BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) -- Argentina's government on Saturday gave one of its leading media critics, Grupo Clarin, a deadline to sell off most of its broadcast stations, saying Dec. 7 will mark the day when media monopolies will no longer be able to put themselves above the law.
Clarin, which owns 240 cable systems, 10 radio stations and four TV channels in addition to its flagship daily newspaper, has challenged the 2009 media law's anti-monopoly clauses limiting the number of stations any one company can own as unconstitutional.
Clarin, a bitter opponent of President Cristina Fernandez, says many legal scholars support its position that even if its injunction expires on Dec. 7, it should have another year to pursue its challenge of the law before being forced to divest.
In a lengthy TV spot that began airing during Saturday's much-watched football games, the government called the deadline date "7D" and said it would bring "diversity and democracy" to Argentina's media.
It announced that it will immediately put Grupo Clarin's cable TV stations up for public auction on that date if Clarin hasn't already complied with the law. The spot said jobs would be preserved and that transferring the licenses to new owners would foster more points of view.
Anticipating fresh waves of accusations that it is trying to silence dissent, the spot said: "The Argentine state will not expropriate the news media; the Argentine state will not nationalize the news media. The Argentine state will guarantee their jobs and compliance with a law that democratizes the news media in the Argentine republic."
Clarin immediately countered with its own TV spot, accusing the government of attempting an illegal maneuver and citing the same media law as giving companies a year to sell off properties in an orderly fashion.
"What's this 'official story' trying to accomplish? To lay the groundwork for something else? To bring an end to the rule of law in Argentina?" the spot concluded.
A reaction story in Clarin's online edition suggested the announcement is payback for the media group's comprehensive coverage last week of the largest anti-government protests Argentina has seen in years.
"The government announced this nine days after Grupo Clarin's media outlets were nearly the only ones who covered the massive mobilizations and 'cacerolazos' against the government, while media that depend directly or indirectly on the government decided to ignore or minimize these protests, in coordination with the line that came down from the Casa Rosada," Clarin said on its newspaper site.
Condemnation came quickly from Julio Munoz, the executive director of the Inter American Press Association, who said his organization is following the situation closely and will fully discuss it next month at their annual meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
"This is an attack on the basic principles of freedom and democracy," Munoz said. "This is the same path that (Hugo) Chavez took in Venezuela, closing down the media that is critical of the government."
Fernandez has used nearly every tool of government power at her disposal to attack Clarin, which devotes much of every newspaper and news program to criticism of nearly everything she does. The paper's publisher, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, faced illegal adoption accusations for years until DNA tests finally showed no link to a database of victims of the 1970s military junta.
Executives of Grupo Clarin and another leading critic, La Nacion, still face a potential human rights trial for allegedly conspiring with the dictators to take over Argentina's only newsprint provider in 1976 from a family whose members were jailed and tortured by the junta. Both papers meanwhile have gone to court to block other attempts by this government to control the newsprint supply.