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President Cristina Fernández’s doctors confirmed on Saturday that she was recovering well from brain surgery a month ago. But as she prepares to return to office, her priorities and ambitions have radically altered during her enforced break.
On the one hand, she suffered a big setback while in hospital from the results ofArgentina’s midterm elections at the end of October. Ms Fernández failed to win the necessary congressional majority to amend the constitution and allow her to stand for a third term in 2015, and the succession battle is already under way.
On the other, just two days after the disappointing polls, the president scored a welcome victory with a Supreme Court ruling that upheld a controversial 2009 media law she herself had championed.
The ruling – that the law was constitutional – could end a bitter four-year legal battle with Argentina’s most powerful media conglomerate, Grupo Clarín, which owns the country’s most-watched broadcast network, and has been ordered to sell off dozens of operating licences.
“They have chosen Clarín as an enemy to defeat and destroy,” said Ricardo Kirschbaum, editor-in-chief of the group’s Clarín newspaper, Argentina’s widest circulating daily.
Now that re-election is out of the question, analysts say Ms Fernández will attempt to divert attention to other battles – especially with Grupo Clarín, one of her most bitter adversaries.
The new law attempts to “democratise” the media and prevent monopolies by stopping companies from having more than a 35 per cent market share in broadcast television, cable television or radio, as well as capping the number of licences that companies can own.
This means Clarín, a fierce government opponent, must now sell off some of its most lucrative assets to comply with the law, sending its share price tumbling by more than 40 per cent after the ruling. Its cable television operator Cablevision will now have to reduce its 158 licenses to a maximum of 24.
One close ally of the government, Luis D’Elía, gleefully spoke last week of chopping up Clarín “with a butcher’s knife”.
Although the new law replaces an obsolete code that dates back to Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship and has widespread support among civil society and free-speech advocates, many are concerned that it will be implemented arbitrarily.
Claudio Paolillo, president of the Press Freedom Commission of the Inter-American Press Association, says the media regulator is controlled by Martín Sabbatella, who openly supports the government, and adds that regulations are not applied to government-friendly media.
“We are enormously concerned that the law is being implemented with the sole objective of destroying Clarín,” said Mr Paolillo, who argues that the government’s goal is to silence the critical voices given airtime by Clarín. “That is a step backwards for the freedom of expression.”
Clarín used to be considered a government ally. Néstor Kirchner, Ms Fernandez’s husband and predecessor, allowed it to grow into the behemoth that it has become by approving its 2007 purchase of a major cable television company. However, it fell out of favour after criticising the government’s role in a row with farmers in 2008.
“This is about revenge,” said Alvaro Herrero, a senior investigator at the Laboratory for Public Policy, a think-tank in Buenos Aires.
In the past four years, the government has brought criminal charges against Clarín’s owners, even accusing one of them of adopting children abducted by the military dictatorship in the 1970s.
It has also removed football broadcasting rights from Clarín, seized newsprint producers it owned, and not only starved its newspaper of state advertising but also forbidden other companies from placing adverts in its paper, according to Mr Kirschbaum.
“If this continues and multinational companies like Carrefour and Walmart continue to obey this boycott – which is an absolute disgrace – then [the newspaper Clarín] will cease to be profitable,” said Mr Kirschbaum.
Faced with the threat of expropriation if it fails to comply with the law, last week Grupo Clarín presented a plan that would split the conglomerate up into six units, while allowing it to keep its most valuable television and radio licences.
“If the government was smart, it would accept Clarin’s plan,” said Mr Herrero, who explained that the plan was legal even if it may end up just splitting the company up between partners and family.
Mr Herrero said that if the government rejects the plan but allows other media groups to go ahead with similar proposals, Clarín could argue that, although the law itself has been determined to be constitutional, its practical application is unconstitutional, thus prolonging the legal battle – perhaps beyond Ms Fernandez’s presidential term.
Furthermore, other media groups are unlikely to move to break up their monopolies until the case with Clarín is resolved. “If Clarín doesn’t comply with the law, no one will,” said a top executive at a major Argentine media company.
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