Argentina's Media Crisis

Joel Richards

The newspaper Crítica de la Argentina lasted just two years. It had been set up with an editorial agenda and mission to match its name – to criticize. Journalists from a broad ideological spectrum were brought on board, many attracted to the paper because of the man who was the driving force behind the new project, the controversial but respected investigative journalist and writer, Jorge Lanata.

With its ambitious idea of producing a newspaper unlike those already established in the market, Crítica struggled financially from the outset. And despite matching the established left-leaning Página/12 in sales, the final edition was printed on April 29.

Five months later,Crítica’s downfall would fit into the broader context created by a battle between the government and the Argentine media powerhouses, Clarín and La Nación. Both newspapers would face fresh accusations of profiting from business deals that were approved and protected by the military dictatorship during the ”dirty war” of 1976-83. Crítica’s financial distress provided a timely example of the far-reaching effects of those deals.

Crítica was always at an economic disadvantage. As one of its journalists, Alejandro Bercovich, explains to NACLA: “We had roughly the same readership as Página/12, but in comparison to the 30 million pesos ($7.5 million) they received from official government advertising, we only received 2 million ($500,000).”

Although Crítica was essentially set up with an anti-government perspective, for the main investors the paper represented a lobbying opportunity. Spanish businessman Antonio Mata is a former CEO of Aerolineas Argentinas, and is said to have bought shares in Crítica in order for find a voice to pressure the authorities to grant his new enterprise, Air Pampa, a license to fly certain domestic routes in Argentina.

Mata testified in court at the end of this August, defending himself against accusations that he defrauded the Argentine state while in charge of the national airline.

Another investor in Crítica was Marcelo Figueiras, owner of a pharmaceutical laboratory called Richmond, which sells medicine to the state.

Jorge Lanata left the paper in 2009, having fallen out with the investors Mata and Figueiras over – among other issues – the budget available for investigative reporting. It was these two investors who the workers at Crítica say simply stopped paying the employees their wages as the paper continued to hemorrhage money. About 190 employees lost wage income they will probably never recover.

These 190 journalists, photographers, designers and subeditors started the campaign to save Crítica, and to lobby national and local governments to pay their back advertising bills, allowing the paper to pay workers their back wages. Official advertising owed more than one million pesos ($250,000), which would cover the wages. At the time of this writing, only a small fraction of this debt has been deposited.

While the workers at Crítica continued their struggle and protest against the action of Mata and Figueiras, a broader issue affected the economic situation at Crítica from the very outset.

“Papel Prensa wouldn’t sell to us,” says Alejandro Bercovich referring to the paper mill that produces and distributes the raw material for Argentine newspaper production. “We were direct competition. We had to import paper from Chile at between 30% and 40% extra cost.”

The owners of Clarín and La Nación are joint majority shareholders in Papel Prensa, while the state is a minority shareholder in the business.

Around three million viewers tuned in to see Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, speak for more than an hour on August 24 as she presented a government document with evidence proving that Clarín and La Nación (along with La Razón which has since ceased to exist) were actively involved in illegal activity in the purchase of their majority share in Papel Prensa, and that they enjoyed an unfair advantage over other print media.

The case brought forward by the government is that Clarín and La Nación acquired their shares in Papel Prensa illegally, coercing the previous owners into selling their shares in the company in the first year of military dictatorship of 1976 - 1983. The major shareholder in Papel Prensa at the time of the sale was Lidia Papaleo, widow of David Graiver who had died in a plane crash in August, 1976. Papaleo testified in court that in November of the same year she was pressured into selling the business by the Clarín CEO, Héctor Magnetto and alleges that Magnetto threatened her and her baby daughter if she refused to sell.

In the weeks following the report on Papel Prensa there have been arguments and counter-arguments between the two sides over the truth about the acquisition of Papel Prensa. The issue has developed further into a debate over freedom of speech. The government has spoken out against the monopolies that limit media freedom. Clarín and La Nación have countered with accusations of “authoritarian rule” by the government. Curiously, despite being one of the most outspoken critics of the Clarín Group’s power, Jorge Lanata, gave an interview to the Clarín-owned news channel TN, in which he said he was siding with “the weak” in this case, and was therefore supporting Clarín.

The war over Papel Prensa is, however, just part of the radical shake up of the structure of the media in Argentina under the current government. A new audiovisual media law that restricts the number of radio and TV licenses that any one company can have has also provoked large media groups. Broadly speaking, the government says the aim of the new legislation is to democratize and pluralize the media, and in the process avoid media monopolies.

While the Clarín Group –the largest media group in Argentina- worries about losing its hegemonic grip on the media, the case of Crítica shows how independent and diverse voices are still being driven from the media map.

”It is now impossible to save Crítica,” says Alejandro Bercovich. ”All this talk of a new media law and an investigation into Papel Prensa is all well and good, but it has to be put into practice. While Cristina (Fernández de Kirchner) is talking about freedom of speech, journalists are losing jobs and newspapers are closing down.”


Joel Richards is a NACLA Research Associate.

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