Americas Extra: Stinging Paper Cut

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirschner doesn’t hide her contempt for the press — especially the nation’s biggest dailies, Clarín and La Nacion — and it’s pretty clear from the newspapers’ commentary that the feeling is mutual.

But while government figures launch plenty of verbal attacks on the papers, the administration’s strategy increasingly seems to be to hit them in their business operations. Last fall, for instance, government-linked groups blockaded newspaper production plants to keep circulation trucks from delivery. Tax authorities have repeatedly subjected Grupo Clarín in particular to exhaustive investigations — which have come up empty.

Now, the government is hitting them with something like a nuclear warhead — it wants to take from the newspapers their controlling stakes in the only business producing newsprint in Argentina. Last month, Commerce Minister Guillermo Moreno formally asked the judiciary to remove the directors of Papel Prensa, alleging financial irregularities and suggesting its majority ownership by Clarín and La Nacion has been illegitimate for decades.

The newspapers see the government’s maneuvers as nothing less than an expropriation intended to silence an independent press, and many international free press groups agree. The Inter American Press Association formally condemned the pressure on Papel Prensa owners  as a systematic plan “to try to control private enterprise in the manufacture of paper, the basic ingredient in the production of newspapers.”

But the tangled history of Papel Prensa reflects the alternately cozy and uncomfortable intersection of governments and the press in Latin America. Right now, Prensa Papel is owned 49% by Grupo Clarín, 22.5% by La Nacion — and 27.5% by the Argentina government. 

Papel Prensa was founded and operated for years by the Graiver family. In 1976, when a particularly brutal military dictatorship ruled Argentina, the government pressured the family to sell stakes in the company to Clarín and La Nacion. Soon after, Graiver family members were arrested and all their property expropriated. The government passed shares in the papermaker to the military, while the newspapers operated the business.

With the return of democracy, the Graivers were paid about $8 million in compensation, but the newspapers kept the business, which according to estimates by Argentinean media is worth at least $3 billion.

The Kirschner administration clearly thinks this history gives them huge leverage over the publishers.

“It’s always been a taboo subject,” prominent businessman Jorge Chamorro said in a recent interview. “The media never wanted to touch the Graiver case for their own reasons. Politicians were always worried about the power of Grupo Clarín and didn’t want to probe the subject. But now there’s real political will and interest in getting to the bottom of this question.”

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