El País.
In an old-fashioned game of telephone, these outlets have repeated the corporation’s arguments against the law, but turned them into facts, warning against a meddling Argentine dictatorship with an “excessive concentration of power” (El País) “clearly aimed at restricting freedom of expression” (O Estado).
The AP reported that the production of paper is now “under government control,” a fact that does not hold up if one reads the language of the law. And the Inter American Press Association, an organization of print publications dedicated to the defense of the freedom of the press, condemned the “malicious attempts by the government of Argentina to control press freedom.”
Grupo Clarín, in turn, is quoting these reports in its own outlets, arming itself with false legitimacy from the outside.
Grupo Clarin owes much of it success to well-documented collusion with the dictators who reigned over the country in the 1970s and 1980s. For Argentines who remember the way Grupo Clarín’s newspapers ignored or distorted deaths and torture during this time, it is particularly painful that the corporation would begin to wave the banner of freedom of expression in its defense.
The Papel Prensa law is part of larger movement by recently re-elected President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner to open a media space dominated by the old guard. The bill’s approval follows the passage of another controversial law that limits the number of television channels a media company can own. But one does not need to be a fan of the Kirchner government to understand the danger of a corporation that reigns over so much of the national conversation. Governments around the world have long moderated the power of media companies. There is no reason that Argentina should not enact legislation in the same spirit.
It is a sad commentary on journalism, therefore, that foreign reporters would turn out to cheerlead Grupo Clarín. In the end, they’re cheating not just their readers—but ultimately themselves.
Julie Turkewitz is a freelance journalist in New York City who writes frequently about social justice issues. She lived in Argentina in 2008 and 2009. Additional work at www.julieturkewitz.com.