Argentine president sends media reform to Congress

* Government in dispute with media group Grupo Clarin
* Ruling party to lose congressional control next year (Adds quote by former head of state regulator)
By Helen Popper Thu Aug 27, 2009 2:50pm EDT

BUENOS AIRES, Aug 27 (Reuters) - Argentina's president sent a media reform bill to Congress on Thursday, saying it would strengthen democracy by reducing the control of a handful of companies that dominate broadcasting. Many people in the industry agree with the need to overhaul broadcasting regulations drawn up during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship, to reflect huge technological changes, but the government proposal has sparked controversy.

President Cristina Fernandez, who has fallen out with the country's biggest media group Grupo Clarin (CLA.BA: Quote, Profile, Research, Stock Buzz) and often criticizes news media, said the new broadcast law would challenge private companies' domination of the airwaves. "Freedom of expression can't become freedom to extort (and) press freedom can't be confused with freedom for press owners," she said in a speech at the presidential palace. "This bill is for every one of us who wants to live in a more democratic and plural Argentina," she added.

The reform bill, which Fernandez launched in March, would allocate a third of broadcast frequencies to private companies, a third to state broadcasters and the rest to nonprofit organizations such as churches and universities. It would also limit the number of licenses any one company can hold and aim to guarantee quotas for Argentine-made music, films and programs.

Leftist groups have welcomed the government proposal, but critics say the reform is ill-timed and politically motivated. "(This bill) was only agreed between people with the same point of view," said Julio Barbaro, a former head of state broadcast regulator Comfer. "They're looking for war with this bill ... I hope Congress doesn't vote on it," he told reporters.

Fernandez lost control of Congress in a June mid-term vote, but the newly elected lawmakers do not take their seats until December. It will likely be harder for the government to pass controversial measures when the new legislature is in place. Much of the suspicion over the government's motives stems from its spat with Grupo Clarin, one of Latin America's largest media conglomerates and the company that analysts say stands to lose most from the proposed reform.

The group's leading newspaper Clarin and television channel TN have become increasingly critical of the government, and Fernandez dealt another blow to the group by taking over soccer broadcast rights that had been owned by a Clarin partnership. Fernandez, who has boosted state control of the economy by nationalizing private pensions and the top airline, is suspicious of the traditional media like many leftist leaders in Latin America. (With additional reporting by Guido Nejamkis, editing by Vicki Allen) -- From Reuters
Community media animation from Argentina.