President Cristina Fernandez appealed to Argentina's Supreme Court on Friday seeking to enforce a government-imposed deadline for dismembering Grupo Clarin, a media company that has become her leading rival in the court of public opinion.
Two lower-court judges stayed a midnight Friday deadline for media companies to announce how they'll sell off properties that exceed anti-monopoly limits imposed by Congress three years ago.
They said the injunction should hold until the Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the effort to limit the power of private media companies. The ruling suspended the centerpiece of the Fernandez presidency, and all but guaranteed that her supporters and opponents would keep fighting for the known future.
Fernandez still planned to celebrate her campaign against corporate-funded speech with a Sunday rock concert and presidential address in the capital's historic Plaza de Mayo.
Meanwhile, the media landscape in Argentina has mostly been reduced to warring alliances of newspapers, television and radio stations lined up for and against the government. Both sides devote vast resources to rewarding friends and attacking enemies in country's insular political world.
Journalists in Buenos Aires say the collateral damage is painfully evident: The quality of news coverage has declined, and media credibility is abysmal, with any effort to hold officials accountable dismissed as low blows fed by partisanship.
"Between the government and Argentina's leading papers, they're destroying journalism," said Roberto Guareschi, a former Clarin editor and professor at University of California at Berkeley who now edits Project Syndicate, which publishes opinion pieces internationally.
This fight "has diminished the quality of journalism in general," agreed Andres D'Alessandro, director of the Forum for Argentine Journalism, whose survey of 1,000 reporters last year found that declining standards of their craft was their highest concern, after salaries.
The Miami-based InterAmerican Press Association sent a delegation to Buenos Aires to evaluate press freedom, and concluded Friday that "serious inconveniences remain for the free exercise of journalism in the country."
IAPA said it "shares the stated goals of the media law — to bring about a greater plurality of voices and prevent excessive concentrations of media in a few hands."
However, IAPA said "this healthy proposal" has been betrayed and "turned into an instrument used by the government to do away with its new worst enemy - Grupo Clarin."
The government asked the Supreme Court on Friday to rule directly on the media law's merits, bypassing multiple layers of lower courts where the case has been stuck for three years without a decision. Media regulator Martin Sabbatella said any additional delay "damages democracy."
"The Argentine justice system isn't prepared to fight against the corporations, because much of the courts have been colonized by the same corporations," Sabbatella argued.
In a Friday editorial, Clarin Executive Editor Ricardo Kirschbaum called such claims "politically inept."
"This frontal offensive shows how this administration conceives of politics and democracy: all or nothing. And in this dichotomy, when it comes to connections, reasonable negotiations, the exploration of accords that bring solutions and progress, their position is win or lose," Kirschbaum wrote.
Fernandez has described her efforts as a moral imperative. In speech after speech, she says democracies stop responding to the people when corporations can use media power to pressure governments to rule in their favor.
The idea of the 2009 reform was to decentralize the media industry and empower a constellation of new voices to come forward with a plurality of views.
Unfortunately, the president's obsession with Clarin has overwhelmed efforts to foster this diversity, said Martin Becerra, a communications professor at the National University of Quilmes, outside Buenos Aires.
Fernandez has spent millions of dollars assuring the loyalty of pro-government newspapers and broadcast stations by showering them with lucrative government announcements — the same official advertising Clarin once benefitted from when it was aligned with previous governments.
With both sides "playing the victim," the goal of media reform has been forgotten, Becerra said.
Also lost is common ground for addressing Argentina's many problems. Economic, security and environmental problems, corruption, decayed infrastructure, unpaid pensions and other important issues are ignored.
"Issues that should be on the daily agenda are eliminated because they benefit or affect the government or the media companies," said D'Alessandro, the director of the Argentine journalism forum. "Many sources refuse to talk with certain media organizations, and some media companies only look for sources that agree with their editorial line."
Most of the media companies with properties exceeding the law's limits have submitted their divestment plans. Sabbatella had threatened to show up at Clarin with a notary on Saturday to announce a schedule for auctioning off its non-conforming licenses.
The law limits a single company's licenses to 24 cable TV systems and 10 broadcast television stations nationwide, and three radio stations in each city. Cable networks could reach no more than 35 percent of the population, and foreign investors would be limited to 30 percent of each company.
While about 20 companies exceed some of these limits, Clarin alone violates all of these clauses, Sabbatella said.
The two sides don't even agree on how many licenses Clarin has. Sabbatella counts 238 overall, while Clarin counts 11 for broadcast and radio signals and 158 cable licenses, one for each town where Cablevision now operates.
Limiting Cablevision to 24 localities would kill Clarin's businesses, but the law provides no limits on reaching homes through satellite or telephone lines and Cablevision's competitors can reach all 2,200 localities in Argentina with a single license. That is not only unfair, but blows apart the claim that Fernandez is promoting diversity, Clarin spokesman Martin Etchevers said.
"This government can't put up with the existence of independent entities that can have an influence in society," Etchevers said. "It seems to me the government just wants political control over the media."
Clarin used to be an ally, of sorts, to Fernandez and her former husband and predecessor as president, Nestor Kirchner. In one of his last acts as president, Kirchner approved the Cablevision merger that enabled the company to become dominant.
Then Fernandez succeeded her husband and tried to raise taxes on commodity exports, hitting the pocketbooks of Argentina's landowning elites. Clarin came out swinging with critical coverage, and the Kirchners considered it a betrayal. "What got into you, Clarin?" Kirchner famously asked, and the battle was joined.
The Kirchners took a project to reform Argentina's dictatorship-era media law off the shelf, adding clauses designed exclusively to punish Clarin and pushing it through Congress in 2009. Clarin blocked it with injunctions, and both sides have done all they could to influence the judiciary ever since.
The injunction negating the Friday midnight deadline seriously harms the president's attempt to show who is boss, said Ignacio Fidanza, director of a website that follows Argentine politics, www.lapoliticaonline.com.
"December 7th had become the single-minded goal of the State of Cristina, and a symbolic question because it meant showing that she dared act against Clarin, that she reduced its power somewhat and that she wasn't left with mere words," Fidanza said.
The stay came as a relief to Claudio Paolillo, president of IAPA's press freedom committee. "It's the most reasonable thing that could have happened. This country was on the road to a situation with no exit."
Michael Warren on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mwarrenap