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'Argentine government a danger to media freedom'

Published:Friday | May 6, 2011 | 11:40 AM

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — A visiting media delegation said Thursday that press freedom has deteriorated in Argentina, and accused the government of trying to reshape the media industry to control what citizens can read, see and hear.

The Inter American Press Association group said it arrived already concerned Argentina was on a dangerous path, and its worries only deepened during two days of meetings with representatives of Argentina's three branches of government, media companies and social organizations.

"Without freedom of expression you can't have a true democracy," warned Gonzalo Marroquin, IAPA's president who publishes the newspaper Siglo 21 in Guatemala.

Concluding its trip, the delegation said a complete report would be released next week, but its preliminary conclusion is that Argentina's freedoms are endangered by a constant state of conflict polarizing society. The problem will only become worse if a media reform law passed by congress last year is upheld in court, the group predicted.

Public Communications Secretary Juan Manuel Abal Medina met with the group Wednesday, asserting that President Cristina Fernandez is committed to defending free expression. He accusing the nation's dominant media company, Grupo Clarin, of posing a greater danger to free speech by stifling its competitors and using its outlets to attack the populist government.

It's an argument widely heard in Argentina, but the delegation dismissed it.

"Any journalist understands that the dimension and the action of a repressive government must be criticized when it goes against freedom of expression and freedom of the press. The damage that a government can cause to freedom of expression isn't comparable to the damage that a media company can cause," Marroquin said.

The visitors also said "advocacy journalists" use government subsidies to spread attacks on opposition media — part of what they see as a comprehensive, long-term strategy by President Cristina Fernandez's government to control what is shown on TV and in newspapers.

The unequal distribution of government advertising to reward and punish media companies based on their support of the government is particularly worrisome, as is a proposed law that would give the government control over the production and distribution of newsprint, the delegation said. Currently, the companies that own Argentina's two leading dailies, Clarin and La Nacion, control the country's only domestic source of newsprint.

The IAPA group said it also heard media complaints about union efforts to keep newspapers from leaving printing plants — a problem it said the government denied having anything to do with — and accused the government of using the courts to attack the media.

Several reporters raised complaints that Cablevision — Argentina's largest cable TV provider, owned by Grupo Clarin — has refused to comply with the media reform law congress passed last year, which among other things requires it to include state-sponsored channels in its programming. The company has denied requests to offer viewers Paka Paka, a homegrown Argentine children's television channel, and INCAA, which promotes Argentine films.

A delegation member, Claudio Paolillo of the Uruguayan magazine Busqueda, rejected the argument that such refusals limit the freedoms of Argentines who have only one cable TV provider to choose from.

"Freedom of the press means not only being able to publish what you want, but also to not publish what you don't want," Paolillo said.

Marroquin acknowledged that media monopolies also can pose dangers. But he said Argentina's media reform law is ominous because if it forces the breakup of powerful media companies, Argentines will be left without the voices most able to stand up to government, no matter what its ideology.

"This law won't just eliminate a concentration of media companies. It will create another concentration, and that worries us a great deal because we have seen many newspapers here subsidized by official publicity," Marroquin said.

The delegation also included Robert Rivard, editor of the San Antonio Express-News in Texas; Maria Elvira Dominguez of Colombia's El Pais newspaper; and Julio E. Munoz and Ricardo Trotti, executives of the Miami-based IAPA.