Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Curious Case of Cristina and Clarin: The Making of Enemies

President Cristina holds up a copy of Clarin

Last week as a toxic cloud billowed up from a burning tanker in the port, smothering the central business district, floods in the barrio (neighborhood) of Belgrano and tornadoes dancing menacingly on the outskirts of the city, one could be forgiven for believing that Buenos Aires was witnessing the end of days. For a city prone to drama and a population who at times almost masochistically revel in it, it was an eventful week for the Argentine capital. However as much as Mother Nature conspired to dominate the headlines, the real drama was unfolding in a courtroom in the city as former allies now bitter foes, the administration of President Cristina Kirchner and the media conglomerate Grupo Clarin fought bitterly over a new media law. Drafted in 2009 by the administration as a means to break up the perceived monopoly of Clarin, to others it seemed an insidious tool to silence a powerful dissenting voice against the government. For three years both sides battled in the courts with the climax to occur on December 7th when the law was to come in to force. However such as it is common in legal cases, the courts granted an injunction thus staying the execution or more appropriately the amputation of a number of Clarin’s limbs.

The story of an affair gone sour between a government and a powerful media company is nothing new in the history of politics. One just has to look at recent events in the UK. However the case of Cristina and Clarin has a particularly Argentine hue for there is never a middle ground in politics in Argentina. It becomes frighteningly easy from the simplest of disagreements to become diametrically opposed. Support and largesse can be unceremoniously whipped away with the political guns pointed at your head at the slightest hint of dissent. With the Kirchner administration and supporters, individuals or groups who oppose them become existential threats to be removed at all costs, using whatever methods of the political and legal machine that are at hand peppered with sneering insults and insinuations. It is the fuel for a movement that increasingly looks embattled by an economy spluttering under choking inflation, increasing crime and an emboldened yet still disparate domestic opposition.

This year the Kirchner government has lashed out at multiple real and perceived enemies, at times viscerally waving the bluntest of weapons while throwing immature insults. Discretion and consensus are two words that are alien to Cristina and her supporters. Last month witnessed a court case in the US in which the government was a defendant against hedge funds that refused to take part in Argentina’s restructuring of debt after its default. It was a case that the government had a very strong chance of winning handsomely, however the Kirchner government lost the respect of the judge and thus the case by its insubordination and insulting ignorance of the jurisdiction of the court. Instead of attempting to garner support from the court and other nations battling these so-called “vulture funds”, it decided to shore up its domestic supporters in a populist attack on the case and court at hand. After the granting of an injunction in the case against Grupo Clarin, several ministers insinuated about impeaching the judges who didn’t rule in the government’s favor. When border police went on strike over pay, supporters of the government alluded to the threat of a coup, no minor provocation in a country with a bitter recent history of military dictatorship.

Cristina with her deceased husband and former president, Nestor
It is this need to formulate existential threats that shores up support for the current government. Added with largesse for supporters, it is potent material to maintain power. The history of the Kirchner movement and Clarin is a perfect example. When Cristina’s deceased husband and former wearer of the presidential sash was elected in 2003, Clarin rightly supported the government’s hard-line stance against bondholders after the Argentine default. In 2007 it was awarded with presidential approval for a merger allowing Clarin to take control of one of the region’s biggest cable companies. In essence this was creating the monopoly the current media law wants to remove but it was all fine in the minds of the Kirchners because it was for a supporter of the government. What resulted in both sides falling out and becoming bitter foes was when Clarin did not side with the government of Cristina in a dispute with farmers protesting a windfall tax on their booming products. Within months the government went on the offensive, digging up documents relating to the owners of Clarin and their involvement in the military dictatorship and especially in relation to the distressing issue of children forced in to adoption by the military government. The media law was to be the final nail in the coffin for Clarin’s dominance, allowing for the forced divesting of radio and TV licenses.

While as a firm believer in the need for a plurality of media in a country, one must question the motives of the current bill being debated in the courts. The timing is suspect and politically motivated. Furthermore while intending to broaden the access to media it will only transfer dominance in this field from an independently owned organization to the government that will have direct or indirect control of over 80% of Argentine media, a much larger share than Clarin ever had. State media has proven itself subjective recently with the president commandeering the airwaves more often for increasingly random speeches and news coverage that failed to adequately report the recent large anti-government protests of the past few months. The media law is only another means to remove an enemy that the government has built up to be an existential threat and probably would never have been formulated if it was not for Clarin siding against the government.

Recent protests against Cristina's government 
All this drama has masked the fact that the government should be spending more time battling issues that citizens feel more pressing, such as inflation, crime and government restrictions to hard cash. Like the Republican Party in the US, it has preferred a policy of galvanizing its core supporters at the expense of consensus and others by pandering to fear. It is a recipe for failure in the long term but is too blindly enamoured with the simplicity in the instrument of creating enemies rather than governing for all. It might be better for all if one left the drama for the weather. 

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