BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — Argentina's presidency asked Congress Friday to expropriate a controlling stake in the country's only newsprint supplier, saying it's in the public interest for the government to guarantee its production and distribution. Her opponents say it's the beginning of the end for press freedoms in the country.
Since President Cristina Fernandez's ruling front controls congress, approval of the expropriation bill is likely and could come swiftly, giving the government veto power over the newsprint Argentines depend on to get their daily news.
"Today it was definitively confirmed that, despite the slogans, the only interest of the government was to take control of Papel Prensa," Grupo Clarin said Friday. "By approving this law the government will become the referee for what is published in the country, and will be able to use paper as a method of indirect censorship, in the same way it does with official advertising and access to information."
Since the early days of the 1976-1983 dictatorship, Papel Prensa S.A. has been Argentina's main newsprint provider. The country's dominant newspapers, Clarin and La Nacion, together with junta leaders, bought out the company's owners weeks after the military coup. Governments have held a minority stake ever since.
The bill proposed in Congress Friday would enable the government to expropriate an additional 24 percent of the venture from the newspapers, giving it a controlling 51.46 percent stake.
For now, Clarin has 37 percent, La Nacion has 22.49, a group owned by both dailies has 12 percent, and the remaining 1.05 percent is held by other shareholders.
Clarin and La Nacion have been highly critical of the government, and Fernandez has responded in kind, subsidizing their media rivals and pushing the courts to remove injunctions that have stopped an anti-monopoly law from forcing Clarin to sell off much of its broadcast empire.
The move to take over newsprint is another front in a battle to silence Fernandez's critics and limit freedom of expression in Argentina, the Inter-American Press Association said. The press freedom group has called this "strange and senseless," because the country suffers no newsprint shortages or import restrictions.
Ruling party lawmakers led by Deputy Carlos Kunkel were presenting the bill in committee on Friday. Their project declares that Papel Prensa is "a monopoly" and that the government must ensure that it equitably produces and distributes newsprint. If a two-thirds majority of Congress agrees to the expropriation, the government will call a meeting of the company's board to remove current executives and appoint new ones.
Opposition lawmaker Gustavo Ferrari called it unconstitutional. The bill seeks "to cause conflicts, punish freedom of speech and continue to harm the institutional order," he told parlamentario.com.
Associated Press Writer Michael Warren contributed to this story.