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Media group's lawsuit latest move in battle with Argentinian president

This report includes information from IFEX members Committee to Protect Journalists, Foro de Periodismo Argentino and the Inter American Press Association.

On 22 November 2012, the largest Argentinean media conglomerate, Clarín Group, filed a criminal lawsuit alleging “incitement to violence and aggravated coercion” by members of the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, reported the Inter American Press Association (IAPA).

Clarín and the government have been involved in a three-year legal battle over a 2009 broadcast law that will see the media group forced to divest itself of significant holdings to reduce the number of media outlets it owns, says the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). According to The Economist, the 2009 media law “bars owners of national free-to-air television and radio channels from also holding cable-television licences.” Clarín Group owns both types of channels and licenses, meaning that when the injunction runs out it will have to decide whether it divests its cable operations or its national free-to-air channel, Channel 13, which was the only national channel to air full coverage of recent protests in the country.

While concern on the part of Clarín may be justified, as an injunction they obtained in 2009 to stay the implementation of the law expires on 7 December, there are worries about the fact that the group's original lawsuit listed six pro-government journalists - Roberto Caballero, Sandra Russo, Javier Vicente, Nora Veiras, Edgardo Mocca and Orlando Barone - “as propagators” of “incitement to violence”.

Four days after Clarín's lawsuit was filed, local organisation Foro de Periodismo Argentino (FOPEA), rejected the media group's move, saying it was contradictory for a company, for which the exercise of freedom of expression is essential, to resort to criminal charges against journalists.

As IFEX members IAPA and CPJ report, as of 28 November Clarín Group changed their tune, saying that their lawyers would not be calling on the six journalists, not even as witnesses. This statement and an apology came after the conglomerate tried to clarify that the lawsuit was not against the pro-Kirchner reporters, but rather that they had been included as potential witnesses in the suit. In their 27 November release, IAPA reported that Clarín was giving the journalists the opportunity to provide information about topics included in the suit, if they had any. But as Claudio Paolillo, Chair of IAPA's Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information put it, “even as 'witnesses' they [could not] be forced to provide any kind of information to the courts.”

The Clarín suit is just the latest chapter in a battle that has resulted in a highly polarized Argentinian press. According to CPJ, Kirchner's critics “accuse her of stifling press freedom by rewarding allied media and hammering...unsympathetic outlets into silence.” And while the government may claim that this law is about reducing media concentration and redistributing broadcasting licenses, the head of the federal broadcast regulator seems happy to ignore the fact that the Argentine television network Telefé is actually a subsidiary of a Spanish company, and that by being owned by a foreign company, it also violates provisions of the broadcast law.

It remains to be seen what exactly will happen on 7 December. The Economist reports that Clarín has filed numerous requests “to extend the injunction and to challenge the constitutionality of the media law” but says the justice ministry has blocked the courts from hearing them.
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