Argentina

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In the past year, the country has been going through extreme tension and political deterioration. The independent news media have been suffering form this crisis and tension generated by government harassment. This tension comes about from the friction between the job of the media to inform and the supposed ghosts that the government detects. While the newspapers find in the institutional deterioration an inexhaustible source of material for its reports and opinions, the government insists on some corporate conspiracy intended to destabilize it, under the supposition that everything that it does is good, and that if it receives any sort of objection it will be due to some hidden interest. Nothing is further from the truth in the case of Argentina, where the informative agenda has been marked in recent times, not by journalistic investigation, but by government actions. Such are the cases of the controversial decree on the increase in agricultural withholding in 2008 or the polemical press law of 2009, and, most recently, the Decree of Need and Urgency that directed use of Central Bank reserves to pay the debt, opening a torrent of dissension among the other branches of government and the press. This was a surprising and non-consultative decision that received sharp criticism from the opposition and adverse court decisions, and which has generated strong criticism toward the media as they have reported on the topic. It is easy to show that the quality of a government and of a democracy can be measured by the degree of freedom of expression and the press that its citizens enjoy, and at the present time the weakening of republican institutions cannot be achieved by force, but rather by dominating the press and communications media. Another characteristic of present governments is the homogenization of government discourse that shows another face of authoritarianism. Main events that have affected freedom of the press during this period: Discrediting, slander, and intimidation of the media and of journalists, as has occurred repeatedly against the newspapers Clarín and La Nación of Buenos Aires. The aggression and mistreatment were also manifest when the government refused to answer the questions from reporters from certain media outlets. Harassment and disaccreditation of journalists during public acts, just for asking questions or otherwise carrying their jobs. Exclusion of professionals from certain media from press conferences, as happened days ago to Ismael Bermúdez of the newspaper Clarín at the Ministry of Labor. Failure to answer questions from reporters representing media indicated by the government at press conferences. The same thing happened to reporters Mariano Obarrio of La Nación, and Leonardo Mindez and Guido Braslavskky of Clarín. Seeking conflict with the media also includes a systematic plan carried out by several state agencies to try to control private enterprise in the manufacture of paper, the basic ingredient in the production of newspapers. This risk has been aggravated in recent months, with a series of administrative and legal measures intended to obstruct the management of the company Papel Prensa, interfering in its business policies and preparing the way for an expected judicial intervention. The Secretary of Domestic Trade, Guillermo Moreno, initiated a number of administrative challenges and denunciations that brought about the resignation of employees of the prosecutor’s office as they refused to be accomplices to a campaign against that company. Members of the newspaper company Clarin have suffered criminal accusations and tax investigations, so far dismissed. Finally, the justice department decided on March 9 to name a co-manager of the company Papel Prensa and suspended all decisions made in its board meetings, starting on November 4, 2009. Nevertheless, the aggression and interference from the Secretary of Trade at the main offices of the company have continued unabated. The validity of the Law on Audiovisual Services that brought about unending criticism at the end of last year was questioned judicially due both to its manner of approval as well as its content, which violates constitutional rights, authorizing broad and discretionary powers to the Executive Branch over the media and the number of signals permitted, and establishing dangerous criteria of censorship through the granting of licenses and the application of sanctions. It has been questioned in five legal decisions. One day before legislative changeover, the government forced modification of the relation between political forces in Congress and the formation of the Bicameral Commission on the Media, which was made up by a majority of members from the party in power. It immediately accelerated the creation of two new organizations, the Federal Council and Application Auditing. The first of these agencies shows once again a clear imbalance in favor of representatives of the Executive Branch and the almost non-existence of private media. The second, which will be responsible for implementation of standards and policy power over the media, was made up of teams of politicians, governors, representatives, and councilmen totally loyal to the government. It should be mentioned that the court decisions suspending enforcement of the media law were based on findings that it violates the constitutional rights of freedom of the press and expression, as well as property rights, consumer rights, and guaranties of equality before the law. These