June 19, 2013
Acts of militancy
The Lower House of Congress approved a bill on Thursday -which the Senate is likely to turn it into law next week - submitted by the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner last year and which shifts the overseeing of the production, pricing and marketing of newsprint in Argentina from private to State hands.
Private sector management, to being with, has not functioned in invisible hand perfection and instead led to the erection of a duopoly. Papel Prensa has been controlled by the dailies Clarín and La Nación, the country’s best-sellers, for over three decades. The history of Papel Prensa condenses the political convulsion of 1970s Argentina and the economic evolution of the country under democracy. The project, the offspring of a pro-development import substitution plan decreed by an outgoing dictator in 1969, was stained by the internecine squabbling of the time, in a saga that included young multi-millionaires with alleged ties to guerrillas, deaths in mysterious plane crashes, deserted public tenders and shady business interests from various sides. When the 1976-83 dictatorships took charge, the military rulers partnered with the country’s three largest newspapers to get the newsprint plant going. Other papers did not like the move. It is hard to believe this business arrangement did not influence the chosen papers’ coverage —widely labelled as mild to favourable with the bloodiest regime in the country’s modern history.
Papel Prensa has a capacity to manufacture some 170,000 tons of newsprint a year for an Argentine market that has consumed an average of over 200,000 tons over the last few years. Importing newsprint, which is duty-free, is fairly reasonable price-wise at the moment, but that has not always been the case given international market fluctuations.
Critics of the private sector have said the vertical integration favoured the papers market control and business growth. The State, which still owns a quarter of the shares in Papel Prensa, played the dummy partner role for 30 years until the Fernández de Kirchner administration crashed heads-on with Grupo Clarín, Argentina’s largest media conglomerate. As the pair parts company, the State now moves from dummy to star of the game. They are both to blame for past mishaps.
State in Argentina, however, continues to be more associated to governmental than public. This is a notion that affects most of the political spectrum. During the Newsprint bill debate, to name one example, former presidential candidate Ricardo Alfonsín of the UCR Radical Party slammed the government use of State media citing the ultra-Kirchnerite prime-time television talk show 6,7,8. “We would also want to have our own 6,7,8,” said Alfonsín.
Compared to the 2009 passing of another legislative landmark in the Fernández de Kirchner era, the Broadcast Media legislation, the ruling party mustered less cross-party support, as left-leaning groups who had endorsed the Media Act voted against the Newsprint bill or abstained on grounds that it vests too much authority on the Executive. They have a point. The bill places a long list of to-dos on the Economy Ministry. Under the current organizational structure, the action will land on Domestic Trade Secretary Guillermo Moreno, who has had a thorny relationship with the mainstream press. The role of the Executive is hardly balanced out by the creation of an Advisory Committee formed by newspapers’ representatives and a Bicameral Congressional Committee to follow up. Under the current conditions of the newsprint market, one might want to give State intervention the benefit of the doubt. But results will be easy to measure: more papers, more (printed) voices (including, of course, those of Clarín and La Nación).
Reading newspapers every morning is “an act of militancy,” President Fernández de Kirchner said at her inauguration speech last Saturday. Her sarcasm sought to poke the mainstream press she urges people not to trust (by the looks of the last presidential election, voters did not follow the “indications” of the big press). But her words also describe the state of affairs for citizens who are neither staunchly pro- nor anti-government and have to face the daily challenge of isolating information from a bombardment of opinionated words.
Militancy is not enough when it comes to running the State. Of the office appointments pending, the President still has to name the person who will be in charge of the AFSCA Federal Broadcasting Authority, whose head Gabriel Mariotto was sworn in this week as lieutenant governor of the province of Buenos Aires. The body is ad interim in the hands of former Deputy Manuel Baladrón. The 2009 Media Act which gave birth to AFSCA was the result of a broad social and intellectual movement that the government found politically instrumental as its tussle with the mainstream media escalated. There are plenty of respectable candidates capable of brushing off suspicion that the Media Act was just another act of militancy and instead move it toward State policy status. The naming of a sound name would be a start.