BUENOS AIRES, Oct 12 (IPS) - While civil society groups celebrated Argentina's new broadcasting law, media giants threatened to fight it with a wave of lawsuits, and opposition lawmakers pledged to revise it after the next Congress convenes in December. In the new legislature, the result of June elections in which President Cristina Fernández's supporters lost their majority, the opposition will try to amend or overturn the law, which was approved by the Senate in a 44-24 vote early Saturday morning, after a nearly 20-hour debate. The president signed it into law later that day.
The bill, which stirred up a major controversy in Argentina, brought the centre-left Fernández into conflict with the leading media groups, as it curbs the concentration of media ownership. A broad network of social organisations, which had long been demanding a new media law to replace the one in effect since the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, loudly applauded the passage of the bill without modifications
United Nations Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression Frank La Rue said the new law set "an example for other countries" by guaranteeing access to the media by all segments of society. The new law represents "a stride forward in Latin America against the increasing concentration of media ownership," he said.
A number of prominent academics and human rights activists threw their support behind the law. Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel told IPS before the Senate vote that approval of the new law was essential. "We cannot continue to have a dictatorship-era law, created by (dictator Jorge Rafael) Videla," said the activist, who is often critical of the Fernández administration.
"There is resistance because this law affects the interests of big corporations like Grupo Clarín, which waged a major campaign against its passage. But this is not a 'K law'," said Pérez Esquivel. The TN cable news station owned by Grupo Clarín, Argentina's biggest media conglomerate, dubbed the bill the "K law" – for former president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), Fernández's predecessor and husband.
"They have tried to depict this bill as a government law, but social organisations have been working for a democratic media law for the past 25 years," said Pérez Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his efforts in the defence of human rights during the de facto military regime.
Senator Ernesto Sanz, leader of the main opposition bloc, the Radical Civic Union (UCR), said that his party backed over 100 of the 166 articles of the law. But no agreement was reached on amendments to the other clauses, and the law was passed without modifications. Grupo Clarín - which owns more than 250 newspapers, radio stations, TV channels and cable stations - and other large media companies fought the new law tooth and nail, and the political opposition echoed their complaints that the new legislation would give Fernández and Kirchner greater influence over the media.
"Kirchner Now Has Law Granting Control over Media" was the front page headline in Clarín, the country's leading newspaper, on Saturday. Senator Sanz said the law is "bad" because it will unleash a flood of lawsuits by companies that will be affected by the change of broadcasting rules, although he added that it could be modified by the new Congress.
Since the return to democracy in 1983, civil society had been demanding new legislation to replace a dictatorship-era law under which a handful of companies have immense power over the media. Hundreds of human rights groups, community radio stations, universities and other civil society bodies joined together in the "Coalition for Democratic Broadcasting" to advocate a new law that would contain 21 specific points guaranteeing the right to communication and information. "This law was our project," the Coalition's coordinator, Néstor Busso, told IPS.
Thousands of members of the Coalition and of political parties, trade unions and student groups gathered outside of Congress Friday to express their support for the new law as the Senate debated, and celebrated when it passed.
The stated aim of the new legislation is to fight the concentration of media ownership by limiting the number of broadcasting licenses in the hands of media giants. It describes communication as a "public service" and will diversify the airwaves by reserving one-third of licenses each for non-profit organisations, state broadcasters and private companies.
In addition, it stipulates that at least 70 percent of radio content and 60 percent of television programming must be produced in Argentina, while requiring that cable TV stations carry channels run by trade unions, universities, indigenous groups and other social organisations.
In the lower house of Congress, the ruling party agreed to 200 modifications of the bill, which brought left-wing parties on board. The draft law made it through the lower house in September with a vote of 146-three, with three abstentions, as the opposition boycotted the vote. In the Senate, the biggest controversy was over allegations that the new law expanded government control over the media, even though executive branch influence was limited thanks to lobbying by leftist parties in the lower house, which increased the participation by not-for-profit organisations.
The new regulatory and licensing body that will replace the federal commission created by the dictatorship and controlled by the government of the day will have seven members: two designated by the executive branch, three elected by Congress and two named by a federal body made up of experts.
The one-year deadline for companies to shed broadcasting licenses over the limit also drew fire, with the opposition arguing that the firms will be forced to sell at unreasonably low prices, and that the licenses could be picked up by government cronies at bargain prices.
In a column published by the Perfil newspaper, Professor Eliseo Verón wrote that "deep-down, the fierce struggle for a new media law is a huge effort on the part of the government to recuperate power, aimed at stripping its enemies of certain media businesses to hand them over to its friends."