Freedom of expression again under assault in Argentina as Supreme Court bows to government pressure

October 11, 2013

Sally Painter is a Truman National Security Project Board Member. 

On October 27th, Argentina will go to the polls for midterm elections that will determine the makeup of Congress for the remainder of President Cristina Kirchner’s second term. The stakes of the contest are high. As part of her broader push for control over Argentine society, the President has been intensifying her campaign against the country’s independent press – including seeking to undermine and manipulate the highest judicial authority, the Supreme Court.

President Kirchner understands that these elections could make or break her political future, for several reasons. First, if the President’s allies achieve a substantial enough victory, they could potentially change the constitution allow her to run for a third term. We have seen this kind of “reform” in places like Venezuela, with disturbing results for democracy.

But perhaps equally importantly, President Kirchner is desperately trying to win her fight against Argentina’s independent media, which has angered her with its at times critical coverage and its willingness to publish authentic economic indicators instead of the government’s doctored statistics. Central to this effort is the contested implementation of her government’s Media Law, passed in 2009, and now awaiting a ruling by the Supreme Court to determine its constitutionality.

Outside observers have pointed out that it is designed specifically to break up the largest media group, Grupo Clarín. President Kirchner’s administration has long waged a war on Clarin, publically denouncing it, pressuring and threatening its reporters and staff, and withdrawing state advertising funds to wound it economically.

The media law would be a final blow against the Argentina’s remaining free press – a tipping point that would send the country firmly down the path of Chavismo in Venezuela and Correa in Ecuador.

However, the law cannot go into effect until the Supreme Court reaches a final decision regarding its constitutionality. After a Federal court found the law unconstitutional earlier this year, it had been widely expected that the Supreme Court would do the same.

But the President’s fear that she and her allies will suffer a major defeat in the upcoming elections has led her to accelerate her attempts to manipulate the supposedly independent judiciary in order to obtain a favorable ruling.

Multiple news sources, including the pro-Kirchner state press, have reported that the government, fearing that its influence will soon be diminished, has been pressuring the Supreme Court to rule on the law ahead of schedule – before the October elections. Even more worryingly, President Kirchner has personally pressured individual members of the Court to change their votes.

Due to this pressure, the Court, which was until recently seen as clearly against the law, now appears evenly divided. Of the seven justices, three will likely vote to uphold the law while three will almost certainly vote against it. Supporters of a free press in Argentina had thought they had dodged a bullet, but now face the possibility of a Court bowing to eleventh hour political pressure after President Kirchner’s personal intervention.

This development comes as a bitter blow for those concerned with freedom of expression and democratic institutions in Argentina, and across the region. Not only is the current administration bent on changing the laws to remain in power and to destroy any independent media outlets that remain, they are determined to undermine the integrity of the nation’s most important judicial body in order to obtain a favorable ruling.

The United States should recognize that these unfortunate developments in Argentina are taking place in a troubling regional context of declining press freedoms and precarious democratic institutions. Argentina is sliding towards a model in which all media is co-opted by the state, and all branches of government, from tax collectors to Supreme Court justices, answer only to their political masters. In that sense, the October elections and the Court decision could determine the future course of Argentine democracy – for good or ill.