Argentina is a country made up of 23 provinces plus the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires. It is a federal republic and a representative democracy with a strong presidential system of government. National, provincial and local government representatives are elected by direct suffrage. Suffrage is universal, secret and compulsory for all citizens aged 18 or more. However, after the electoral reform of October 2012, citizens aged 16 to 18 can also vote.
The Government is divided into three branches: a unipersonal Executive Power, a bicameral Legislative Power (Lower House and Upper House) and a Judicial Power, which is independent from the other two powers (as set forth in the country’s constitution). The National Constitution was enacted in 1853 and amended in 1860, 1898, 1957 and 1994.
Ever since the country’s return to democracy in 1983, governments have always belonged to one of the two traditional political parties in the country: Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) and Partido Justicialista (PJ). These two forces even survived the socio-economic downturn of December 2001, when political instability led to a violent crisis. Thirty-nine people died after a revolt against Argentinian political elites, during which the crowd rallied behind the motto: “Que se vayan todos” (All of them must go).
The victory of right-wing coalition Cambiemos and Macri’s coming into power in 2015 marked a turning point in the binary political party system: the new president was a businessman with a short political career in the city of Buenos Aires and the heir of a family fortune (one of the fifty largest fortunes in Argentina according to Forbes) made in the car industry and through political agreements to carry out public works. For the first time in history, there was a president with no ties to the Unión Cívica Radical or the Partido Justicialista, who was also the product of a (new?) political party, Propuesta República (PRO).
The media and political power. From the dictatorship to the present
The relationship between the media and political power in recent Argentinian history is marked by ups and downs, by periods of partnerships, tacit subordination and open confrontation. Furthermore, Buenos Aires's central role is and has been key in that relationship.
The state terrorism actions of the last civil-military dictatorship (1973–1983) were based on a systematic media strategy. Issued on the very same day of the coup, on March 24 1976, one of the first statements of the Junta Militar (military junta) advocated for controlling and suppressing freedom of expression.
While in power, the dictatorship intervened, expropriated and closed down newspapers and magazines. According to a 2016 report by Argentina’s Secretariat of Human Rights, some 172 press workers disappeared at the time.
In 1977 the Junta Militar announced a partnership between newspapers Clarín, La Nacion and La Razon and Argentina’s National Government to purchase Papel Prensa, the only newsprint factory in the country. The enactment of Law 22285 on radio broadcasting in September 1980 was another landmark in the dictatorship’s communications policy. It was mainly aimed at laying the groundwork for the creation of a privatized audiovisual media system.
Alfonsín, conflicts during the transition into democracy
With a support that broke the suffrage records of radicalismo and made Peronism suffer its first electoral defeat in history, Raúl Alfonsín’s administration (1983–1989) focused on reorganizing the country’s media system.
In April 1984, the new president signed Decree 1154 to suspend the enforcement of the National Plan on Radio Broadcasting (Planara) – created by the military dictatorship in 1981 to privatize TV channels – until the existing Law on Radio Broadcasting was amended.
Yet tensions within an administration dealing with the latent military power and facing serious economic issues ended up undermining the political attempts to improve the communications scenario.
But media companies wanted to expand. As a result of their lobbying, the Government’s conflict with Clarín regarding the abolition of Article 45 of Law 22285, which hindered the group’s access to a radio broadcasting license, went public. Alfonsín claimed that the newspaper gave deceitful information on his administration. In addition, César Jaroslavsky the leader of the Unión Cívica Radical in the Lower House at the time, , gave his support to Alfonsín by making a statement still considered relevant today: “You need to protect yourself from that newspaper. It attacks as if it were a political party and, if one replies to its attacks, it uses freedom of press to defend itself.”
The 1987 legislative polls marked a turning point for the government: the Unión Cívica Radical lost the elections to the Partido Justicialista, leashing out a crisis that would lead to Alfonsín’s early departure from office. As a result, the promise of a new set of media regulations disappeared towards the last days of Alfonsín’s administration.
