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Originally published Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 11:21 AM

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Argentine leader criticizes media monopoly ruling

Thousands marched in cities across Argentina Thursday to protest the government of President Cristina Fernandez, carrying signs saying "enough impunity" and demanding "independent justice."

Associated Press

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina —

Thousands marched in cities across Argentina Thursday to protest the government of President Cristina Fernandez, carrying signs saying "enough impunity" and demanding "independent justice."

As with previous protests in September and November, many learned of the demonstrations on social networks, and banged pots and pans as they converged on city enters. In Argentina's capital, the iconic obelisk and the Plaza de Mayo were crowded with people chanting "enough" after 10 years of rule by Fernandez and her late husband, President Nestor Kirchner.

But this time, opposition party leaders also joined in, turning what had been a non-partisan movement into something organized with an eye toward October's congressional elections, which could determine whether she has the votes to change the constitution and do away with term limits, extending her power indefinitely. "I came to see if the Kirchners will leave and we can make a serious country. That they leave and that peace returns so that we can be a united country once again," said Lorenzo Velazquez, a 51-year-old food worker. He carried a sign saying "2015 Sin Cristina," referring to the year when her current term will end.

Some of Argentina's television channels showed the march on a split screen, while also tracking a senate vote to approve new limits on court injunctions, a key part of a judiciary reform package the president's allies are rushing through Congress.

Opponents say the legislation is a power grab designed to neutralize any challengers, pack the courts with her supporters and control all three branches of government, thus derailing any corruption investigations.

"Without equal justice for all, there's no Republic nor democracy. Only an active citizenry can defend them," said congressman Ricardo Alfonsin of the Radical Civic Union, who trailed Fernandez in the last presidential race. Before she left the country to fly to Peru and then Caracas in support of Venezuela's newly elected president, Fernandez lashed out at the judges who struck down the heart of another law that she tried to use to reduce the influence of her leading media opponent, Grupo Clarin. Now Fernandez is aiming for a Supreme Court showdown with the media conglomerate.

Fernandez, who was re-elected by a wide margin, said she's "never seen anything" like Wednesday night's federal court ruling, which she said was clear evidence that the judicial system must be brought under the control of the democratic process.

The judges upheld Argentina's 2009 media reform law, but declared unconstitutional the key provisions that apply to Grupo Clarin, one of Latin America's most powerful media conglomerates. The judges said limits on how many broadcast stations and cable networks a company can own are unconstitutional violations of private property rights.

Her point-man on enforcing the media law, Martin Sabbatella, urged the Supreme Court to settle the case quickly.

"The ruling destroys the limits, denies the virtue of the anti-monopoly spirit of the law and constructs another law that defends the corporate interests over the collective rights," he complained at a news conference. "We ask that it be resolved quickly, with speed, because it deals with a serious institutional problem since this law was approved by Congress more than three years ago and still can't be applied in full."

Clarin cheered the ruling, saying on its website that a ruling upholding the law in its entirety would have forced the company to choose between its popular Channel 13 or its Cablevision network in Buenos Aires as well as sell off its cable systems in many other cities and abandon its Internet services.

Fernandez's allies, who control Congress, meanwhile rushed to approve the judicial changes by next week.

The proposed changes would make judges with lifetime appointments more vulnerable to removal by expanding and directly electing the board of officials that appoints and disciplines judges. They aim to reduce nepotism by filling judicial posts through open competitions. After hours of debate Thursday night, the Senate also approved a six-month limit on court injunctions, and decided that a government appeal would suspend injunctions immediately.

This last point raised objections even among some of Fernandez's closest supporters, who argued for exceptions for when poor and defenseless people challenge the government in court. But the president complained that injunctions have become a tool of Argentina's powerful to prevent democratically approved measures from taking effect - just as Clarin has done with the media law.

"I have to say it: Here in the judiciary there's a kind of ghetto that remains stuck in time," Fernandez said. "There are judges who were never removed and go on showing their aristocratic past."

But thousands of people marching Thursday night seemed far more concerned about how she wields her presidential power.

"I'm against this judicial reform. The executive branch is inserting itself into the legislative and judicial. There aren't any real debates that permit laws to be modified, and everything is resolved with a yes or no," complained Hernan Fernandez, 38. He carried a sign saying "Mrs. President, in the name of democracy, don't kill the republic."

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Associated Press writers Michael Warren, Almudena Calatrava and Debora Rey contributed to this report.

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