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Media moves

After 26 years of democracy, Argentina has a new broadcast media law, which finally replaces the one which had been in existence since the era of military dictatorship (1976-1983).

Until now, Argentina had one of the region’s most concentrated media maps, with legislation favouring ownership by big business groups and marginalizing small associations or nonprofit organizations.

Last month, after many failed attempts, the initiative for a new broadcast media law finally went to the Parliament as the Government had promised. With the support of Left parties and socialist deputies, the law was approved in the lower chamber.

Demonstration in favour of the new media law

10 October 2009 will be remembered as a momentous day for democracy and the right to communicate in Argentina. Finally, after 20 hours of debate, with 44 votes for and 24 against, the Upper House passed into law the draft sent by the executive branch to Congress. In addition to senators from the ruling Frente para la Victoria party, the proposal was supported by some opposition lawmakers.

The Cabinet Chief Aníbal Fernández said that the law ‘allows us to democratize the country’s media’. Fernández said that although former presidents Raúl Alfonsín, Carlos Menem and Fernando de la Rúa had tried to change the broadcasting law passed by the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, ‘they had not been able to do it, but we just did it’.

Demonstration in front of Congress

The key points of this new law establish that:

  • 30 per cent of the spectrum (available frequencies) is reserved for the non-profit sector and 30 per cent for state-run channels. The remaining 40 per cent will continue be available for the commercial sector.

  • Distribution companies (dedicated, for example, to distributing programmes via cable) may not generate content. For example a corporation cannot have a broadcast channel and be owner of a cable distribution company. This ensures that the technical area of distribution is kept separate from the media world.

  • COMFER (the Government’s federal broadcasting committee) is currently led by a representative of each arm of the military, plus a representative from SIDE (the State Intelligence Agency, the Argentinean version of CIA) and others from media companies. The new law will ensure that the President handpicks a controller.

  • The amount of advertising on cable TV will be regulated.

  • Argentinean-made films: for the first time, a screen quota will be set. Broadcast television channels and cable must show and premiere on national television eight Argentinean films per year. The previous law did not provide any rules for the promotion of Argentinean-made films.

  • As in many other countries, there will be a minimum requirement of national programme production. Today there are almost no Argentinean-made programmes on television.

  • Licenses will be given for 10 years, and can be renewed for another 10 years. After that they must be opened to competition again.

  • There will be a ‘public advocate’: someone who can act on her own or as a result of complaints received by the public. They will be a kind of on-going public prosecutor, with the right to call public hearings, make judgments on behalf of the people, and so on. The candidate will be proposed by a bicameral committee and appointed by the President.

  • The number of licenses that may be awarded to the same company will be limited according to the following criteria:

    • If the company offers a national satellite service (like DirecTV) it cannot be given a license for other forms of broadcasting.

    • They may only own up to 10 radio or 10 television stations.

    • They may only own up to 24 cable networks across the country.   

    But there is an important additional limitation: in any one geographical area, a company may receive a maximum of three licenses of any sort, for example, one AM, one FM and a cable or broadcast TV channel.

  • A state enterprise, ‘Radio y Televisión Argentina’ will be created to manage all public media. Similar to the BBC and other foreign channels, this organization will be managed by directors appointed by the Government and the opposition.

  • Open television broadcasts and local self-produced broadcasts from cable systems must incorporate additional visual media which use subtitles, sign language and audio description for people with hearing and visual impairment, the elderly and others who may have difficulty accessing the content.

This new law will allow new players to enter the media map and create a space for those voices which until now have not been able to have a presence in the broadcast media. In addition, the mobilization generated around the Bill has restored a sense of participation and exercising citizenship in a society that often falls back onto disbelief and apathy.

Flags waving in the new media law

It is, however, entirely conceivable that many of the points of the new law will end up in the courts. Washington Uranga, communication expert and University of Buenos Aires professor, explains: ‘The law of Audiovisual Communication Services is meaningless if not accompanied by public policy. Without a public communications policy there won’t be plurality, we will have no diversity, there will be no new media or other voices. In other words: far from over, this is just beginning.’

When the law is completely in place – something that according to specialists should occur within about three years – it will secure a greater amount of air space for a huge polyphonic group, including non-profit media, universities, indigenous people and NGOs, and will guarantee a public media set-up with greater involvement by civil society, opening up possibilities until recently unimagined.

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