Cablegate: Embassy Buenos Aires


DE RUEHBU #0587/01 1262121
O 052121Z MAY 08




E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: Buenos Aires 531

1. (SBU) SUMMARY. The government of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner
has said it intends to push for congressional approval of new
federal broadcasting legislation.
The current Broadcasting Law was passed by decree in 1980 by the
military dictatorship. During the last 25 years of democracy, a
handful of attempts to introduce new legislation failed. Numerous
amendments served to create the country's current media picture.
Although media organizations recognize the need to update the
legislation, they are skeptical about the bill's intent and outcome.
The initiative comes just as the GoA has stepped up its public
criticism of the media and taken measures seen as a means of
imposing pressure, especially on the dominant conglomerate, the
Clarin Group (reftel). The government has held its first rounds of
consultations with sectors interested in broadcasting. Reflecting
the perceived stakes involved, the government official in charge of
reforming the law, which will take months, called this "the mother
of all battles" for the Fernandez de Kirchner administration. END

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2. (SBU) Act 22285 on Federal Broadcasting was introduced by the
"Dirty War" military dictatorship in September 1980. The law is
outdated in many ways. It states, for instance, that the Federal
Broadcasting Committee (COMFER), the ultimate authority in charge of
enforcing the law, is to be manned by one representative from each
of the three armed forces that was running the country at the time.
The impracticality of that clause has led various subsequent
administrations to appoint trustees at COMFER, leaving it in full
civilian government control. The de facto takeover of COMFER by the
national government also leaves the provinces with no say on the way
airwaves are distributed throughout the country and results in
highly centralized decision-making. COMFER has also failed to set
up a master plan on the use and misuse of frequencies, turning a
blind eye to the proliferation of hundreds of radio stations working
extra-legally or on makeshift interim permits.

3. (SBU) Most of the 270 amendments to the Broadcasting Act were
introduced in the 1990s, and served effectively to reshape the
country's media landscape to allow for the creation of multimedia
organizations, which the law initially banned. The reform allowed
the Clarin Group to become the first media conglomerate in the
country, owner of the country's best-selling newspaper as well as
one of the four main broadcast TV stations. Also in the 1990s,
legislation scrapped a ban on broadcast licenses being sold and/or
transferred, leading to a multiplicity of ownership changes toward
the end of the decade and to concentration in the hands of two main
groups on the eve o the 2001-2002 economic crash: Clarin and CIE.
Although there is more media diversity on the scene now, a 2007
report by academics from the state-run University of Quilmes and
University of Buenos Aires on the structure and concentration of
cultural and information industries in Latin America concludes
Argentina is above the Latin-American average regarding
concentration of media ownership. While the right to access
information is a fundamental right under the Argentine Constitution,
the single state-owned TV channel reaches only 50% of the country's
population, given its limited territorial coverage (35%), according
to a report by the CELS human rights group.

4. (SBU) Critics argue that the law has become a confusing
crazy-quilt of amendments introduced randomly to either suit
short-term political interests or consolidate changes already extant
in the market. Act 22285 barely accounts for the skyrocketing
growth of cable television, one of Argentina's main media
businesses, with over five million clients (and dominated by the
Clarin Group). It provides no sound legal structure for coming next
steps in support of rapid convergence of technologies and services.
At present, the Act poses a conflict between telecommunication
companies and broadcasters. While Act 22285 bars telecoms from
entering the TV business, broadcasters are allowed to deliver triple
play (telephone, television, Internet) convergence, therefore
providing them a clear market advantage.


5. (SBU) In April, the government announced an initiative to reform
the law. Gabriel Mariotto, the recently-appointed head of COMFER and
main architect of the reform, has not presented the government's
official draft yet. Various drafts have circulated in Congress in
recent years, but with little prospect of moving forward. The

Chairman in the Lower House's Committee on Communication and
Information Technology, Manuel Baladron, said the ruling Victory
Front majority would expedite passage of new government-sponsored
legislation. A press report indicated COMFER is finalizing a draft
that trims by half (24 to 12) the number of licenses a single
broadcaster is entitled to have, and sets market share limits (35-40
percent) to avoid concentration.

6. (SBU) Moriotto has asserted to the press that the government's
draft bill will closely adhere to a set of 21 points prepared four
years ago by a group comprised of University of Buenos Aires
academics, union leaders and the Coalition for Democratic
Broadcasting, which advocates broadcasting reform to overcome
perceived monopolistic practices. The "21 points" are a compilation
of principles that emanate from a decades-long intellectual movement
in the region that believe broadcasting and media should be
predominantly "public," as opposed to "private" or "state." Seeking
to occupy the middle ground between laissez-faire, pro-market ideals
and a firm state grip, this group defines the right to communication
as a universal human right that includes both freedom of the press
and the right of the public to receive fair, balanced, and unbiased
information. It calls for policies to avoid "the concentration of
information" both in hands of the state or the private sector.
Vertical or horizontal concentration in the media industry should be
controlled and the broadcasting spectrum should split in three, in
equal shares between public (state, but not governmental), private,
and community media. The manifesto also calls for the implementation
of quotas to guarantee nationally-produced contents on the air.

