October 31, 2008

Argentina & the Mainstream Media

(Editor's Note: This piece is cross-posted on the blog, iVoryTowerz.)

by Rick Rockwell

The issue of how mainstream media frame reality and change the political landscape through their choices doesn’t end at the U.S. border. No. Recent experience reinforces the belief that this is an issue from here to Tierra del Fuego. And the problem flows east and west, globally too.

But let’s get back to Tierra del Fuego.

If you go there, you won’t find many imprints from the media, of any type. But if you do — likely they’ve flowed from Argentina’s capital of Buenos Aires.

One of the topics the mainstream media in Buenos Aires are trying to avoid is the one they like the least: media reform. The government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has set a goal to rewrite the country’s telecommunication laws by the end of her term in 2011. To that end, the government convened an international conference in Buenos Aires to gather ideas for the reform. (The author was among the invited and addressed the conference.) Hundreds of Argentina’s elite attended: members of Argentina’s Congress; bureaucrats; lawyers; influential academics and writers. Speakers from seven countries (including Spain and the U.S.) spoke to the group and the conference was conducted in three languages. Yet beyond public television, only one national network carried any news about the conference. And not one newspaper mentioned it.

If you depended upon the mainstream media, the conference and its message of reform didn’t exist or meant very little.

But if deciding for citizens that media reform is not necessary through ignoring debate and discussion of the topic, the media barons of Argentina show exactly why such reform is necessary.

Much like in the U.S., the electronic media are in the hands of a powerful oligarchy of businesses. The players are different. But they tend to act in familiar ways. Beyond the corporate media’s concentrated economic and political power, another concern is whether these corporations have Argentina’s best interests at heart or whether their international origins and need for increasing profits trump all.

For instance, Argentina's market is dominated by Grupo Clarin, one of the most powerful multimedia concerns in the region, which owns a television network, the Spanish-language world's most popular newspaper website, and the most circulated newspaper in Latin America. Although owned by Argentines, Grupo Clarin has significant minority ownership from abroad: Goldman Sachs in New York holds a key stake in the multimedia company. And many in Buenos Aires believe Grupo Clarin acts in the best interests of its investors in New York first.

Then there's the television network owned by Telefonica of Spain, which is also involved in cell phones in Latin America and Europe. One of Argentina's television networks is also controlled by a holding company that when you strip away the various shell enterprises is run by a Mexican businessman who lives in Miami. And Carlos Slim, one of the world's richest men, who owns Mexico's phone giant Telmex is also on the scene, controlling large swaths of the wired and wireless phone networks, and the internet service providers that are a natural outgrowth of such businesses.

What these giants of the media world are trying to avoid is a 21-point plan drawn up by civic groups and the Fernandez government. The plan would limit the control of huge media giants and promote diverse ownership and pluralism in the electronic media.

Will the reform work? Does it have a chance?

If the big media have any say, such reform doesn't exist. So why worry? Be happy. We now return you to your choice of corporate media entertainment channel.

(Graphic by saguayo of Mexico City, D.F., via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

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