Argentine Senate passes media reform bill

Sat Oct 10, 2009 11:18am IST

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* President campaigned heavily for broadcast reform

* Bill sparked intense battle between government, media

* Limits number of media outlets companies can own (Updates with vote)

By Kevin Gray

BUENOS AIRES, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Argentina's Senate passed President Cristina Fernandez's broadcast reform bill on Saturday, handing her a political victory that analysts say will do little to revive her sagging popularity.

The Senate approved the bill on a vote of 44 to 24 after 16 hours of debate that stretched from Friday into Saturday, and amid opposition charges that the government had placed heavy pressure on lawmakers. Last month, the lower house backed the bill in a highly charged session that saw more than 100 opposition lawmakers walk out in protest.

Fernandez says the overhaul, one of her top legislative priorities this year, will open the country's airwaves to new players but critics say it will increase state influence over the media.

The proposed overhaul pitted Fernandez against Argentina's leading media groups, including Grupo Clarin (CLA.BA)(GCSAq.L), one of Latin America's biggest media conglomerates and owner of the country's biggest newspaper and most-watched cable news channel.

Fernandez, a leftist who has expanded the state's role in the economy, called the bill an attempt to make radio and TV broadcasts more democratic by capping the number of licenses controlled by a media giants.

However, critics say she hopes to deal a blow to Grupo Clarin, whose media outlets are critical of her government, which has low popularity ratings.

LOW PUBLIC PRIORITY

Argentine political analyst Graciela Romer said the bill's passage would bring limited political benefit for Fernandez. Her approval ratings are below 30 percent, hit by her combative style, a lengthy standoff with farmers over export taxes, and a slowing economy.

"This is a government with serious problems of public support," she said. "This issue is not a priority right now for Argentines who are more worried about unemployment, rising crime and inflation."

Fernandez, who lost her congressional majority in June legislative elections, pushed to get the bill passed before new lawmakers are seated in December.

It sets limits on the number of media outlets companies can own, forcing some to sell off their holdings within a year, which would occur in the run-up to a 2011 presidential election.

It also calls for a new government-controlled regulatory body responsible for handing out and renewing radio and TV licenses.

Nicolas Fernandez, a senator from the ruling party and not related to the president, defended the bill during the debate, saying: "There isn't a single article that regulates content."

Companies are expected to challenge the bill in the courts if it is approved, which could delay any changes for several years.

After the bill's introduction in August, both the government and broadcasters unleashed intense public relations campaigns.

The government has run commercials accusing big media companies of holding a monopoly over public opinion, and officials have at times openly criticized Clarin.

Clarin has responded with more negative coverage of Fernandez and in-depth investigations of corruption allegations involving government officials.

(Additional reporting by Daniela Desantis and Vivianne Rodrigues; editing by Jackie Frank)

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