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November 12, 2009
Argentinians debate a new media law

Argentinian man views the daily newspapers in La Cumbre.
Photo: flickr user Adam Jones, phD.

The Kirchner era in Argentina has been characterized by mixed signals. First there was Néstor Carlos Kirchner Ostoić, little-known as governor of Santa Cruz until he vaulted into the Argentine presidency in 2003. In a country that endured military coups, an economic collapse and a lack of confidence in institutions, the fact that he completed his term of office in 2007 – unlike others before him – was an accomplishment.

He was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Elizabet Fernández de Kirchner, in December of 2007. Both Kirchners have faced rising criticism since then, along with defections and demands that she resign or be stripped of the office before her four-year term ends.

The confusion about the Kirchners is trying to figure out what they are up to and what they stand for. They are members of the Justice Party, successors to Juan Domingo Perón , the dictatorial leader who governed on and off in the 1940s and 1950s with a reprise in 1973.

They have staunchly supported human rights and accountability for crimes during the military dictatorship after Peron’s death. But they have also been accused of arrogance, of an unwillingness to consider opposing views and of railroading their policies into law without debate.

Now President Cristina Kirchner (with Nestor just off stage) has promulgated a new national media law. Supporters say that it ends the practice of media monopolies and democratizes the news media; detractors say that it is an attack on freedom of the press.

One thing for certain—the Kirchners have no love lost for the news media. By happenstance, I, along with several colleagues at the Washington Post conducted the first interview with Nestor Kirchner after he took office in 2003. After that, I fielded calls from reporters in Buenos Aires asking for my impressions, since they hadn’t had the chance to talk to him.

All I could say was that he had spoken passionately about bringing justice to the country after the Dirty War, in which 20,000 to 30,000 people were killed by the right-wing military.

I was in Argentina during Cristina’s non-campaign for election in 2007 – she gallivanted around South America and beyond, with photo appearances in Brazil, Europe and the United States, while avoiding interviews and the campaign trail at home. All along, the polls had showed her way ahead and her handlers probably didn’t want to ruin a good thing by campaigning.

So there are reasons to suspect the context in which the new media law takes effect.

Eduardo Bertoni, an Argentine attorney and prominent advocate of press freedoms, says that the law has its merits. The previous law “suffered from illegitimacy from the outset – it was a law created during the military dictatorship,” he said. Bertoni is director of the Center on Freedom of Expression Studies at the University of Palermo in Buenos Aires. He also served at the Organization of American States as the special rapporteur for freedom of expression of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

But he also understands the concerns of critics, who say that the government could have given itself too much power in deciding which media companies are allowed to grow, and how they operate. He says the
government “could do much to take any suspicion of bad faith off the table,” if it were to promote open debate about the measure.

So the question is: will the Kirchners use the law to promote democracy, or will they use their power to punish their critics?

– Peter Eisner

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Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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