Argentina's government won a key legal battle against its leading media critic Friday night as a trial judge ruled that a 3-year-old law against media monopolies is constitutional.
Judge Horacio Alfonso also ordered "the immediate lifting of all injunctions" granted to Grupo Clarin and its Cablevision operation and other branches of what has become one of Latin America's largest and most powerful media companies.
Argentina's media law "doesn't harm freedom of the press and expression, but in fact generates a multiplicity of audiovisual channels," the judge concluded.
Clarin said it would appeal immediately, and asserted that a higher court's injunction freezing the law's divestment provisions still applies despite the judge's order.
"The ruling ignores flagrant violations of constitutional rights to freedom of expression, equality under the law, legality, property and free competition," Clarin said in a statement.
Clarin and President Cristina Fernandez have battled for years to dominate public opinion in Argentina. Fenandez argues that corporate monopolies are the greater evil, and has funded a booming network of pro-government newspapers and stations to challenge Clarin's dominance.
The company called it "enormously dangerous" that the judge's ruling minimizes the property rights of broadcast license holders, giving the government the ability to modify licenses for nearly any reason, and thus "tacitly approving an outright confiscation of whatever media outlets aren't addicted to the political powers."
The 2009 law was tweaked in 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 TV network that has become the company's cash cow.
"This ruling is extremely important," Martin Sabbatella, the government's broadcast media regulator, told Argentina's C5N channel. "From now on, the entire law will be applied, like it should have been from the first day."
Sabbatella said the government is now preparing its next steps, but didn't specify what they would be.
Before the most recent injunction was applied, Sabbatella said that if Grupo Clarin didn't present a divestment plan by Dec. 7, he would auction off the company's non-conforming licenses.
Clarin said the judge's declaration lifting all injunctions in the case violates court procedures. It said a higher court had stayed the divestment requirement until the justice system rules definitively on challenges to the law.
"The ruling puts broadcast media directly at the mercy of the will of governments," Clarin said. "Freedom of expression becomes just an illusion, a kind of revocable concession by the state to media companies that don't conform with the `official story.'"