News group studies charges against Argentina gov't

A delegation from the Inter-American Press Association was in Argentina Wednesday to study complaints that the government is trying to eliminate independent media.

The group met with Public Communications Secretary Juan Manuel Abal Medina, who gave them a 10-page letter asserting that government restrictions on free expression don't exist in Argentina.

The administration of President Cristina Fernandez "has not dared nor will it dare silence anyone. It understands that it's better to put up with constant defamations before committing the most insignificant act of censorship," the letter said.

All citizens of Argentina, including journalists, are free to "make opinions and express their ideas," it added.

The visiting group said it planned to respond to the letter at a news conference later.

But IAPA President Gonzalo Marroquin, from the Guatemalan newspaper Siglo 21, said the group made some points during its meeting with Abal Media.

"We told him that we don't defend media companies, but principles, whether they are members or not," Marroquin said.

Argentina's largest circulation newspapers, Clarin and La Nacion, complain that millions of dollars in official advertising is unfairly funneled to pro-government media.

Both have criticized the government for failing to intervene when unions block their printing plants, delaying or preventing the news from getting out.

Most of all, the two companies are challenging a law passed by Congress that if upheld would force big media companies to break apart.

Fernandez has said media monopolies pose greater dangers to free speech than government controls over airwaves, newsprint and other aspects of the communications industry — and none more so than Grupo Clarin, which owns leading newspapers and magazines, cable television, radio and Internet companies.

Abal Medina said Clarin "has abused its dominant position, discriminating against its competitors, censuring journalists, impeding union activity by its employees."

He also criticized the companies for "challenging in court the decisions made by an ample majority in Congress," referring to the legislation that would break up media companies.

The government says breaking up the big companies will diversify Argentina's media industry, guaranteeing larger audiences for noncommercial voices.

Clarin contends the law is aimed at destroying the government's strongest critics.