Clarín Group vs. the Argentine Government: Failing to See the Forest for the Trees

As the political melodrama of the hour unfolds in Argentina between the government and Clarín group, I’m unsurprised to see supporters of each side succumb to their basest tribalist instincts, squeezing the historical record for the last drop of evidence favoring their case, while turning an utterly blind eye to buckets full of facts revealing their contender as not exactly the good guy.

Supporters of Clarín denounce the government for turning a blind eye on friendly media groups that hold a larger number of licenses than the new law allows, favoring these groups by spending most of its advertising budget with them, financing the creation of new media companies, and using state-owned media to reach 100% of the population while only allowing private media to reach 35%.

In short, far from aiming to “increase the plurality of media voices,” the government simply wants to increase its control over what those voices say.

The government’s supporters say that Clarín enjoys a quasi-monopoly position in many media markets, that the law replaces one implemented during the Dirty War military dictatorship, and that Clarín obtained numerous favors from the military junta in exchange for turning a blind eye on their atrocities. In short, far from “defending freedom of speech,” Clarín is simply guarding its dominant market positions and ability to influence politicians at will.

Both sides are a bit embarrassed to admit, though, that Clarín and the government were firm allies until 2008, when Clarín sided with the landed oligarchy in a bitter conflict over increased agricultural export taxes. It was Néstor Kirchner who approved the fusion between Multicanal (Clarín group’s original cable operator company) and Cablevisión (its main competitor) in 2007, a merger at the heart of the current row.

What surprises me even more is the naivete of otherwise very lucid voices, like Graciela Mochkofsky, whose recent book meticulously documents the friendship between Clarín and the Kirchner administration (and with every other Argentine government which granted them special treatment), but who welcomes the law because it supposedly allows the state to prevent concentration of power in media markets.

What Mochkovsky fail to understand is the perverse incentive structure that the state per se gives politicians to concentrate power in the hands of well-connected interests at the expense of the broader public. Regardless of the letter of the law, if the final decision on who enters a particular market rests with a governmental body, moneyed interests will find ways to buy political complacency and get around the law. This is obviously more so in the case of media markets, where politicians can expect to gain allies of particularly high strategic importance in the game of manipulating that most precious commodity in electoral political systems: Public opinion.

The licensing system at the heart of the new media law is fundamentally beneficial for incumbent media groups. Whatever properties Clarín group might have to divest to comply with it are nothing compared to the losses it would probably suffer in a truly free market — one where the state didn’t have the prerogative of setting conditions of participation. This is specially true as Internet ventures threaten Clarín’s competitive position in an ever-increasing variety of niches.

If the Argentine government really wanted to dramatically “strengthen the plurality of voices,” it could easily set rules for strong competition to emerge in every niche of the media landscape. It could, for instance, establish the foundation of a homesteading-based private-property regime in electromagnetic spectrum, a common property regime, or a combination of both.

This would level the playing field for small actors such as community radio. Instead, the law clearly rigs the game in favor of corporations and other large organizations. As explained in a recent document published by the National Network of Alternative Media, despite the fact that the law reserves 33% of the electromagnetic spectrum for the “non-profit sector”:

“… Our media is treated under the same terms as foundations and associations with great economic power and political connections, such as AFA (the Argentine Soccer Association), Ford Foundation, the Buenos Aires Stock Exchange, large foundations from labor unions, etc …. In order to apply for the use of frequency, our sector is forced to participate under onerous conditions and requirements that don’t reflect the reality of our media (elevated costs, administrative-accounting paperwork, investment projects, net-worth declarations, debt-free certificates, compliance with equipment standards). Furthermore, the law requires us to employ professional broadcasters and operators.”

Conceptualizing the state as the enemy of corporations simply because of a quarrel between a particular government and a particular former crony, is failing to see the forest for the trees. If one takes a step back and makes an effort to see the bigger picture, it’s easy to grasp that the relationship between sate and corporate power is symbiotic to the core.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory