Monday, October 19, 2009

Community on the Airwaves: End to Dictatorship Media Law in Argentina

Written by Marie Trigona

Like the United States, media laws in Argentina favor big corporations over small community groups. But this changed recently when Argentina passed a media law which will radically transform media ownership regulations. Senate approved the bill, which could open the airwaves to community groups with a 44 to 24 vote. Media conglomerates have been fighting the bill in an attempt to preserve their control over news and information. The passage was met with celebrations outside of congress, where thousands of government supporters, union representatives, human rights groups and artists converged in support of the law.

This law overturns dictatorship era legislation which limited media ownership to private corporations. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner presented the law in June. At a televised conference at the government palace, the president outlined the project: “Today the media is controlled mostly by private commercial groups. The bill will change this. One third of licenses will be for commercial groups, a third for government and public use, and a third for non-governmental organizations. Freedom of press can’t be confused with freedom for private media owners.”

The law was spearheaded by the Coalition for Democratic Broadcasting, a coalition of more than 300 groups, including unions, community media organizations, and human rights groups like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. For more than two years the coalition acted as an advisory committee to develop the bill.

Media in the Dictatorship

This is the first attempt to revise broadcasting legislation since 1980, when a law passed by the military dictatorship banned community associations from accessing broadcast licenses. Dictator Jorge Rafael Videla sanctioned the law, which guaranteed private media holders large profits, promised support for the dictatorship from media outlets, and silenced journalists from reporting on the systematic genocide taking place in the nation. During the dictatorship 84 journalists were disappeared and 12 were assassinated, adding to the long list of over 30,000 disappeared by the bloody junta.

That law placed the few TV stations existing at the time in the hands of the military. Article 96 of the law, which was still in effect until new legislation was passed in October, states that the Federal Broadcasting Committee (COMFER) falls under the control of the State Intelligence Agency. In a Big Brother paradox, the law essentially allowed only private media conglomerates, the Intelligence Agency, and the military to control and regulate the media.

Since Argentina's return to democracy in 1983, only minor reforms have been made to the law, but always to promote private media ownership and concentration. According to the law, only an individual or commercial group established in the country has the right to acquire a license to broadcast a television or radio signal. Non-profit groups, universities, cooperatives, or community associations do not have the right to apply for a broadcast license. For community radio and television stations, this law is a holdover from the days of authoritarian rule that has literally blocked any possibility of gaining legal permission to broadcast.

Media Consolidation

Claudio Caussandier is a regulator at COMFER, the state agency that regulates media broadcasters. “There has been a tendency toward media concentration since the 1990’s when the regulations were modified. The current law was passed in 1980 by a military dictatorship. Media conglomerates haven’t had any competition, so now it’s a big fight. The few companies that have broadcast licenses have been pressuring the government to not open access to the airwaves.”

This led to media concentration. Two media conglomerates control most of Argentina's airspace: Grupo Clarin and Telefonica. Clarin holds more than 264 broadcast licenses nation-wide. The media group also owns more than 50 percent of cable television, more than a dozen print publications, 2 national radio stations and shares in telecommunication and internet providers. Clarin has attracted international investors, including Goldman Sachs which holds 18 percent of shares in Grupo Clarin. Media concentration is reflected in the lack of diversity in programming. Clarin owns two of the three nation-wide television networks.

As the main beneficiary to the dictatorship’s media law, Clarin reported that the 1976 military coup was “inevitable.” In addition to annihilating all competition for Clarin, the military junta also allotted the sale of Papel Prensa, the largest paper producer and supplier in Argentina in 1977.

The heiress to Clarin, Director Ernestina Herrera de Noble, has been investigated since 2004 in connection with the appropriation of two children born to parents held in captivity during the dictatorship. Human Rights group Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo has issued legal requests for Noble’s children to have DNA tests, following evidence of irregularities in the adoption of her two children in 1976.

Clarin has attacked the president and the bill, accusing Fernandez de Kirchner of violating freedom of the press. Other opponents of the bill include other media leaders such as Telefonica and the Argentina’s Association of Cable Television providers, Kirchner’s political opposition and The International Association of Broadcasting. Opponents of the new law have criticized the President for trying to turn Argentina's privately controlled media landscape into a model like Venezuela's state supported community media stations, linking Argentina’s decision to a regional trend in democratizing media. Leading up to the October Senate vote, television stations aired apocalyptic ads describing the law as “death of freedom of press” and “end of our stations.” The campaign didn’t end there, for months the media has included coverage of all protests against the president, attacking progressive policies, while favoring the opposition.

The International Association of Broadcasting (IAB) opposed the newly passed law saying that the law would put freedom of the press in the South American nation in jeopardy. The IAB criticized Argentina's government, saying that the project creates "more vulnerable and dependent" media, during a meeting in Washington with the head of the Organization of American States earlier this year. In an alarmist editorial in Clarin, Argentina's largest national news daily and media conglomerate, titled "Don't Violate Freedom of Expression," Luis Pardo Sainz warns that Argentina may be at risk for a state takeover of the media, saying that the state would be a worse monopoly than the corporate media monopoly.

In his editorial, Sainz also said that the IAB was right to warn of weakening the media, and accused Venezuela of controlling media editorial lines under the guise of community purposes by building a wide network of media that seem diverse but only have one ideological tendency. Ultimately, Sainz’s protests seem to make a paradoxical claim that the building of community media for and by the people is dangerous for diversity.

New Space for Community Media

Despite opposition, community groups' efforts paid off. A coalition of more than 300 groups, including unions, community media organizations, and human rights groups like the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo participated in the advisory committee that developed the bill. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner presented a bill to change the current dictatorship law on March 18, 2009. Many journalists, actors, and media figures have supported the president's imitative, called the Audiovisual Communication Service law (SCA, by its Spanish initials). The law states: "Airwaves belong to the community, they are the patrimony of humanity ... they should be administered by the State with democratic criteria."

The SCA law calls for several fundamental changes to media legislation. The most important aspect of the law is the mandated 33% of airwaves reserved for non-profit groups. This would ensure that community associations, non-profits, and universities have guaranteed access to broadcast licenses.

COMFER Vice President Sergio Fernandez Novoa said in an interview with the state press agency Telam that "the previous law only allowed individuals or commercial businesses to apply for licenses, meaning that any individual without commercial purposes couldn't have a television or radio station in Argentina, like cooperatives, civil associations, or community radios. Now not only can they, but they should be guaranteed a third of the broadcast airwaves currently controlled almost completely by private commercial companies."

Now, however, community media and grass roots organizations will have to compete with all “non-profit entities” to win the spaces opened by the law. The term “all non-profit entities” opens the door for private associations, funded by corporations and church groups to compete with community media groups. Other criticisms of the law include the lack of legislation for funding for community media and guarantees for indigenous representation in local media.

Outside of Congress, community media groups from the National Network of Alternative Media broadcast live video and radio programming. They have hung a banner that reads: “Even though we’re not inside the law, we exist.”

“The new legislation recognizes communication as a right, which is a move in the right direction,” says Fabiana Arcencibia from the media collective Red Ecco, “but the current bill does not recognize us as community broadcasters, as alternative media outlets, and we’re demanding that the bill include us.”

Many hope that the new legislation will foster local media to cover issues which have been ignored by the corporate media for decades. Time will tell whether this shift to local, non-corporate media will foster a new age of free press in Argentina, or if the law was only the government’s attempt to quiet opposition. Either way, the legislation opens new doors for Argentina’s community media groups to legally access to the airwaves.

Marie Trigona is a journalist, radio produce and filmmaker based in Argentina. She can be reached through her blog

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