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Argentine enforcer may auction critic's licenses

ALMUDENA CALATRAVA, Associated Press
Wednesday, 24 Oct 2012 | 5:03 PM ET

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Argentina's new media regulator said Wednesday that he's prepared to auction off the broadcast licenses of the government's leading critic.

President Cristina Fernandez has set a Dec. 7 deadline for the media company Grupo Clarin to show how it will comply with a law barring media monopolies. She appointed Martin Sabbatella to lead a new agency similar to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, with a mandate to ensure that no single company controls too much of Argentina's broadcast spectrum.

Sabbatella told foreign correspondents that he has no intention of expropriating stations, but will auction off the broadcast licenses of any company that owns more media properties than the law allows. He said he will move swiftly against Clarin or any other company that doesn't present the government with a breakup plan by the deadline.

Clarin spokesman Martin Etchevers said Sabbatella's real objective is to "silence the few independent voices that remain in Argentina's audiovisual industry." He alleged that 90 percent of Argentina's radio and television stations now depend in some way on government support.

Both sides say they are defending freedom of expression.

Sabbatella said the law limits corporate ownership to 35 percent of the market, including 10 open-air radio and TV licenses and 24 cable television licenses, because if one company owns too much of the spectrum, private interests can use them drown out other voices in a democracy. He said the media law is fostering diversity by enabling universities, indigenous communities, nonprofit groups and other voices to get on the air.

Etchevers said Clarin has 11 radio and TV licenses, or just one more than the limit for broadcast stations, while its Cablevision subsidiary owns 158 local licenses, one for each municipality where it bundles television and Internet access through cable connections.

Etchevers said the 24-license limit for cable is not only unrealistic but unconstitutional, because the law doesn't prevent Clarin's competitors from using satellites and telephone lines to reach homes in all 2,200 Argentine localities through a single license.

"This law was dictated specifically to harm Clarin, threatening the principles of equality under the law and free competition," he said. "What's at stake here is freedom of expression, the existence of media companies that are able to tell the people what's happening."