The Argentine government told the country’s largest media conglomerate on Monday that it has begun a process to break up the company and auction off its media licenses.
Grupo Clarin has battled with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez for years. Fernandez says it is a corporate monopoly and has funded a network of pro-government newspapers and stations to challenge Clarin’s dominance.
Grupo Clarin has called Fernandez’s bid to break it up an illegal attempt to silence one of the government’s leading critics and stifle press freedom.
Martin Sabbatella, the head of the government’s media regulation body, on Monday said that the government will make the conglomerate and other companies comply with the law, which bars any company from owning too many different media properties.
It comes after a lower court judge ruled on Friday that a three-year-old law against media monopolies is constitutional.
“We notified them of the start of the transfer of licenses because the law is constitutional,” Sabbatella said at an impromptu press conference.
The process, which will end up with a transfer of licenses, will last about 100 days. During this time, the media empire must take care of all its current holdings and keep all jobs, Sabbatella said.
Grupo Clarin said in an e-mailed statement that the government’s action tramples on past rulings that favored the media group.
Clarin has said the judge’s declaration lifting all injunctions in the case violates court procedures, adding that a higher court had stayed the divestment requirement until the justice system rules definitively on challenges to the law.
The 2009 law was tweaked in the Argentine Congress to specifically target Clarin, the only company that runs afoul of all its major anti-monopoly clauses. The law could require Clarin to sell off broadcast licenses as well as its majority stake in Cablevision, the cable television network that has become the company’s cash cow.
Clarin says the government cannot take away its licenses because the group lodged an appeal to Friday’s ruling before Sabbatella’s visit on Monday. A lower court has three days to look at it and if it is rejected, Clarin can appeal.
Political analyst Graciela Romer said the case could eventually go to the Argentine Supreme Court and take years to conclude.
The government says Clarin has 237 licenses, but the law allows firms to have 24 cable licenses, 10 free-to-air licenses for radio and TV, and requires that they cover no more than 35 percent of the pay-per-view population.
Clarin says it has seven radio licenses and four open-TV ones. It also says its TV cable operator Cablevision owns 158 local licenses.
Clarin has been at odds with the government since it criticized Fernandez’s handling of a tax on Argentina’s key agricultural sector and a farmers’ strike in 2008.
Since then, critics say Fernandez is trying to break up the media empire. The government has sent tax agents to raid the offices of Argentina’s most popular daily, tried to gain control of the country’s only newsprint maker and encouraged the national soccer association to break its contract with a Clarin-owned channel.