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Court to decide battle of airwaves in Mexico

Times Staff Writers

Mexico’s legislature caved. So did its president. Now, the nation is tuning in to see whether Grupo Televisa and TV Azteca can get their way with the Supreme Court.

In what’s being billed as one of the most important legal decisions in recent years, the high court next week will begin reviewing the constitutionality of a controversial broadcasting law pushed through Congress by the TV giants last year.

The legislation, which grants additional broadcasting spectrum to the two companies that already dominate the airwaves here, sparked protests and allegations of backroom dealing. Critics say what started out as an effort to overhaul Mexico’s media laws and spur transparency and competition has only strengthened the media behemoths and made it tougher for prospective players such as NBC Universal to crack the market.

The court agreed to examine the legislation after dissenting lawmakers challenged its constitutionality. Court watchers say the outcome will show whether any Mexican institution can rein in the oligarchies that control key sectors of the economy and hold sway in government.

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“This is really about who governs Mexico,” said Denise Dresser, a columnist for the newspaper Reforma. “Is it the government, through effective regulation in the name of the public interest? Or is it the vested interests ... the de facto powers that have become more powerful than the government itself?”

Televisa and TV Azteca declined to comment. The companies in the past have defended the legislation as a much-needed modernization of Mexico’s media laws that will promote competition, innovation and transparency.

Dubbed the “Televisa Law,” the measure grants new digital channels to existing TV station owners, who don’t have to compete for them or pay for the privilege. Opponents say that’s a massive giveaway of public spectrum that will cost the Mexican treasury billions and block new players from the market.

The law also grants Televisa and TV Azteca 20-year concessions with renewal virtually guaranteed. The pair control about 95% of Mexico’s TV stations, snare most of the advertising money and determine how millions of Mexicans are entertained and informed. In a nation where the vast majority of people get their news from network TV, the broadcasters have extraordinary power to shape public opinion.

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Televisa is particularly influential. It controls two-thirds of the nation’s television stations, Mexico’s largest cable provider and its only satellite TV service.

Televisa’s board includes five of the country’s 10 billionaires on Forbes magazine’s 2007 list of the world’s richest people, among them Emilio Azcarraga Jean, Televisa’s chief executive, whose fortune is estimated at $2.1 billion. Televisa used its prime-time news program to stump for the law last year.

The court will begin next week, but already there is plenty of activity behind the scenes. Lobbyists for the broadcasters and those opposing the law have been visiting the judges privately in their offices to proffer their views, a practice permitted here.

Some of the proceedings will be broadcast on cable. For the first time ever, the justices will call their own expert witnesses to clarify technical details about the broadcasting industry.

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“It could be a way of protecting themselves from the pressures that we know have been coming at them hard,” said Alberto Aziz Nassif, a political researcher at the Center for Research and Higher Education in Social Anthropology in Mexico City.

Mexico’s top antitrust official has spoken out against the law. So have media experts, academics, free-speech advocates, former regulators, citizens groups, unions and U.N. officials. Supreme Court justice Sergio Aguirre Anguino has already circulated a lengthy opinion stating his view that parts of the law are unconstitutional because they give preferential treatment to existing players and create barriers for new competitors.

Still, overturning it might be difficult. Mexico’s legal system requires a supermajority of justices -- eight of 10 in this case -- to strike down key parts of the law on constitutional grounds.

Alejandro Madrazo Lajous, who represents the lawmakers challenging the law, said Aguirre Anguino’s draft opinion didn’t necessarily mean the justices were leaning toward overturning it. “It’s always a mystery,” Madrazo said.

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Mexico’s legislature approved the legislation in March 2006 in the thick of a tight presidential race. Relatively few people read newspapers or use the Internet in Mexico, making television a crucial medium for reaching potential voters. Legislators have acknowledged pressure from within their own parties to approve the measure out of fear that their candidates would be shut out from TV coverage.

The broadcasters “decide who won’t appear on the screen anymore,” said Manuel Bartlett, a former senator with the Institutional Revolutionary Party who voted against the law. “That’s a brutal aggression.”

Swift passage sparked street protests. An angry mob pummeled a lawmaker who was instrumental in shepherding it through. Then-President Vicente Fox refused to veto the law. Current President Felipe Calderon has remained silent.

Meanwhile, the broadcasters continue to flex their muscle. A public official with presidential aspirations has awarded Televisa gambling concessions that have allowed it to open slot machine parlors throughout the country.

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And TV Azteca and Televisa last year aired news features critical of a company owned by Isaac Saba. He’s a wealthy Mexican entrepreneur who was seeking permission to start a third television network in partnership with U.S. Spanish-language broadcaster Telemundo, which is owned by NBC Universal.

marla.dickerson@latimes.com

carlos.martinez@latimes.com


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