Argentinian president fires defiant media regulator

Police removes head of Argentinian media regulation agency from premises because he resists president’s decree to fire him

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

The director of Argentina's Federal Authority for Audiovisual Communication Services Martin Sabbatella (C) speaks with the media outside AFSCA building, in Buenos Aires, on December 24, 2015

An Argentine judge on Thursday ordered police to raid the national broadcast media regulator and evict its sacked director after he defied conservative President Mauricio Macri's decision to replace him.

Macri issued a decree Wednesday sacking Martin Sabbatella, a top ally of his leftist predecessor Cristina Kirchner, as director of the Federal Authority for Audiovisual Communication Services (AFSCA).

But Sabbatella showed up for work anyway, insisting he could not be removed before the end of his term in 2017 under a controversial Kirchner-era media law.

"If this government doesn't like the law, it has to go to Congress and change it or repeal it. It can't do it by decree. The law must be obeyed," Sabbatella, who has filed a court challenge against his ouster, told journalists outside AFSCA's offices.

Federal prosecutor Carlos Stornelli charged Sabbatella with "usurping authority" and "disobedience," and asked a judge to authorise a raid of AFSCA headquarters.

Judge Julian Ercolini granted the request, ordering authorities to search the building for any "unauthorised persons" and remove them by force if they refused to leave on their own.

The row is the latest twist in a long-running controversy over the 2009 media law passed under Kirchner.

The law aimed to break up what Kirchner described as media monopolies and established AFSCA to grant and regulate broadcast licenses.

But Argentina's largest media group, Clarin, condemns it as an attack on the free press and private property -- a viewpoint Macri's party shares.

Clarin, whose newspapers and cable channels are sharply critical of Kirchner, has challenged the law in court. It has so far successfully resisted having its media empire dismantled.

Macri has named conservative lawyer Agustin Garzon as the new head of the AFSCA.

His cabinet chief, Marcos Pena, defended the presidential decree as "absolutely legitimate."

"The president made a decision... and Sabbatella has to go," he told a news conference.

Macri, who vows to get Argentina's slumping economy back on track with business-friendly government, has steadily hacked away at Kirchner's legacy since taking office on December 10.

In his first week, he scrapped the official exchange rate, prompting a sharp devaluation of the peso, as well as axing heavy export taxes.