However, over that period of time, civil society organizations were able to expand and open several community radios. Although many did not have a license or a legal framework, they began to operate across the country.
Menem and the privatization wave
The victory of Carlos Menem (1989–1999) signaled the beginning of a huge socio-economic transformation in Argentina. The Peronist leader took office amid hyperinflation and a complex economic context. Almost automatically, he received the Congress’s support to pass two laws aimed at restructuring the country: the Economic Emergency Law, which authorized cuts in public spending, and the Government Reform Law, which green-lighted the privatization of several State-owned companies.
Enacted in 1989, the Government Reform Law (Law 23396) included a series of amendments to the existing Law on Radio Broadcasting, which led to the creation of several multimedia holdings. Key to the conflict was the removal of the restrictions set forth in Article 45 – which had been at the center of the dispute between Clarín and Alfonsín in the 1980s. Media companies could now expand into the TV and radio segments, and set in motion the privatization of Canal 11 and Canal 13, together with the leading commercial radio stations in the city of Buenos Aires. Grupo Clarín also started to consolidate as a media conglomerate controlling the newspaper with the highest circulation in the country, Canal 13 and Radio Mitre. The conglomerate was also the leader of the paid TV segment with Multicanal and other small enterprises.
The increasing influence of foreign investors resulted in a new restructuring of the industry: from 1990 to 1999, the media sector received the second largest foreign investment sum (which amounted to USD 25.5 billion), topped only by the oil sector. The United States (USD 13 billion) and Spain (5.3 billion) were the principal investors.
Two months before the end of his second term, Menem issued Decree 1005/99 to amend another set of articles of the Law on Radio Broadcasting. The decree increased the number of licenses a company could be granted from four to 24, authorized the transfer of licenses between holders, allowed the creation of media networks and lifted restrictions on the number of advertising slots per hour.
Before Menem left office, the market was already under the control of Grupo Clarín and Telefónica Internacional Sociedad Anónima (TISA).
La Alianza and the profile of the media’s candidate
The Unión Cívica Radical’s candidate Fernando de la Rúa became president (1999–2011) thanks to the support of a coalition comprised of the Unión Cívica Radical and Frepaso, a group of small socio-democratic political parties. The economic crisis and the corruption claims against the Government towards the end of Menem’s administration were at the foundations of the coalition.
A drop in the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and capital flight led to an economically adverse scenario. The Government decided to face the crisis by implementing a plan that combined adjustments and an increase in foreign debt.
With regard to the media industry, De La Rúa followed the same strategy as his predecessors. In April 2001, he sent to Congress a bill on radio broadcasting and demanded consensus to draft new regulations. The weakening of De La Rúa’s government and the undermining of its core principles, combined with strong lobbying by media companies, prevented the discussion of the bill, which failed to provide a model to dismantle concentration.
The government of La Alianza was hit by a serious crisis towards the end of 2001, when street protests were violently repressed, causing the president’s resignation. This was followed by a period of political instability, during which five presidents took office in 11 days. Things started returning to normal on January 1 2002, with the appointment of Peronist Eduardo Duhalde (formerly close to Menem) to the Argentinian presidency.
Even though it was brief, Duhalde’s administration backed the demands of the large media groups who, by then, were facing the impact of the crisis and dealing with heavy debt burdens in US dollars. In February 2002, Congress passed an amendment to Law 24522 on insolvency. The law was later nicknamed “Ley Clarín” (Clarín Law) as it extended the term for the group’s negotiation with creditors.
The Kirchners, from partners to enemies
The Partido Justicialista’s candidate Néstor Kirchner (2003–2007) became president of Argentina when Menem decided to drop out from the second round. Kirchner took office after obtaining 22% of the votes, amidst a scenario marked by economic uncertainty and political instability. Kirchner, born in Patagonia, chose not to change the existing partnership between the political power and media corporations, and focused on completing the economic recovery plan that Duhalde had set in motion.
