BUENOS AIRES, Argentina
Argentina's government is banning prostitution ads in newspapers and other mass media as of Friday, saying it is combatting violence against women.
The ban decreed by President Cristina Fernandez drew strong praise from women's groups and the U.S. ambassador, who has made reducing sex trafficking a key goal of her tenure in Argentina.
But some of the president's opponents fear it may be used to punish opposition media this election year by removing an independent source of revenue for an industry that in many cases depends on official advertising, a flow of revenue that press freedom groups say has been unequally directed toward the government's supporters.
The decree bans any written messages or images that "promote the exploitation of women," including those that "abuse, defame, discriminate, dishonor, humiliate or threaten the dignity of women." Also outlawed are overtly pornographic messages and images of women, children and girls, which the president said serve to legitimize unequal treatment and violence against women.
Ambassador Vilma Martinez wrote an open letter to Fernandez praising her fight against trafficking in women and girls. "Many countries will appreciate seeing the effects that this decree will bring in the fight against this crime," Martinez said.
"The press has to be conscious of its position as formers of public opinion," said Susana Trimarco, who has campaigned against sex trafficking in Argentina since her daughter was kidnapped in 2002 and apparently disappeared into the sex trade.
"I always thought it strange that the first pages should have stories about the crime of sex trafficking, and those in the end should have advertisements offering sex for money," Trimarco said.
The ban is taking effect even though its sanctions aren't yet specified. Argentina's justice and human rights ministry is tasked with developing regulations to implement the ban. The decree also creates a monitoring office to track advertisements nationwide and warn newspapers to remove offending ads.
Fernandez specifically took aim at the newspaper Clarin, a frequent antagonist. She cited the opposition paper's Area 59 section as particularly unethical. Area 59 has included columns of ads for escorts, "gym teachers" "massage therapists" and "underwear models" offering "pleasures without limits." Until now.
"It's vague, but it's not dangerous," because the language of the decree specifically targets advertising and not the news pages, concluded attorney Gregorio Badeni, who has defended La Nacion and The Associated Press, among many other news organizations, in press freedom cases in Argentina. Badeni also represents the nation's leading journalism trade group.
For now, smaller provincial papers may be most affected, since they often can't afford advertising losses without government help, Badeni said.
In Argentina, most media organizations are aligned either with the Fernandez government or its opposition. Many on both sides have run solicitations for sexual encounters. But Grupo Clarin's conglomerate of newspapers, magazines, broadcast stations, internet providers and web sites may have the most to lose.
Marketing director Emiliano Szlaien of the LectorGlobal media research firm estimated the ban could cost the Grupo Clarin $5 million.
A Clarin spokeswoman, Mariana Perez Florez, challenged that figure Thursday but said the media group would have no comment on the decree.
Badeini also questioned the decree's effectiveness.
"Prostitution has existed since before Sodom and Gomorra," he said. "And if the government wants to solve that, then OK, but this bill doesn't do that."
Many Argentines have predicted that such ads will simply pop up on web sites. If they do, Justice Minister Julio Alak vowed to chase them down. "It began with print media and it will continue with the internet," Alak said.
In the United States, a group of state attorneys general forced the Craigslist site to cancel its adult services section last year. The move prompted many such ads to shift to other web sites. Clarin, for one, has already taken down its online Area 59 section as well.
Associated Press Writer Alexander Wilson contributed to this story.