- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 15, 2009

BUENOS AIRES | An epic battle between Argentina’s two reigning powers — the presidency and media giant Grupo Clarin — started with a political cartoon, the way one editor tells it.

When President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was drawn with an X taped over her mouth, she called it a “mafia-like” threat and accused “media generals” of using their newspapers and TV stations to rally her opponents.

She and her husband and predecessor, former President Nestor Kirchner, told Clarin to be more “disciplined,” Editor Ricardo Kirschbaum recalls — one of many attempts to control the paper’s coverage.

Now, in the name of “freedom of speech,” Mrs. Kirchner has proposed a law that would break up Clarin, one of Latin America’s largest newspaper and cable TV companies, piece by piece.

The dispute involves motives of profit and power far more complex than a drawing published in March 2008 during a heated national debate over Mrs. Kirchner raising taxes on soy profits.

Since last year, the fight has become vindictive and costly.

Clarin has published expose after expose accusing the Kirchners and other government officials of illegal enrichment and abuse of power. The Kirchners have responded in kind, using taxpayer money and government officials to attack Clarin’s bottom line.

Last week, 200 tax agents were sent to question Clarin’s employees. This week, appellate judges will hear arguments in open court that the Clarin director’s children were illegally adopted orphans of Argentina’s dirty war.

“This is a war without mercy, a bloody fight to the death,” said Henoch Aguiar, a former Argentine communications secretary.

Mrs. Kirchner now blames Grupo Clarin’s critical coverage for her 20 percent approval rating and for punishing losses in June’s midterm elections. It’s a strange situation for both sides because the interests of Clarin and the presidency have long been intertwined.

Argentina’s largest and most-respected newspaper survived and prospered under dictators and leaders from right to left, and its coverage fit more or less comfortably within Mr. Kirchner’s agenda as he brought the country out of an economic meltdown.

Mr. Kirchner rewarded Grupo Clarin during his final week as president by approving a cable TV merger that created a near-monopoly for a company that already owned newspapers, magazines, Internet portals, television channels and radio stations. Clarin cable now reaches 80 percent of the homes in the capital and about 50 percent nationwide.

But in Clarin’s huge newsroom, editors and reporters watching Mrs. Kirchner denounce them on television three months into her presidency realized that the relationship was broken, probably for good.

“It was a turning point,” Mr. Kirschbaum, the Clarin editor, recalled in an interview. “From there the political tension with the media grew.”

Mrs. Kirchner made good on her threat to take up a media reform project that Clarin and previous governments had repeatedly blocked in the 25 years since Argentina’s dictatorship fell.

The proposal is designed to prevent media monopolies by preserving two-thirds of the digital spectrum for noncommercial TV and radio and creating an agency like the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to regulate content.

But Mrs. Kirchner’s version adds clauses that seem specifically aimed at carving up Clarin.

One, for example, could enable Telecom Argentina telephone company to package television, Internet access and phone service for everyone, while cable providers could sell to no more than a third of Argentine homes. It wouldn’t prevent monopolies but could destroy Clarin, Mr. Aguiar said.

Grupo Clarin’s stock soared after Mrs. Kirchner’s congressional defeat in the June elections; investors may have thought the president would back down.

Instead, she persuaded Argentina’s soccer association to break its pay-per-view cable contract with Clarin and began broadcasting the games for free on a government channel. Then, her government abruptly ordered the cable merger undone.

By this month, the company’s stock had lost all its gains since June. Mr. Kirschbaum said the surprise visit by 200 tax agents failed to intimidate, and reminded lawmakers how the media law could be used to punish opponents. Now the divided opposition in Congress seems to be lining up against the proposed law.

The battle has Argentines transfixed, trying to figure out the political and financial intrigues behind each development.

Many see hidden influences in the appellate court hearings in the case of 22 adopted children who have refused DNA tests to determine whether they were stolen from victims of the dirty war.

Two of the children were adopted in 1976 by Clarin’s director and majority shareholder, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, the founder’s widow and a symbol of Argentina’s powerful elite.

Some say Clarin’s influence delayed the judicial process for years and suggest Wednesday’s hearings wouldn’t have been scheduled if not for a push by pro-government judges.

Mrs. Noble made a rare public comment about the war between Clarin and the Kirchners during the 64th anniversary of the paper’s founding last month.

“Today we suffer new attacks for defending our journalistic integrity,” she said - “campaigns of unusual virulence, coming from obscure zones of power.”

Mrs. Kirchner tried for higher ground Friday. Her tax agency chief denied ordering the raid on Clarin and said he fired the two officials responsible. And the president proposed decriminalizing libel, which now carries a three-year prison term.

Mr. Kirschbaum said he supports aspects of the proposed media law and that regulations are necessary - but they shouldn’t be designed to punish one company in particular.

Mrs. Kirchner wants the law passed before she loses her congressional majority in December. The Inter-American Press Association is asking for patience and prudence, and warns against giving a president the power to decide media content.

Both sides claim “freedom of expression” as their goal, but some journalists fear that it could end up as collateral damage.

“This law is an unpaid debt to democracy,” said Jorge Lanata, founder of the publication Pagina 12, who resisted editorial pressure from the Kirchners for years before Clarin bought his paper and ousted him.

“It has been more than 20 years, and in all that time it was impossible to seriously consider such a law. Each president wanted to get in good with Clarin to avoid trouble. And Clarin saw to it that the law never advanced.”

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