In June 2003, Congress passed the Law on Cultural Property Protection, which limited foreign capital intervention in national cultural industries and prevented foreign creditors from claiming the assets of indebted companies.
Favored by the international context, Néstor Kirchner signed Decree 527/05 in May 2005 with the aim of changing the equation to estimate the term for radio and TV license use. Civil society and non-profit organizations were once more excluded from the radio broadcasting system.
Towards the end of his administration, Kirchner made another controversial decision. He authorized the merger between Cablevisión and Multicanal, which would make Grupo Clarín the largest cable TV operator in the country with 47% of the share.
With the coming into power of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – the first democratically elected female president of Argentina –, the kirchnerismo began its second term in office (2007–2011). This new period was marked by a large dispute between the Government and the farming sector, after a measure aimed at raising export taxes on soybean derivatives, which had been the engine of economic growth between 2003 and 2007.
The dispute with farming unions and farmers led to a second front of conflict: the Government sent to Congress a bill on audiovisual communication services that limited the actions of the market’s dominant actors. It also ensured a place in the system for social and civil organizations, and set new regulatory and control mechanisms to prevent concentration.
The text of the bill was based on a 21-item manifesto that had been presented without success before Néstor Kirchner in 2004 by the Coalition for a Democratic Radio Broadcasting System, which was made up of over 300 unions, social and human rights organizations, community media outlets and media cooperatives, and universities from across the country.
Cristina Fernández’s administration had to face fierce opposition for the decisions it had made. The dilemma of whether a government could survive five negative Clarín covers in a row – a dilemma that had haunted all political parties since the return of democracy – was at the center of the public agenda. Néstor Kirchner reacted to the attack by coining the popular phrase: “¿Estás nervioso, Clarín?” (Are you nervous, Clarín?).
Law 26522, widely known as the “Broadcasting Law”, was eventually enacted on October 10 2009.
The decision to bring before justice the case of the purchase of newsprint factory Papel Prensa during the military dictatorship; the implementation of Fútbol para Todos, a program designed to broadcast local soccer games on TV for free; and the creation of quality public TV channels and content marked an unprecedented period of State intervention in communications and media.
The Government’s dispute with Grupo Clarín was eventually addressed by the judicial power. Although Argentina’s Supreme Court declared the new regulations constitutional on December 2013, the disinvestment process of media holdings never took place.
Other contradictions emerged. Among them were the discretionary transfer of public funds through official advertising to media outlets with an editorial line supportive of the Government – a mechanism that had been implemented by Néstor Kirchner and had caused a serious political crisis towards the end of his administration – and a delay in resource allocation to ensure market openness to non-profit organizations.
Macri and the strategy of reparations
Leader of right-wing coalition Cambiemos Mauricio Macri took office in December 2015 under the promise of overcoming political divisions and sustaining the social policies that had been implemented in the previous administration. Yet his government aligned with the interests of the most powerful sectors of the economy.
Similar policies were also carried out in the media and communications industry. Before reaching his first month in power, Macri signed Decree 267/15, aimed at rendering ineffective the antitrust clauses of the Law on Services for Audiovisual Communication. It set a ten-year license extension, increased the number of licenses that could be granted to media groups, authorized license transfers and removed ceilings for cable TV services, the most profitable segment of the media industry, in which Grupo Clarín played a dominant role.
Macri also promised to put an end to the “addict press” (i.e., media dependent on official advertising) and to regulate official advertising. However, he favored Grupo Clarín, among others. Cambiemos’s administration also closed several media outlets and fired press workers in State-owned media.
Additionally, in June 2018, Argentina’s National Commission for the Defense of Competition approved the merger between Telecom and Cablevisión, the largest of its kind in the history of media in Latin America. With the Government’s support, Grupo Clarín was able to grow its business in the telecoms industry.