December 17, 2012 7:47 pm

Argentina starts break up of Clarín

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Argentina’s government took the first step towards forcibly breaking up London-listed media group, Clarín, under an anti-monopoly law, but the newspaper-to-internet group slammed the step as “totally inadmissible and illegal”.

Martín Sabbatella, head of the Federal Audiovisual Communications Services Authority (AFSCA), the government agency charged with applying the law, went to the headquarters of Clarín in the company of a notary to notify the group that “the ex-officio transfer has begun because the law is constitutional and in full force”.

A lower court judge on Friday night ruled against constitutional challenges to the media law brought by Clarín, Argentina’s biggest media group and an implacable government critic. That delighted the administration of Cristina Fernández, which has become increasingly frustrated with the fact that although the law passed in 2009, it has yet to be enforced in full.

Juan Manuel Abal Medina, the cabinet chief, at the weekend slammed an appeals court, which had granted Clarín a reprieve earlier this month, as a “court of shit”. He later said via Twitter that his comments were inappropriate.

Before Mr Sabbatella’s Monday morning visit, Clarín had already lodged an appeal to Friday night’s ruling with the lower court judge who has three working days to accept or reject it. If rejected, Clarín will take its case to an appeals court.

The media group argues that the government cannot set in train a process that could strip Clarín of scores of licences, since Friday’s ruling is being appealed and thus the injunction preventing the law from being applied remains in force pending a definitive ruling.

“As Grupo Clarín declared before the notary public, AFSCA’s notification is totally inadmissible and illegal since it openly infringes various decisions of the courts,” the group said in a statement.

Even without an injunction suspending application of the law to Clarín, the group argues that the media law provides for a one-year disinvestment period, so the government would have no grounds to start the process of valuing licences and associated assets, and auctioning them off – a process that Mr Sabbatella says will take about 100 working days.

The government says Clarín, which owns Argentina’s biggest circulation newspaper, top cable television network, top high-speed internet provider and some radio stations, has 237 licences, whereas the law permits companies only to have 24 cable licences and 10 free-to-air ones, covering both television and radio, and to cover no more than 35 per cent of the population. Clarín says it has 158 licences.

In a full-page newspaper advert on Monday, Clarín said a “sword of Damocles” was hanging over the freedom of expression of media which opposed the government. “State media are allowed to reach 100 per cent of the country. Private ones, just 35 per cent,” it said.

The media law, which was passed by Congress in 2009 and will guarantee greater plurality according to Mr Sabbatella, does not affect internet holdings, but Clarín argues that if it is forced to reduce its cable coverage and infrastructure is auctioned off, Fibertel will be impacted.

A judge last week ordered AFSCA not to take any action that could affect the ability of Fibertel, which has 1.14m residential and corporate clients, to provide its service.

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