7. (SBU) The government has started a round of consultations with
groups, including private media associations, union leaders, and
academics from both public and private universities. Mariotto has
announced that final drafting of the bill would only start once
these talks are over. In what is taken by the media to be a
political message, the GoA has brought in unionists to give their
opinion on how the media should be regulated, with a prominent role
given to Hugo Moyano, head of the CGT (General Confederation of
Workers). Moyano has locked horns with Clarin for months over
coverage of union activities.


8. (SBU) Despite its broad support for new broadcasting legislation,
the media has become more critical of the administration's overall
policy toward the press. Both former president Nestor Kirchner and
his successor and wife, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner,
are well known for antagonizing media companies, sometimes singling
out journalists by name when they disliked their coverage. The
latest round of conflict between the government and the media came
on the heels of its conflict over export taxes with the farm sector,
which went on strike. Shortly after the Kirchners criticized Clarin
and its cable news channel, Todo Noticias (TN), of biased coverage
of the strike, Mariotto announced a realignment of cable positions
that would move TN to a less privileged channel. Most media
observers see the revival of the broadcast legislation as another
attempt by the administration to muzzle journalism and avoid
criticism of the President and her Cabinet. Mariotto of COMFER has
said that introducing new broadcast legislation amounts to "the
mother of all battles" for Argentina's democracy.

9. (SBU) Separately, private media outlets have been outspokenly
critical of the administration's announcement to give more clout to
a Media Content Observatory that runs under the wing of the
government's Anti-Discrimination Institute (INADI). The newspaper
publishers' association, ADEPA (Asociacion de Entidades
Periodisticas Argentinas), issued April 10 a statement which slams
the Observatory idea and complains about "the increasingly
irritating and more frequent" limitations on journalists.

10. (SBU) President Fernandez de Kirchner met April 25 with ADEPA
and other media organizations, including the independente media
association, CEMCI (Comision Empresaria de Medios de Comunicacion
Independientes), and the broadcasters' associations, ATA (Asociacion
de Telerradiodifusoras Argentinas) and ARPA (Asociacion de
Radiodifusoras Privadas Argentinas). She was accompanied by Mariotto
and her Media Secretary Enrique Albistur (see para 12 on
corruption). ADEPA presented the President with a statement of
views on the new legislation. The document states, among other
points, that: 1) broadcasting legislation should be restricted to
regulation of the administration of technical aspects of frequencies
and stay away from content, 2) content can be subject to
post-publication confirmation and accountability, but should never
be subject to pre-publication censorship, 3) the state should not
interfere in editorial prerogatives, 4) abusive taxation of the
media endangers freedom of expression, 5) the administration should
fight illegal broadcasters, and 6) there should be objective rules
in the allocation of state advertising. Media representatives
present at the meeting confirmed that the President spoke in defense
of press freedom, but said they are skeptical that they will have
any impact on the shape of a bill, which they believe is already
sitting in draft. They anticipate that the government's draft bill
will be detrimental to independent media.

11. (SBU) Beyond the media's institutional response, there has been
a noticeable shift toward more negative media coverage of
Argentina's reality in general and the government's performance in
particular. The shift is particularly visible in Clarin, whose
front-page carries much clout when it comes to setting the daily
agenda of public discussion in Argentina. It also coincides with a
decline in President Fernandez de Kirchner's approval ratings,
which, according to polls, has fallen below the 50 percent barrier
just four months after taking office December 10.

12.(U) Cases of corruption in the Kirchner administration are becoming
more visible in the mainstream media. In particular, a formal
investigation has been launched against Casa Rosada Media Secretary
Enrique Albistur, who is in charge of a 100 million dollar state
advertising budget, a critical source of funds for Argentine media.
He also oversees COMFER. The case involves allegations of directing
about one million dollars of public funds to businesses of family
and friends. While Albistur has drawn strong criticism from certain
media for allegedly skewing the GOA press budget to friendly media,
his case is now scoring headlines in leading media. Opposition
Deputy Silvana Giudici, the head of the Lower House Committee on
Freedom of Expression, has said that Albistur should resign to
undergo court investigation. Albistur is claiming innocence. In
the meantime, Albistur's advertising company is plastering posters
around Buenos Aires, "Clarin Lies; Clarin Contaminates," as
President Fernandez de Kirchner publicly critiques Clarin reporting.
Media contacts expect the battle against the media to continue
until, as has been the history of the Clarin media conglomerate with
the Kirchners, they negotiate and come to agreement on the terms of
a truce.


13. (SBU) Due to the Kirchners' tendency to publicly vilify enemies
for political gain, many suspect that the administration's effort to
redraw Argentina's media picture is part of a short-term
confrontational strategy designed to strong arm the media -- even
though the legislation is consistent with the Kirchner's
longstanding campaign against the last military dictatorship's
legacy. The Fernandez de Kirchner administration has opened a major
front of conflict with an institution the Argentine public considers
one of its most credible institutions.


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