President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner delivers a speech at Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo, April 2008.

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner delivers a speech at Buenos Aires’ Plaza de Mayo, April 2008.

On July 2nd, Donald Trump tweeted an edited video of himself beating up a man whose head is replaced with the CNN logo. The caption: “#FraudNewsCNN #FNN.” On August 15th, he retweeted an image of a train running over a reporter, captioned “Nothing can stop the #TrumpTrain.” This was just days after the violence in Charlottesville, in which a woman was run over by a car. He deleted it a few minutes later.

These tweets are representative of President Trump’s much broader and more alarming effort to undermine the credibility of the mainstream media. But this is certainly not the first time that clashes between a nation’s government and its private media have escalated in frightening ways.

Argentina is a country that is only now beginning to heal the wounds left behind by such clashes—similar in nature to those taking place in the United States, but ultimately far fiercer. Beginning in 2008, former-president Cristina Kirchner and dominant media conglomerate Clarín Group—arguably the two most powerful actors in the country—engaged in a brutal seven-year long conflict, each undermining the other’s credibility and defending their own.

While Argentina’s private media was not innocent in the exchange and culpable for its own share of undemocratic power-grabs, its resilience in the face of an overbearing government was crucial and brave. It set an example for the kind of doggedness the U.S. private media may need to adopt should Trump’s aggression intensify.

Cristina Kirchner and the “Periodismo de Guerra” (War of Journalism)

The 2015 election of current president Mauricio Macri cooled tensions that had been festering between leftist former-president Kirchner and Clarín Group. Clarín Group owns the largest newspaper in Argentina and also dominates the publishing, television, radio, and telecommunications industries. Also under fire was La Nacion, a popular, conservative-leaning newspaper.

Clarín Group’s history is stained by its relations with the repressive dictatorship of the 1980s, and by questionable deals cut with more recent regimes that chased out foreign competition in the media market and enabled extensive vertical integration and monopolization of the publishing industry. It wields tremendous, arguably unreasonable, power in Argentina.

After starting out on good terms, Kirchner and Clarín had an abrupt falling out in 2008. Editor of Clarín Ricardo Kirschbaum explained that “there was a central reason” for the break in an interview with the HPR. “We realized that what the Kirchners wanted was to control the press. The owners of Clarín didn’t want to cut deals with the government, as many other businesses had done and gotten rich from doing.” According to Kirschbaum, who was editor throughout the conflict and played a central role, Clarín’s rejection of the government’s conspiratorial efforts pivoted the group into the offensive.

President Kirchner with a Clarín front-page denouncing a political ally, March 2011.

Kirchner with an issue of Clarín  denouncing a political ally, March 2011.

The government retaliated by attempting to pass and implement a controversial anti-trust law that would have broken up Clarín Group, cutting its profits so sharply that it likely would not have been able to continue printing its less-profitable newspaper. The government argued that freedom of the press was being undermined by the consolidation of the sector around one conglomerate. Clarín Group maintained that the law was in reality a politicized attempt to destroy the only press that openly criticized the Kirchners.

Kirchner and Clarín each framed the conflict as a heroic effort to curb the abused and unchecked power of the other. Norberto Perotti, a former official in the Kirchner administration, lamented Clarín’s monopolistic influence over public opinion in an interview with the HPR. He claimed that once Kirchner stopped complying with Clarín’s demands, Clarín then began its campaign to slander and destroy her reputation. With respect to the media law, he asserted, “There was a thorough intellectual discussion involving the universities in the development of the media law, and it was approved by a majority of more than just Kirchnerists.” According to Perotti, the law “was designed to avoid concentration of power and incentivize a better distribution of public advertising, so that other media outlets would be able to talk about politics.”

Indeed, among supporters of the law was United Nations functionary Frank Larue, who described it as “one of the most advanced on the continent” and argued that “in freedom of expression, the principle of diversity of means and pluralism of positions is fundamental.” Paris-based NGO Reporters Without Borders took a similar stance, asserting that the, “New law will benefit media pluralism despite a polarized climate.” The proposed media law was similar to laws that exist in the United States, in terms of its restrictions on the fraction of the market that a single firm can control. Furthermore, the law would have empowered local and nonprofit channels of TV and radio.

