Just when the world is becoming more complex, more global and more dependent on technology and the quality of life, political leaders are experiencing a serious crisis of confidence that questions their ability both to resolve daily problems and to represent society’s demands adequately.
A report from Transparency International that ranks countries in terms of corruption rated Argentina between 109th and 180th in its index on the issue of distribution of advertising; the Association of Argentine Journalism Organizations (ADEPA) underscored the conflicting relationship with the press and called for the tolerance and the protection of the different media outlets.
The conflict between the government and the agricultural sector, burdened with unremitting tax pressure that exploded with the imposition of taxes on the export of grains, had already begun when the government initiated campaigns to discredit the media, journalists and representatives of other economic and political sectors.
There were very tense moments when the government described any information published in newspapers on broadcast over the air as part of destabilizing or conspiratorial operations.
Things began to change on June 17 when the executive decided to have Congress vote on the controversial Resolution 125 concerning taxes on the rural sector. It was resolved almost a month later, when a tie in the Senate was broken by Vice President Julio Cobos, who voted against the government’s plan.
One day earlier, two simultaneous actions by the government and the agricultural sector had brought the dispute to a head and left the country near the point of no return.
The Senate provided a lesson in public spiritedness that should be considered an injection of representative democracy into a weakened institution. It was a turning point to reconsider a government initiative that had ignored the consensus and lashed out at those who did not share the official opinion, even to the point of treating them as enemies.
Foreign correspondents and the Catholic Church pointed to this lack of dialogue as the main factor in the fragmentation of Argentine society. Editorials in almost all the newspapers in the world agreed that this crisis had plunged the country into an abyss.
This abusive way of imposing the government’s viewpoints caused Ricardo Lorenzetti, chief justice of the Supreme Court, to say that debate is like the lungs of a society, that is, essential for the society to be robust and express its diversity. He criticized rigid thought and warned of the seriousness of a similar situation throughout Latin America.
The government understood the situation the same way. It shook up the leadership and made a marked change of course with the media, as a way to communicate with the people.
Press conferences reappeared after many years. Neither Cristina Fernández de Kirchner nor her predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, had held a press conference. This time the rooms of the presidential residence were thrown open to journalists, and with an open agenda. The president responded to questions from journalists of the most important media outlets in the country and foreign correspondents for more than 2 ½ hours. No follow-up questions were allowed, but the gesture was well received by citizens.
Sergio Massa, the chief of staff for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, praised the role of the media and emphasized that her government will make press freedom a fundamental value. He promised to strengthen dialogue and to work with the press. At a meeting with the Association of Newspaper Institutions the official said the most important thing is to establish sincerity and credibility between the government and the media, even when they are not in agreement.
The conflict had caused verbal violence that constituted an attack not just on the press but also on Argentina’s citizenry. The main targets of this onslaught were Grupo Clarín and the daily La Nación. The conflict with the former was more radical, illustrated by banners displayed at public events and prominently broadcast by the government television. They said “Clarín Lies” or “Todo Negativo (All Negative),” in reference to the news chain Todo Noticias (All News) belonging to Grupo Clarín. The same thing happened with the magazine Noticias and the Prisa group of Spain. There were also verbal attacks by leaders such as the polemical Luis D’Elia and intimidating comments by former president Kirchner.
The Catholic Church and Eduardo Mondino, the national ombudsman, emphasized the lack of democracy and pluralism.
In April, the Association of Judges and Justice Officials declared that judges--that is themselves--are not inclined to investigate the political power structure. Judge Redondo went even further: He said that only superhero judges or those with extraordinary courage would take on the challenge of investigating an official. He added that the government alone is responsible for this situation.
Another important issue in the relationship between the government and the media is the placement of official advertising. Taking into account only the national government’s budget and without considering those of other decentralized public agencies and the provinces, advertising expenditures were 55 percent higher than in the previous year. At a seminar recently at the Chamber of Deputies, the government’s lack of interest in dealing with the regulation of distribution of advertising expenditures was criticized. Laura Alonso of the Fundación Poder Ciudadano (Citizenship Power Foundation) analyzed the official support given to businessman Rudy Ulloa, the former driver of Néstor Kirchner and one of the most important media investors. Eleonor Rabinovich of the Civil Rights Association made the same criticism. Opposition legislators mentioned that in the last four years government advertising grew from 46 million to 322 million pesos. It was also mentioned that the broadcasting law cannot be revised unless it provides for freedom of information, decriminalization of insult (injuria) and libel (calumnia) and establishment of a legal framework to set guidelines to prevent official discretion in the distribution of advertising.
The government announced that it is studying changes to the broadcasting law. This is undeniably necessary to update the legal framework for operation of public frequencies by private stations. The current law dates back to the military dictatorship.
Lingering suspicions from the conflict between the government and the media make this a sensitive moment to undertake such an important debate on setting new guidelines for radio and television. An example of the tense relationship with the media was the adoption by the Federal Radio Broadcasting Committee of a controversial resolution against Continental radio of Grupo Prisa of Spain, barring it from retransmitting its AM programming on FM.
The government proposed establishing a “Media Observer” to oversee the work of publications and broadcast companies. The entity, which would be based on a public structure headed by the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), would have a chilling effect on the publication of news that does not conform with the government’s vision. Finally, the proposal was shelved after a tough public debate led by the media.
A salutary decision by the Supreme Court has upheld the doctrine of actual malice at the highest level of the judicial system. This holds that any person who states an opinion or information that later turns out to be incorrect cannot be punished unless it was done with malicious intent. Since this was upheld by the nation’s highest court in the case Patitó vs. Diario La Nación, it is case law that must be followed by all the country’s judges.
The following other events occurred:
The constituent assembly to amend the constitution of Entre Ríos province approved the right of reply with the following text: “Any person whose good name or reputation is damaged by malicious, incorrect or offensive information that would be harmful to him by any type of communications medium, has the right to obtain a correction or response in the same medium. Simple criticism is not subject to the right of reply. The law will regulate the exercise of this right.”
The climate of intolerance aggravated the attack May 20 on photographer León Szajman of Caras magazine that destroyed his equipment.
In Lobos, Buenos Aires province, the city hall’s conflict with the daily La Palabra, was aggravated because it did not accept the paper’s editorial position. The newspaper was punished economically, because it has not received government advertising for more than a year. The municipal government also initiated a criminal case against the paper for published statements by third parties.
Also in Buenos Aires, Florencio Varela’s newspaper Mi Ciudad, sued the city for refusing to provide public information.
Another case involved the sports supplement of the daily La Voz de Colón in Buenos Aires. A team’s executives blocked journalists’ work in locker rooms and the playing field and encouraged sympathizers to verbally attack them.
In Neuquén, the federal criminal oral court limited coverage of hearings for people involved in crimes against humanity. Leonardo Patricio and Cecilia Maletti, photographers for the daily Río Negro, received telephone threats because of photographs they took at the public trial.
In San Lorenzo, Santa Fe province, César Ríos, the editor of the weekly Síntesis, is confronting serious obstacles, because of political maneuvers intended to threaten and discredit him.
In August in the city of Azul, Buenos Aires, members of leftist groups harassed Mariano Grondona as he left a lecture.