December 7, 2012 10:23 pm

Argentine media fight tests judicial freedom

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A court battle over an anti-monopoly law that could spark the forced break-up of Clarín, Argentina’s biggest media group and a staunch government enemy, is escalating into a political fight over the independence of the judiciary.

The government insists Clarín must shed scores of licences under the law aimed at fostering media pluralism. It says the supreme court had spelt out clearly that the final deadline for compliance was Thursday.

An appeal court ruling on that day granted Clarín a last-minute reprieve , however.

Within hours, the government took its case to the supreme court on Friday, using a rare legal mechanism known as “per saltum”, reserved for cases of “institutional gravity”.

Bosom buddies until 2008, when Clarín criticised the government in a dispute over farm tariffs, the two sides are now sworn enemies. The government has made “Clarín lies” a frequent slogan, while Clarín is an implacable critic of President Cristina Fernández, who has come under pressure amid a worsening economy, recent street protests and a general strike.

The anti-monopoly media law was first passed in 2009, but has not been applied in full because Clarín has challenged parts of it on constitutional grounds.

Clarín, which says the government is seeking to silence dissenting voices, alleges that officials have been trying for months to put malleable judges in charge of the new law and to sway the courts’ handling of the case. The government accuses Clarín of buying influence and of legal manoeuvres to protect its market dominance.

Julio Alak, justice minister, described as “absurd, arbitrary and grotesque” the appeal court’s extension of an injunction favouring Clarín until a definitive ruling can be reached on the law’s constitutionality. He said the government wanted the injunction declared null and void, adding: “The application of the [new] law is inexorable.”

Afsca, the government agency charged with applying the anti-monopoly law, presented a separate appeal to the supreme court, and said the extension of the injunction “unfortunately casts an inescapable blanket of suspicion over the functioning of the judiciary”.

The per saltum, a mechanism used in the 1990s when some supreme court judges were known for granting pro-government rulings, will only intensify criticism that Ms Fernández’s administration is trying to sidestep courts issuing unfavourable rulings.

Judges from across the country, including the vice-president of the supreme court and another of its justices, issued a tough statement before the Clarín ruling, calling on the government to “avoid using direct or indirect mechanisms to pressure judges that affect their independence”.

“This media law is the lesser issue. Here we are discussing institutions of the republic, the democratic system and the constitutional rule of law,” said Andrés Gil Domínguez, a constitutional expert.

The supreme court was likely to reject the per saltum, he said. According to the text of the per saltum law, it can only be used when there is a definitive sentence from a lower court.

Afsca has sought to recuse all the appeal court judges, arguing that some had accepted a Clarín-financed trip to Miami and were part of a “judicial corporation” siding with the London-listed media group.

Ricardo Lorenzetti, supreme court president, summoned other justices to study the appeals, but a spokeswoman said only two other judges, were present, out of a total of seven, so there was no majority, and no immediate decision was likely.

Despite the legal setback this week, the government said it would go ahead with planned celebrations of the media law at a party in front of the presidential Pink House on Sunday, marking 29 years since Argentina’s return to democracy.

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