A Hot Few Days in Argentina

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Alleged wiretapping hearings lead by a politician, the shutdown of an Internet provider and the investigation of a newsprint factory have all occurred in Argentina over the last few days. They all connect in one clear way: they signify the climax of Cristina Kirchner’s presidency; they represent a moment of truth for the controversial figure. Argentina is fast approaching the 2011 presidential elections and the whole country is seized by the battle between the Kirchnerites and their fierce opposition. In this war, great names will be toppled and the ghosts of Argentina’s past—specifically the lingering effects of the country’s brutal military dictatorship—will certainly influence the country’s future.

Since 2008, Argentine politicians have been labeled as “K” (for supporting Kirchner) or “anti-K.” It is universally known that the Buenos Aires-based and most read newspaper, Clarín, is Cristina Kirchner’s mortal enemy and that it continually poses obstacles to her political agenda. This was particularly apparent during the debacle surrounding Resolution 125, when Kirchner sought to increase taxes on agrarian exports. In the end, congressional opposition nullified the initiative. Clarín is owned by Grupo Clarín, one of the biggest media business conglomerates in Latin America, which also owns Cablevisión, a cable company, and Fibertel, an internet provider. Grupo Clarín has the support of some of Argentina’s leading businessmen and the most important land-owners in the country, who constitute the strongest opposition to the Kirchner administration.

Illegal Hearings by the Mayor

Within the obscure realm of dirty politics, the media and political activism are deeply interrelated. It was recently revealed that the mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, and four other politicians from the opposition dined with Héctor Magnetto, the CEO of Grupo Clarín. Mauricio Macri belongs to the center-right party Propuesta Republicana, better known as PRO. He was elected to be mayor of Buenos Aires in 2007. The son of a prominent businessman of Italian origin, Franco Macri, Mauricio is a civil engineer who formerly served as the president of Argentina’s most important football team, Boca Juniors. While serving as a legislator in Congress, he was absent for 70% of the votes, claiming that “the Congress is a place where ideas are not debated.” Since winning the mayoral election in 2007, Macri has been the leader of the “dissident Peronistas,” – members of the Partido Justicialista who vocally oppose Kirchner and her supporters. Beginning in 2001, this political division between the provincial government of Buenos Aires and the national government has created a deep split within Argentine politics.

In a story reminiscent of Nixon’s Watergate scandal, Sergio Burnstein accused Mauricio Macri in October 2009 of illegal wiretapping. Burnstein is one of the leaders of the Jewish community in the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) case, which involves a terrorist attack that targeted a Jewish community center building in 1994. As the director of Families of the Victims of the AMIA Bombings, Burnstein publicly pressures the government for explanations as to why the perpetrators of the attack have yet to be apprehended. For example, he opposed the appointment of Fino Palacios to the position of Chief of Police due to Palacios’ connections to the terrorist attack.

Burnstein, in September, was told in an anonymous call that his phone lines were being tapped. Judicial investigations revealed that he was being spied on not only by Fino Palacios and Ciro James, a former police officer, but also by members of Macri’s party. Ciro James previously had worked as part of Boca Juniors’ security team while, Macri was president of the club. This prompted further uproar in Buenos Aires’ political circles because, as mayor of the city, Macri was in charge of the Buenos Aires police force and had previously promised anti-corruption reforms within the agency.

In December 2009, Fino Palacios and Ciro James were arrested and on May 14th of this year, Judge Norberto Oyarbide charged Macri with unlawful partnership. Appearing before the legislature, on Monday, the 23rd of August, Macri could barely defend himself. He claimed that he had no affiliation to Ciro James and that the entire plot was contrived by the Kirchners. Aníbal Fernández, Chief of Cabinet, commented that Nixon resigned for much less. The final trial will occur right in the middle of the presidential electoral campaign, in which Macri will be a candidate. With his now damaged public image, one wonders if he will still run, and if so, will he have a winning season.

