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OAS: AFSCA move hurts autonomy

The special rapporteur on freedom of expression of the Organization of American States (OAS) Edison Lanza.
By Federico Poore
Herald Staff

Special rapporteur Edison Lanza says media concentration still an issue in Argentina

Mauricio Macri’s offensive against the AFSCA media watchdog is an “unorthodox” move that bypasses the processes stipulated by law, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the Organization of American States (OAS), Edison Lanza, warned yesterday.

While critical of Martín Sabbatella — in October he said the watchdog in charge of monitoring the implementation of the law was not independent enough from political power — Lanza said the trusteeship model passed by decree by the Let’s Change administration puts the media watchdog “back in the times when governments had full control over the office.”

Lanza, a former counsel for the Association of Uruguayan Press (APU), was kind enough to take a Skype call from the Herald on Christmas Day during a holiday in Europe.

How did you take the Argentine government’s decision to place AFSCA under trusteeship?

We’re closely watching this situation. To take such a decision without using the clear mechanism stipulated by law to remove a member of AFSCA’s board of directors is clearly an unorthodox path. The result is that the decision has been legally challenged. International standards on the matter say the ideal thing would be to have departments that are autonomous both from the Executive and economic powers in order to be able to regulate media systems following legal principles. Something which all rapporteurs on freedom of expression (from United Nations, from the OAS) agreed on was that the structure of AFSCA was once of the positive aspects of the law. For the first time, the office had representatives from the opposition, civil society... The model is obviously perfectible, but it was a step forward. On the other hand, the announcement to place the department under trusteeship comes just as the new government takes office, which is precisely the moment when AFSCA is being put to the test and it needs to remain an autonomous office. Trying to make (the department) in the image of the new government... well, it’s like saying autonomy is over and that we’re back to the times when governments had full control over the body.

Is your office or the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) planning to publish a statement on this issue?

Well, it’s a very bad moment for us because the commission is producing a great number of reports on the situation of each country, which will be published in January. On the other hand, four of the seven commissioners are ending their tenures on December 31, so we’re in a kind of transition. But we as a special rapporteur’s office have the capacity to oversee the situation and make our stances public, as well as reminding (other countries about the IACHR) standards on the issue.

What’s your evaluation of Martín Sabbatella’s tenure as head of AFSCA?

We don’t generally assess how officials have been doing in their posts except when they openly violate their obligations to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. That being said, we’ve followed very closely the implementation of the Media Law. The law, in general, complied with our recommendations of avoiding media concentration in order to favour diversity — saying the opposite, that problems of media concentration can be fixed by the market itself, goes against our guidelines. But implementing such a law is a very sensitive issue, and there have been some measures that have been challenged by the Clarín Group and now the courts are examining the question. In our last annual report we described the way the law was being applied and commented our doubts on whether Telefónica de Argentina was really unrelated to (Spanish conglomerate) Telefónica, and whether there was excessive rigour in the enforcement of the law against Clarín to the detriment of other decisions.

Last month, Macri’s Communications Minister Oscar Aguad argued there was no media concentration in Argentina. Do you agree with that statement?

No. Clearly, there’s a media group that enjoys a great deal of market concentration levels. That’s the important thing, we’re taking about media outlets, not beer companies. Multinationals have bought up practically the entire beer market in our countries, but the difference (between that and media) is that you can dominate the beer market without affecting the institutional life of a country. Media concentration, on the other hand, hurts democracy. Ignoring that is to ignore the entire doctrine on the matter. Strong democracies put limits to media concentration.

@fedebillie

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