On Tuesday 29 October, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled for the constitutionality of the 2009 Audiovisual Communication Services Act, against which Argentina’s largest media group, Grupo Clarín, had taken up a legal challenge. The ruling orders the implementation of the law which mandates that broadcast licences must be equally split between commercial, public and non-profit organisations. Clarín, which has long argued that the Act affected its property rights, must now immediately comply with the law (as the deadline for compliance has already passed), and divest itself of several cable TV licences.
The Supreme Court commented that ‘as ideas and information represent goods that are distributed through the media, if there is concentration, only some ideas or some information will reach the public, seriously harming public debate and the plurality of opinions’. It asserted that it is the responsibility of the state to protect against such concentration.
The ruling, writes Guillermo Mastrini, has produced a ‘shift in the political and social agenda’, and sets ‘new terms by which to understand the issue of freedom of speech’ in Argentina.
The Supreme Court decision recognises a fundamental issue regarding the specificity of the communications sector, whose diversity must be protected, especially because this is the cornerstone of a democratic society. The court states that, ‘Unlike other markets, in the media industry, concentration has social consequences which impact upon the right to information,essential for individual liberties’, and adds that, ‘restrictions strictly related to assets are not disproportionate to the institutional weight of the goals of the Act’.
The ruling has established in Argentina ground-breaking jurisprudence on freedom of speech, placing the social right to have a public and plural debate over the economic rights of companies.
Of course now it is necessary that the law is fully implemented, and as the Supreme Court noted, it is also essential that those who have the responsibility to deploy it respect the will of the legislator, and promote an open and non-discriminatory debate.
The Supreme Court ruling has enabled the diminishment of concentrated media power. On the thirtieth anniversary of the 1983 presidential election which marked the return to democracy after dictatorship, that is perhaps the best tribute that can be made, signifying a country where the powerful are a little less powerful, and the society a little more democratic.
Guillermo Mastrini is a researcher and professor of media policy at the National University of Quilmes, Buenos Aires.
Related reading: ‘Media ownership battles in Argentina’, by Guillermo Mastrini, Martín Becerra and Santiago Marino.