May 25, 2013
The day before yesterday
7D fest quashed in court
by Marcelo J. García
Today’s the day after yesterday. Yesterday was the December 7 or “7D” the vernacular elite had been anticipating for months. And despite the hope of many and the fears of many others, there was no end of the world as we knew it. Very much on the contrary, things are very much as they were the day before.
Only a twisted public agenda can turn the administrative decision of an obscure court of appeals into the lead story in a day when half of the city was covered by a toxic cloud during the morning and the other half was flooded in the afternoon.
That was the day before yesterday, or December 6, when two Appeals Court judges challenged by the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner gave the media giant Grupo Clarín some extra time to comply with anti-trust legislation introduced by a Broadcast Media Act passed by Congress over three years ago.
The legal soap opera surrounding the Media Act has reached one climax but is far from over. The Appeals Court benefited Grupo Clarín with the extension of an injunction request, all the way until a ruling is delivered on the core of the media outlet’s claim that the anti-trust chapter of the law is unconstitutional. Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court told the judge reviewing the case to sit down and write a ruling, quickly. The judge is called Horacio Alfonso and one should expect him to spend the Christmas holidays hammering out a verdict.
The Media Act imbroglio is a typical example of politics failing to funnel conflict. Both the government and Grupo Clarín are over-relying on the courts — and ultimately the Supreme Court— to sort things out for them. The courts are declining to assume the role — or at least committed to take as much time as possible in the process.
Four and a half years after the two went to war and over three years after Congress passed the Media Act, the political gain behind the government’s obsession with Grupo Clarín and the latter’s stubborn reluctance to negotiate terms and meet the law’s anti-trust regime becomes increasingly blurry. If there were any doubts, it is now clear that Argentina’s institutional check and balances —despite its many shortcomings— has worked. Had it not, one of these titans would have gone down by now. The two boxers are standing and continue to throw out their punches.
And yet they also seem exhausted. The government had placed much of its political stamina on the 7D crusade and now needs to explain to its followers why nothing has really happened. Whether many in the administration are wholeheartedly convinced that fighting Grupo Clarín to the finish makes any political sense or it is exclusively the President’s will is difficult to know. But the sour faces of the likes of Justice Minister Julio Alak, AFSCA federal broadcasting bureau head Martín Sabbatella and the panellists of the staunchly pro-government talk show 6,7,8 on the primetime of the State-run Canal 7 on Thursday said a little more than their official lines.
The government’s war on the mainstream media — largely focused on Grupo Clarín— helped the Fernández de Kirchner administration stage an amazing comeback from what seemed to be a political dead end in 2008-2009, after losing a major political clash over export duties with the heavyweight farming sector and a midterm election. By giving a media organization the status of a political rival, the government left the opposition offside. In October 2011, the President won re-election even with Grupo Clarín using its mighty agenda-setting powers against her. (Many) voters continued to buy the newspaper Clarín but still voted for Cristina Fernández. Unless something terribly wrong happens —à la telephone hacking in Britain— the public does not place media affairs at the top of its agenda of concerns.
Grupo Clarín, meanwhile, has not moved an inch from its delaying strategy, hoping it can drag the legal battle all the way to the next government — and hoping the Kirchner Era would be over, formally by 2015 but politically earlier. The buy-time tactics has been technically efficient for Grupo Clarín but costly in terms of its public reputation, sales and credibility, not only because the government and its followers have done everything at their reach to smear the organization but also because Grupo Clarín has long ago shifted away from anything close to decent journalism and has instead mostly turned into an anti-government machine.
The courts also owe the public and the political system an explanation. While the Supreme Court might seem eager to streamline its lower ranks, taking more than three years to deliver a ruling on a question of constitutionality looks like excessive feet-dragging. The day before yesterday, associations of judges joined their voices for a statement to defend the independence of the courts in the light of government pressure and media misrepresentation. The judges even got to the point of requesting some primetime airtime on State television to express their points of view. Independence is all right. So is responsibility.