I spend a lot of time talking with Argentines about politics, but it isn’t very often that I express my own thoughts. People here who care about politics, it happens, really care; in a country as politically polarized as Argentina, that makes for dangerous conversational territory. But I’m going to give it a go here on my blog; I hope any politically passionate Argentines who stumble upon it won’t hate me!
On the whole, I’m neither with nor against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s government, a posture which seems to offend Kirchneristas and los anti-K (that’s “anti-kah”) equally. For many reasons–a bunch of which I’ll explain in subsequent posts–I tend to agree pretty strongly with Cristina (as she’s universally known here) on questions of economic redistribution and social inclusion, but I’m convinced that much of what she and her late husband and predecessor in office, Néstor, have done has only contributed to the country’s chronic and crippling institutional instability. And for a political science-ish history person like me, that’s a big problem.
Along with the government’s transparent doctoring of inflation rates, the Kirchners’ approach to dealing with the media may be the prime example of the damage currently being done to Argentina’s already weak institutions. Since 2009 in particular, the government has sought to consolidate its control over print and broadcast media. In October of that year, the Kirchners took advantage of the last few lame-duck weeks of their former Congressional majority to push through a controversial and far-ranging new media law. Although ongoing court challenges mean that it has yet to go into effect, if it survives, the law will dramatically reshape Argentina’s media spectrum. I agree with the government’s argument that the status quo is unworkable; the existing media law was enacted by the last military dictatorship, and it does far too little to combat monopolization. At present, in fact, the conservative News Corp-on-steroids Grupo Clarín controls an estimated 27% of the national market and an amazing 44% of the influential Buenos Aires one–a level of market penetration that surely gives Rupert Murdoch wet dreams.
But while such monopolization does pose a real danger, the 2009 media law pushes much too far in the opposite direction. Assuming it stands, it will divide the media spectrum into thirds, reserving one third for the private market, one third for the government, and one third for nonprofit organizations. Licenses will be allocated by a panel dominated by government appointees. Broadcasters will be required to set aside a certain percentage of time for government-sponsored programs. Group Clarín will need to rapidly sell off many of its properties, and it will be nearly impossible for any other private group to build a national media network. The government, in other words, will be the only entity capable of delivering a coherent multi-media message on the national level.
Proponents of the law (or at least the ones willing to admit that it may not be perfect) say that domination by a populist government is still better than domination by private corporations. This may be true, but recent government actions suggest that this vast aggregation of government power isn’t likely to be employed with a great deal of reserve. The Inter-American Press Association, which has recently ramped up its warnings about eroding press freedoms here, has just completed an investigative visit and will be releasing a final report within a week. Its report will surely document the government’s sponsorship of undisclosed “advocacy journalists,” its use of state advertising contracts to reward and punish, its targeted tax raids and legal actions against unfavorable sources, its attempts to intimidate opposition journalists, and its transparently political effort to secure direct control over the distribution of newsprint.
The upshot is a media environment polarized to the point of real civic harm. There’s no one reliably balanced news source in Argentina today; instead of analysis, outlets offer a limited range of predictable, almost automatic partisan responses. While La Nación, traditionally the newspaper of record, is more moderate than most, it still tilts rather obviously to the right, not just on its editorial page but in its news coverage, too. Clarín, which has the highest circulation figures in the country, is knee-jerk in its oposition to everything the government supports, and it’s terribly written. Página/12, once one of the hardest-hitting investigative papers in Latin America, has become something terrifyingly close to a government mouthpiece. And public television–which the government wants to begin broadcasting on monitors to be installed on city buses–feels like little more than propaganda. Unless you read everything, it’s tough to get a decently complete picture of what’s going on. And forget about a factually solid, critical take on current events; no major media outlet does the kind of legitimate, fair investigative work so important as a check on existing power structures, be they public or private. It’s striking, and very troubling.
(My own personal response to the balanced-media vacuum is to read both La Nación and Página/12 regularly, tempered by an occasional (and ever-painful) glance at Clarín.)
“But this sounds just like the US’s current ultra-partisan media environment,” you might be thinking. Not quite. Imagine that you wake up tomorrow to find that only Fox News, The New York Post, USA Today, and whitehouse.gov are reporting the news, and you’ll have a closer approximation of the current media climate here.
What does this all mean for Argentina? I’m hardly about to predict the imminent collapse of Argentina’s longest period of sustained democracy since 1930, but I do think that even the best government needs to be checked by something, and a big part of that something ought to be a vigorous, effective, independent media. Anything less is certain to compound rather than correct the polarization and weak institutions that–to my mind, at least–make for an unaccountable executive and do quite a bit to keep Argentina from realizing its full potential.
I’d love to hear your thoughts–post a comment if you have any!