December 12, 2013
The (Supreme) show is over
What if this was Argentina? A place where the conflicts are resolved in a (boring) argumentative manner and the entertainers are a bunch of good public speakers addressing a handful of solemn and balanced but inquisitive justices in a scene followed closely by dozens of journalists and the public at large over the TV and Internet?
Do not be fooled for (much longer than) a minute. Just as images like those were happening in the Central Courthouse in Buenos Aires, where the Supreme Court set up a two-day speaking show designed as the final step before it settles a near-five-year constitutional debate over the 2009 Media Law, other images were showing protesters tossing stones and police shooting back tear gas and rubber bullets in the Patagonian province of Neuquén, where a landmark energy deal between the State-run YPF and Chevron was under debate.
Even the all-civilized Supreme Court debate was the exception rather than the rule in the Media Law saga, which has had — and might continue to have — plenty of stone tossing of its own.
The Supreme Court’s final call would lose the flavour of life-or-death momentum it has should the two actors that presented their case on Thursday, namely the government and Grupo Clarín, manage to moderate their obsession with each other.
The media war has been, to a certain extend, highly symbolical and political rather than legal. There are of course concrete interests involved: the large and millions-making cable and Internet business in the case of Grupo Clarín, a need to get a grip on the media agenda on the part of the government. But those interests, as the Court’s mordant questions to the two parties sought to expose during the hearings, could have been served better if the two had taken more care of their own affairs rather than trying to hit on the other’s.
But both players have upped the symbolical stakes so much that it would be difficult for them to settle with anything other than total victory. Grupo Clarín has been hoping its victory — in the form of status quo — would come through time, as soon as the Kirchners’ political cycle is over. The courts have more often than not been instrumental to the media giant’s delaying tactics.
One could argue that this week’s hearings have also gained the Supreme Court some extra time to finally sit down and type out a ruling, which will possibly come shortly before or after the October 27 midterm vote, i.e. over five years after the Media Law was passed by Congress. The unnecessary slip of the tongue by one of Grupo Clarín’s lawyers right after the end of the hearing that the company might not abide by a negative ruling and take the case to an international court indicates the feet dragging would (predictably) continue.
But the situation seems more difficult for the government, which has much more to lose in both symbolical and the concrete interest even if the ruling came out in its favour. The Court’s mordant questions pointed toward the notorious change of media legislation policy that happened somewhere between 2007 and 2009, which went from granting all broadcasting licensees a ten-year free ride and giving the thumbs up to the merging of Grupo Clarín’s mammoth and oligopolistic cable distribution company to the Media Law’s argument that only small size players guarantee freedom of expression. The queries also focused on how much and why so little has the government advanced in the implementation of other non-Grupo Clarín related aspects of the bill.
The government would stand on a higher moral ground if it could show the public how the Media Law has changed Argentina’s public information sphere for the better. Yet apart from a few details and isolated cases, the general public has not seen much of a difference. A line used here this week by Frank La Rue, the UN envoy for freedom of expression and one of the main international backers of the Media Law, could perfectly fit most of the Argentine public: “Argentina has set an example on the use of audio-visual licenses for democracy,” he said, and then added. “The (Media) law is excellent, but I don’t know how it has been implemented. And of course, all laws can be improved in the future.”
The Supreme Court has in its hands a somewhat easy legal case (four articles of the law’s 166, challenged by only one player, referring to mostly one market segment), but its main problem is that none of the parties involved is taking it as such. Instead, they are using grand language about freedom of expression, the Republic, Democracy and Liberties being at stake. The Court itself is also playing its own hide-and-seek political game. Its ruling will be just another drop in a glass that is already half full with six years of an unprecedented discussion on the role of the media in politics — and vice versa. Hopefully all that energy will not be wasted — surely it will not be forgotten.