The Argentine government confirmed yesterday that it would proceed on Friday, Dec. 7 — or “7D” as it has become known in the press — with the forcible breakup of media companies, including Grupo Clarín, that are in violation of “anti-monopoly” measures included in the country’s new media law.

“Until midnight on Friday, December 7, we will be hoping that all media groups recognise that they must comply with the Media Law,” the head of the Federal Audiovisual Communications Commission (AFSCA), Martin Sabbatella, said on Monday, according to news reports. “If that is not the case, the transfer of licenses will begin.”

IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said today that IPI would be “carefully monitoring” the outcome of “7D” and its consequences for the Argentine press. “IPI maintains that diversity of media content is an important indicator of press freedom, which can, in some cases, be pursued through pluralism of media ownership. Nevertheless, the government’s aggressive stance toward Grupo Clarín, which has been critical of President Kirchner, is highly troubling. Moreover, we are concerned that this forcible divestment process is being carried out despite significant legal questions and confusion.”

Article 45 of the the country’s new media law, passed in Oct. 2009, limits companies to 24 cable television licenses in addition to 10 open frequency radio or television licenses. Article 161 established a divestment procedure for companies whose holdings exceed those limits. In response to the law, Grupo Clarín — which owns 240 cable television broadcasters, 10 radio stations, 4 television channels, in addition to the newspaper Clarín — launched a constitutional challenge to the law that targeted, among others, articles 45 and 161.

On May 22 of this year, Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled that a three-year old injunction against compliance with Article 161, ordered by a lower court, would expire on Dec. 7, 2012. However, the Court has not yet ruled on the constitutional challenge itself to Articles 161 or 45.

The administration of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has interpreted the Court’s ruling to mean that Article 161’s stipulations will come into force on Dec. 7 and that Clarín’s licenses may be forcibly redistributed at that point. However, the text of the Court’s decision appears to indicate that if the constitutionality of Articles 45 and 161 is not determined before Dec. 7, Grupo Clarín can request a further injunction.

The battle between Grupo Clarín and the Argentine government has played out in a highly public manner, exemplified by a set of dueling advertising spots released in September. On that occasion, the International Press Institute (IPI) condemned President Kirchner’s verbal attacks on the press, which have been compared to the vitriolic discourse employed by Presidents Hugo Chávez and Rafael Correa of Venezuela and Ecuador, respectively.

Defamation suit against Italian journalist

IPI also expressed concern today over legal proceedings against an Italian journalist, Maria Egizia Fiaschetti, whom President Kirchner has accused of defamation. The case stems from a 2008 article in Corriere della Sera that detailed an alleged shopping trip in Rome during which the president was reported to have spent thousands of euros on luxury items.

Kirchner has denied the shopping trip occurred. Last Thursday, she gave a deposition via videoconference to a court in Rome in which she argued that Fiaschetti’s article, entitled “Hunger and Dolce Vita”, had maliciously sought to label her as a hypocrite. The president was attending the High-Level Conference of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Rome at the time.

According to Kirchner’s attorneys, Fiaschetti’s article contained a significant factual error, stating that the alleged spending spree had taken place on May 31, when, in fact, Kirchner did not arrive in Rome until June 2. Fiaschetti and her editor at the time, Paolo Mieli, could potentially face prison time if convicted.

“IPI is opposed to criminal defamation laws in all cases and therefore urges the Italian courts to reject any attempt to criminally prosecute María Egizia Fiaschetti and Paolo Mieli,” said Trionfi. “Intergovenmental human-rights bodies have agreed that the civil courtroom is the only legitimate forum for pursuing defamation claims, provided that the intent is to restore reputation and not to punish the press.”

Last week, IPI reiterated its call on the Italian government to decriminalise defamation and thereby bring its laws in line with international standards following the 14-month prison sentence handed to Il Giornale editor Alessandro Sallusti for libel.