Fibertel Scandal

In a surprise announcement on August 19th, the government decided to cancel the license of Fibertel, Grupo Clarín’s largest internet provider, and told users that they would have to switch companies in the next ninety days. According to the government, the Clarín group has been selling Fibertel internet services illegally under their Cablevisión license, for several years.

Fibertel is vigorously claiming that the Argentines have the right to choose their own service. Fibertel competitors, Speedy and Arnet, owned by Telefónica and Telecom Argentina, are celebrating. They could receive up to 1.1 million new clients. Switching companies will be free of charge for users and rates will remain the same. At the same time, DirecTV Group Inc. (DTV) stated last week that it plans to invest $46 million in 2011 to offer Internet service and produce television decoders in the province Tierra del Fuego, as the government recently offered tax incentives to companies that move their production facilities to the provinces. The government also has said it would like to see wifi available in public spaces in Buenos Aires within the next 120 days.

Certainly, this could be read as another attempt by the government to weaken Grupo Clarín’s monopoly. To anti-K politicians, it is but another abuse of power and act of authoritarian control that is beginning to resemble a Venezuelan-style guided democracy. And certainly, this will be an irritating change for the 1.1 million customers who will have to switch services. As a result, the political opposition, representing middle class interests, has sworn to reverse the government’s resolution to shut down Fibertel through a bill in Congress.

Papel Sangre

A week after the Fibertel scandal, Cristina Kirchner appeared on a state-run television channel and presented a 400-page report titled “Papel Prensa: La Verdad.” The report analyzed the newsprint factory owned by Grupo Clarín. The private company Papel Prensa supplies newsprint to about 170 newspapers across Argentina, with Clarín owning about half of its stocks. Apparently, Papel Prensa, or “Papel Sangre” (Blood Paper) as it is called by Argentine Chancellor of Foreign Affairs Dr. Héctor Timerman, was bought 34 years ago under the military dictatorship, after its then owners were kidnapped and threatened with death. More specifically, the report accuses Clarín and the conservative daily La Nación of unlawfully taking over Papel Prensa. The widow of the late banker David Graiver, former owner of the company, declared that she was forced to sell the stocks of Papel Prensa after being threatened by Héctor Magnetto, the CEO of Grupo Clarín. Some are claiming that the company was not even sold, but instead completely appropriated after members of the Graiver family had been abducted.

Since taking office, Cristina Kirchner has campaigned to uphold human rights—from the gay marriage law to the prosecutions of former members of the militia who committed acts of torture during the dictatorship. Her attack on Grupo Clarín is simply another demonstration of this commitment. It is true that, similar to Nazi Germay, businesses in Argentina were embedded in the dictatorial society that Argentina had become at the time and were linked in some way or another with the military. However, this does not mean that such actions should remain unpunished if there is now proof that Grupo Clarín was acquired illicitly, even if Cristina does in effect want to have more power over the media, as her opposition claims. Opposing her private motives is not as important as upholding human rights and Argentina’s respect for accountability and the rule of law.

As is to be expected, Grupo Clarín is claiming that these accusations are simply a government tactic to gain control of Papel Prensa and thus acquire more power over the print media and other news sources. Magnetto also asserts that members of the Graiver family had declared their desire to sell the company on many occasions and never once claimed that its members were threatened to do so.

Argentine Media in the XXI Century

When it comes to freedom of the press in Argentina, it is not exactly censorship that Argentines have to worry about. On the other hand, Argentines should be worried about the concentration of the media. Businesses like Grupo Clarín along with some of the most important and powerful land owners in the country, hold a monopoly over the news. Since a law regarding media reforms was passed by Cristina Kirchner two years ago, young people are, probably for the first time ever in the history of Argentina, watching high-quality public television. “TV Pública” has been transformed into a top-notch news source and entertainment channel that presents valuable information about the government, as well as a critical, in-depth perspective on political affairs. Information should be a right, not a privilege, of the modern citizen living in a democracy. If it is true that, as thinker Marshall McLuhan said, “the medium is the message” and media ownership directly affects the information that is transmitted, then it is better to have a country’s elected government as the medium rather than a private, self-serving business that may only present information in favor of its interest, rather than the public’s.