decisions were made by courts in the cities of Buenos Aires, Salta, Mendoza and San Juan. On March 8, a new pronouncement was produced against the law, which, like the decision of the judge from Mendoza, suspends enforcement of the entire law. The federal judge in Salta did it on formal grounds, objecting that there had been irregularities in the parliamentary procedures that make it invalid. Disobeying the legal order to suspend the law completely, the government issued a series of resolutions that attempt to establish a media map convenient to its objectives. Another epicenter of conflict was the telecommunications conflict resulting from a fight with the company Telecom. The National Commission on Defense of Competition determined, more than a year ago, that the entry of Telefonica de España in the stockholder capital of the controller of Telecom Italia threatens free competition and therefore Telecom must divest itself of its shares in Argentina. The Italian company appealed the resolution and received a favorable decision. But the government understands that this is just a time-wasting tactic and insinuated that if there is no progress in the sale it may undertake nationalization. Several different buyers are involved in the sales process , including media groups interested in using the infrastructure of the telephone companies for cable TV and Internet distribution . Impediments of a different sort carried out by the government are preventing the merger of Cable Visión and Multicanal of the Clarín group. In recent days the Ministry of the Economy has revoked the timely approval that the government had given to allow merger of the two companies. For their part, they will appeal to the courts to defend their position. During this period the number and uses increased of the written and broadcast media that indirectly answer to the Executive Branch. Indiscriminate management of official advertising in the audiovisual media of Buenos Aires. Abuse of all media, through the official network for official speeches and political propaganda. It should be added that today (March 22, 2010) it was learned, through the newspaper La Nación, that the government refused in writing to disclose the costs of official advertising, arguing that such information involved “personal details” and therefore is exempted from the access to public information law. This occurred in response to a request by two NGOs and amounted to a new arbitrary action in an area where the discretional running of government had already been questioned. It should be added that today (March 22, 2010) it was learned, through the newspaper La Nación, that the government refused in writing to disclose the costs of official advertising, arguing that such information involved “personal details” and therefore is exempted from the access to public information law. This occurred in response to a request by two NGOs and amounted to a new arbitrary action in an area where the discretional running of government had already been questioned. Another development that has arisen is the unequal treatment of the newspapers Junín Democracia and La Verdad, the latter published by the archbishopric of Luján-Mercedes, which has been exempted from payment of taxes by the Federal Public Revenue Administration with the aim of spreading the gospel, thus giving it different treatment under the law and free enterprise. In addition, there have occurred cases of espionage and telephone taps against editors and reporters. Barriers and discrimination in access to public information. Another situation that has affected the political normalcy of the country, taking its toll on the democratic form of government based on the division of powers and also contributing to the disaccreditation and aggravation toward the press, came about when the Executive Branch issued two decrees of necessity and urgency making available an amount of the federal reserve held at the Central Bank. The decision of the Executive Branch was questioned by a judged, who issued a decision prohibiting the government from carrying it out. In her speech that opened the sessions of Congress on March 1, the President also confronted the Judicial Branch when she said that the Supreme Court is only independent of the government and that there are judges who issue releases from prison or cancellation of sentences who answer to other interests than those of Justice. On the other hand, the Supreme Court has spoken out at various times on the need to avoid legalization of political questions, rather to adjust to constitutional control. This has not occurred, but rather just the opposite. Since the beginning of the year, the government and the opposition have filled the courts with cases in which the judges were forced to decide on matters of state. None of these has yet reached the Supreme Court, but it is a situation which may well come about. The conflict between the President of the Nation and the Judicial Branch has deepened in a worrisome way, when after the statements of the President, the Court issued a communication exhorting those who have government responsibilities to express themselves with measure and balance. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner responded by pointing out that the word “measure” sounds a lot like “censorship” , and that it did not seem to her to be the most appropriate word. The Church has also asked government workers and political leaders to act in benefit of the common good and avoid useless confrontation.

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