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Commentary

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Supreme Court strengthened by public hearing

By Luciana Bertoia
Herald Staff

By Luciana Bertoia
Herald staff

The legal battle for the Media Law has so far no winner among the parties concerned, the Kirchnerite administration and Clarín media group, but after the two successful public hearings held last week, the Supreme Court proved to be the best prepared actor involved.

One of the decisions that won then president Néstor Kirchner the support from the progressive sectors and human rights organizations was the renewal of the rusted Supreme Court. During his first year in office, three former Justices left the highest tribunal and the Upper House of Congress decided to oust Justice Eduardo Moliné O’Connor. They were part of the so-called “automatic majority” enjoyed by then president Carlos Menem, which meant a highest tribunal aligned with the Executive and publicly seen as illegitimate and corrupt.

Following these departures, new Justices arrived at the Supreme Court: Eugenio Zaffaroni, Carmen Argibay, Elena Highton de Nolasco and the current Chief Justice Ricardo Lorenzetti. All of them were appointed following a new proceeding that included the obligation of publishing their professional background records and to attend public hearings at the Senate. And so they did.

In 2004, the Justices delivered an administrative resolution to make the tribunal’s work more transparent. They said that if parties involved in a lawsuit requested a meeting with a member of the Court, the opposing party should also attend.

Three years later, the Supreme Court divulged another administrative resolution in which Justices defined “public hearings.” There, they expressed the object of holding a public hearing: “It will be useful to test this Court’s efficacy and objectivity when administering justice in the eyes of the nation.” In that year, Justices held a public hearing to discuss the state of the prisons in Buenos Aires province.

As Lorenzetti explained on Wednesday, public hearings are held when the Supreme Court has to rule over matters of institutional importance and the Media Law, passed four years ago, certainly is because it has divided the Argentine political world since then. While the government and the law’s supporters claim that it is necessary to put an end to media concentration in order to allow new voices to emerge, Clarín, the biggest media conglomerate in the country, insists that it affects its acquired rights and even its existence.

Though it was not the Supreme Court’s first public hearing, it was the one that drew everybody’s attention and Justices passed the public approval test with flying colours. Lorenzetti was the leading voice and sharply questioned both parties. There were questions that remained unanswered. Clarín group’s lawyers could not explain how the Law would affect its freedom of expression without linking that to economic sustainability and they could not say why smaller groups did not fear the same danger. The government, although it showed it was better prepared for the legal battle than its opponent, could not explain if media groups forced to disinvest and to give back cable TV licences would receive a compensation from the state.

“The hearings were useful for people to get involved in such an important issue. In democracy, all our voices should be heard,” lawyer Miguel Julio Rodríguez Villafañe, who represented Cooperar association on Wednesday’s hearing, told the Herald.

DEMOCRATIZATION

The Media Law was not the government’s only pet issue, this year the Kirchnerite administration hurried a judicial reform package that ended up being quashed by the highest tribunal when Justices decided that the direct election of candidates aiming to gain a seat at the Magistrates Council, the organ in charge of the selection of judges, was unconstitutional.

Crossfire broke out and the same administration that sponsored the Court’s renewal ended up considering it a foe. Kirchnerite officials accused Lorenzetti of having political ambitions and even President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner highlighted the Justices’ political records.

Though Kirchnerite officials avoided on Wednesday and Thursday to remind Justices of that battle, journalist Horacio Verbitsky, the president of the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), just took a minute to accuse the Chief Justice of politicizing the hearing and to separate CELS from the government.

“By restricting the amicus curiae to one party’s stance, the Court contradicts the statement of their own Chief Justice against the politicization of justice and reduces the debate to a controversy among parties, when in fact it is a vital debate for the formation of a popular will within a democracy,” the journalist pointed out.

Last week’s hearing showed a Supreme Court dealing impartially with both parties, although government officials complained about having had to answer too many questions. Will that impartiality also show in a Media Law ruling that may not satisfy any of the parties? In electoral times, whenever the Court decides to deliver its ruling, of course, it will have a political effect and time is ticking for October midterms.

@LucianaBertoia

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