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Argentina toughens curbs on news media

Dec. 28, 2011 at 2:34 PM   |   Comments

BUENOS AIRES, Dec. 28 (UPI) -- Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has brought in new legislation that makes it harder for the country's news media to criticize her administration, critics said.

Fernandez already faces international criticism for draconian press laws that discourage independent media operations in Argentina.

But, buoyed by an October landslide victory, the government last week won a congressional vote that gives it control of the country's newsprint supplies, which are currently distributed by a company that has majority shareholding from a media group critical of the government.

Papel Prensa is owned 49 percent by the Clarin media group, about 22.5 percent by La Nacion media group and the rest by the state.

Officials said new rules would make newsprint available to all newspaper publishers at a fair price. But Clarin and La Nacion said the move aimed to expropriate private property. Officials also denied they had anything to do with a police raid on a Clarin television network office, ordered by a judge investigating unfair competition.

The harshest attacks on Argentina's proposed new bill came from Brazilian newspaper O Estado de Sao Paulo.

"The Argentine government is making the exercise of freedom of the press extremely difficult with acts of intimidation which do honor to a dictatorial regime, a dictatorship couldn't make it better," O Estado de Sao Paulo said.

Having won its own freedom the hard way, with many sacrifices over the years, the Brazilian press in recent years has assumed the role of watchdog over elected governments in Latin America that are alleged to be mistreating news media.

Brazilian newspapers and television earlier took Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to task for closing private news media organizations and tried to block Venezuela's acceptance in Mercosur trade bloc.

The latest measures by Fernandez have dismayed news organizations that say the president feels emboldened by a landslide victory in her Oct. 23 election to a second four-year term in office.

The new legislation also targets journalists who face charges of terrorizing the population through words and pictures.

Fernandez has drawn criticism that her unconventional style of government is undemocratic and a disincentive to business and international investors.

She faced similar charges during the first term when critics accused her of being under the influence of her husband and former president, Nestor Kirchner, who died Oct. 27, 2010. Critics mocked the couple's political partnership and often criticized it as unhealthy, to which the two responded by curbing the press further.

In a change of tactics, the government began deciding which publications got newsprint and which didn't in an effort to stifle dissent, critics said.

New rules governing journalistic practice introduce overarching definitions of terrorism that cite instances where the press may be guilty of "terrorizing" readers.

The Brazilian newspaper said the new law would extend the government's powers to dub any critical news or comment as terroristic even if it relates to corruption, financial irregularities or reporting of Argentina's economic performance.

Several independent economists and their companies have run into trouble with the government for publishing data that appeared to contradict official statistics -- a discrepancy often cited by international financial organizations dealing with Argentina.

Control of the press was the only "obstacle" left for the government to convert her country into authoritarian rule Chavez style, O Estado de Sao Paulo said.

Last week the Brazilian Association of Newspapers said Argentina's media bill caused extreme concern and called it a threat to press freedom.

"What's the oldest trick in the dictator's handbook? Why, to seize the newsprint," Investor's Business Daily said on its Web site, Investors.com. Fresh from a big electoral win, it said, "Fernandez has pulled that hoary stunt, topping even Hugo Chavez."

"In Argentina, a nation that still avidly reads newspapers and magazines, that's a lot of power. It effectively hands the government a monopoly on newsprint -- since only one newsprint plant, Papel Prensa, remains.

"By coincidence, it's owned by La Nacion and Clarin, two media groups Fernandez has pursued for years," Investors.com said.

Investors.com said the law was "a blow to free speech that opens the door not just to self-censorship, which is already rampant in Argentina, but to ever-more fascistic state manipulation of the country's communities, businesses and industries, and violations of personal and property rights."

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