Clarín’s Response

What the law offered in principle, however, was unfortunately less compelling than the risk it ran of serving as a political tool to silence government critics. Kirschbaum firmly asserted that the law “was invented with the intention of controlling the press. It penalized influence, not monopoly. The dispute was a political dispute.” He argued that an earnest media law would have taken into account the rapid digitalization of the industry, while this one failed to even address the internet. To those who accuse Clarín of wielding too much influence, Kirschbaum replied that the public is entirely free to use other media sources, like La Nacion or the more leftist Pagina 12.

Many see Clarín Group as bravely speaking truth to power: revealing the Kirchners’ corruption by doing what the justice system could not because of its lack of independence, and what other newspapers did not have the money or influence to investigate.

“We are not Venezuela right now because of Clarín,” said Mercedes Columbres in an interview with the HPR. Columbres wrote for La Nacion during the media conflict with the Kirchners, and served for a time as a press secretary under Argentina’s current president, Mauricio Macri. She said of her former employer: “La Nacion would never have put that much pressure on the government. We didn’t have the power.” She added, “Clarín was the one who first decided to attack the Kirchners. They investigated and discovered all of the corruption. They did what the courts and justice system should have done but could not. It was all Clarín.”

The battle between the government and Clarin went back and forth in the Supreme Court for a time, ending only when Macri took office in December 2015. Thus, while the law was ultimately passed, it was not implemented in time for Clarín’s powerful consortium to be broken down.

Pick Your Poison: Power to the President or the Press?

Argentina is a country so politically polarized that it can seem as though there are two realities.

The truth with respect to the Clarín conflict is that the two realities are far from mutually exclusive. While Argentina’s freedom of press was at stake on the one hand, the limit of executive power was at stake on the other.

Today, Clarín is estimated to reach into 3 out of 4 Argentine homes everyday in some form or another, affording it a degree of power over public opinion that undermines a diverse and free flow of information.

Street graffiti in Buenos Aires, April 2008.

Street graffiti in Buenos Aires, April 2008.

That being said, the timing and application of Kirchner’s law was clearly designed to silence the private media as it began exposing corruption and incompetence within the Kirchner government. Cristina Kirchner was thin-skinned when it came to media criticism. Later in her term, she stopped holding press conferences, instead frequently abusing emergency public service announcements to communicate with the people. She also used Twitter, popularizing the hashtag “#ClarínMiente” (“Clarín Lies”). Kirchner also strategically distributed government advertising to pro-government media outlets; Clarín and La Nacion received only 2.5 percent of official advertising, though they comprise more than 60 percent of readership.

Other accounts report the use of tactics far more malicious, though with murkier evidence.

Prominent La Nacion journalist Mariano Obarrio, who has been the chief correspondent to the president for the past 20 years, has described harassment he faced at what appeared to be the hands of the Kirchner secret service.

“They attacked me because I wrote critical articles from the very beginning of the administration,” he claimed in an interview with the HPR.

“One month before, I had published an article about some of the people who ran the national intelligence organization. When it was published, someone from the agency threatened that there would be payback.”

Obarrio’s home was broken into a month later in August of 2006 while he and his wife were home with their 2-month-old son. “In the middle of the robbery they told me that they had access to information about my house, my schedule, my finances.” Obarrio said.  “They had this information because the government had been able to tap my phone and give it to them.”

While the facts are not agreed upon, Obarrio’s testimony and others like it make it clear that the media’s battle with the Kirchner’s was a dirty one. That Clarín, and to a lesser extent La Nacion, persevered in their struggle with the government was essential to the preservation of Argentina’s just decades-old democracy. In the absence of a truly independent judiciary, the press became the only real check on executive power.

According to Kirschbaum, “We won much more than we lost.”

 

Note: interviews for this interview were conducted in Spanish, with all quotations translated and not verbatim.

Image Credit: Wikimedia/Presidencia de la Nación Argentina//Wikimedia/Casa Rosada//Wikimedia/Guillermo Tomoyose

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