On June 24, a story in the Argentine daily Clarín reported a bombshell: a former ambassador, Eduardo Sadous, had privately testified to a congressional committee that the former president, Nestor Kirchner, knew about a web of corruption involving kickbacks in exchange for business deals with Venezuela. In return came a volley of epithets.
Kirchner called Hector Magnetto, the CEO of the Clarín Group, a “delinquent.” Anibal Fernandez, chief of staff for Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner—the former president’s wife and the current president—called him “perverse and shameless.” Magnetto, generally a publicity-shy executive, fired back in the newspaper.
It was just another day of verbal pyrotechnics in a two-year conflict pitting the Kirchners against the Clarín Group, Argentina’s media behemoth. With Clarín as its flagship, the group has holdings in radio and television, cable TV, Internet, newspapers, newsprint, and a news agency. Argentine pundits speculate endlessly about the stakes in the ugly conflict. But no matter which side eventually prevails, professional journalism will be the main casualty.
When Nestor Kirchner passed the presidential sash to his wife in December 2007, no one could have predicted that Clarín would soon become the Kirchners’ media bête noire. It was hardly Kirchner’s mouthpiece during his administration, but Clarín served up kid-glove treatment of administration policies. Unlike La Nación or the Perfil news group, Clarín didn’t frequently dredge up cases of wrongdoing. And Clarín columnists often received big scoops from the Kirchners’ inner circle. Presidential decisions, such as extending the period of television licenses and merging the largest cable systems, benefitted Clarín’s far-flung business interests. But the Pax Claríniana is over.
The Kirchners and Clarín parted ways in early 2008, when the Fernandez de Kirchner government was facing a countrywide revolt against a substantial tax increase on agricultural exports. Kirchneristas viewed Clarín as carrying water for powerful agribusiness interests, which were fueling protests that dominated headlines and brought the economy to a screeching halt. As in many dissolving marriages, the divorce wasn’t exactly civil. Irreconcilable differences were laid bare when President Fernandez de Kirchner accused Clarín of sending a “mafia-like message” when Hermenegildo Sabat, a respected cartoonist, drew her with an X across her lips, suggesting that she had been gagged.
Since then, the conflict has often reached a boiling point. Clarín, along with a group representing press owners, has condemned several events it interpreted as acts of official press intimidation. Pro-government groups, in turn, have demonstrated in front of Clarín’s building several times. In September 2009, in a confusing episode that triggered much speculation, tax inspectors raided the newspaper’s offices.
In April 2010, the battle seemed to escalate. The city of Buenos Aires was plastered with anonymous billboards displaying pictures of the Clarín Group’s most prominent journalists, calling them lackeys for a media owner accused of “appropriating” children of people who had disappeared during the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 and 1983, a terrible historical touchstone for Argentina. The billboards referred to Ernestina Herrera de Noble, Clarín Group’s majority shareholder and the widow of the newspaper’s founder.