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Of Pork, Sausage, and Media Laws

Silvio Waisbord's picture

Watching media law sausage being made is not only ugly. It also raises questions about the conventional apoliticism and technical distance of international aid (an issue that Sina brought up in his last blog entry, and the subject of Sue Unsworth’s smart article that he sent).

Consider what happened in the last months in Argentina. On October 9, Congress passed a new media law, which was immediately approved by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The law is almost identical to the bill sent by the President’s office. The bill replaced the 1980 law that was passed during the last military dictatorship, which had been amended several times since the return to democracy in 1983.

During the previous months, the bill had been a matter of contentious debate. For its supporters, including a range of community organizations and academics, the law promotes media democratization by curbing the power of large media business and institutionalizing community media. It ensures true independent media management. Critics don’t buy any of these arguments. They see the law as another example of government intrusion in media affairs to silence critics. For them, the Kirchners are Argentina’s Chavez sans the military swagger, a local version of Hugo the Boss media politics, an omen of tough times ahead.

Media organizations were strongly divided on the bill. Leading press organizations, business groups, and Clarín and La Nación (Argentina’s main dailies) fiercely opposed it. They used almost every negative adjective one finds in a good thesaurus to condemn the bill. Instead, leftist daily Página/12 and other news organizations close to the Kirchner administration offer uncritical support. Amidst polarized politics, news organizations shredded neutrality and enthusiastically took sides.

Abandoning its past support for former President Nestor Kirchner, Clarin’s take-no-prisoners opposition wasn’t unexpected. No traces of the honeymoon from previous years. Kirchner single-handedly extended the duration of television licenses, and blessed the fusion of the largest cable companies (both decisions benefited Clarin cross-media interests). Yet they grew apart, and given irreconcilable differences, they headed for a bad divorce. Months before his wife send the bill to Congress, Kirchner taunted the paper with the now memorable phrase “Clarin, are you nervous?”. When tax inspectors stormed Clarin offices weeks before Congress debated the bill, and anti-Clarin messages saturated city billboards, pundits concluded that they were indications of official maneuvers to intimidate the media giant. The rumor mill is filled with versions that the Kirchner administration plans a government take-over of the “national” newsprint company (which presently co-owns with Clarin and La Nación).

Reactions to the bill were also predictable. Pro-Kirchner media saluted the law as a dagger into the heart of the media-economic establishment. Anti-Kirchner media and pundits simply called the “K(irchner)” law, another piece in the ruling couple’s political plans. Critics threaten with lawsuits; government officials respond “bring ’em on”. So much for the politics of consensus-building and compromise.

This process is a valuable “teachable” moment for international media assistance. For starters, can media reform be apolitical? Apoliticism oddly fits the emotional intensity of local politics. Given that polarized politics are at the center of media reform processes, what does it mean to play a technical role? Given that community media is hotly debated, rather than being celebrated as the apple pie and motherhood of media development, where should donors and international organizations stand?

The complexity of such politics is exemplified by the different positions taken by international media organizations. From Article 19 to the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters to the UN Rapporteur on freedom of expression, a range of organizations offered contrasting assessments of the bill. Some worryingly see it as another assault on media freedom in the region. Others defend it on the grounds that it represents an opportunity to strengthen citizens’ voices and diversify communication.

Just like other recent experiences in the region, the Argentine case confirms that media reform is hardly a technical matter, an expression of good intentions, an opportunity to put noble democratic ideals into practice. It may seem obvious, but it is pure and simple politics. Old alliances are broken, and new enemies battle it out. Voting decisions are matter of endless speculation about favors and pork politics.

The point isn’t just that political analysis is critical to understand when and how international aid can make a difference, or that purely technocratic approaches are insufficient, as Unsworth and others have convincingly argued. Certainly, the Argentine experience confirms that these insights need to be taken seriously.

The case also raises necessary questions about the appropriate attitude of global actors vis-à-vis domestic politics. What should good-hearted, cosmopolitan experts do when locals go for the jugular? Perhaps technical arguments wrapped in normative ideals offer a safe haven when the nitty-gritty of media politics gets ugly. Technical assessments may offer a necessary standpoint when locals shout “seconds out” to global institutions who express their views (as it happened in Argentina). Global actors who decide to take part in the debate are inevitably brought into one of the warring camps. The problem isn’t that the making of media law sausage and pork politics are not pretty. After all, it’s not a beauty contest; it’s politics. The question is whether global actors should willingly intervene running the danger of being caught in messy local politics. 

Photo: Rally in support for the media law in Argentina, by Flickr User blmurch