May 19, 2013
No democracy without free press
In making that generalization I am fairly sure that I can defend it in the particular. But let’s get to specifics.
Does Argentina have a free and independent media? The question has troubled me since March 2005 when I joined a mission to Argentina of the Inter-American Press Association, more familiarly and often disparagingly known as “la SIP.” The mission was arranged in response to the concern expressed by Argentine member newspapers of IAPA that the government of the late Néstor Kirchner, which was then 22 months old, was repressing the press.
I found that there was no lack of freedom of expression. Journalists and ordinary people were saying and writing things that would have landed them in jail under many of the governments I lived with and would have probably got them killed during the last military dictatorship. But there was a whiff of menace in the air. Once again, journalists were receiving death threats although the situation was nowhere near as bad as it was under president Carlos Menem, when some journalists were in mortal danger. But more than a decade later, leading journalists who were critical of the government were again subject to intimidation and several had their contracts terminated for not toeing the government line.
For me, because my years as the editor of the Herald were largely under military governments, the political diversity and freedom to speak out was exhilarating. But shadows from the past in the form of government intolerance of dissenting voices in the media remained. The official IAPA report reflected disappointment and concern that the Kirchner government was intent on controlling the media.
The chairman of the freedom of the press committee, Gonzalo Marroquín of Guatemala, detected “attitudes like those of Castro in Cuba and Chávez in Venezuela.” The leader of the mission, the president of IAPA Alejo Miró Quesada of Peru, said that “the authorities are very arrogant toward the press.”
Raúl Kraiselburd, the editor of El Día of La Plata, who was not a member of the mission (IAPA rules require that missions do not include journalists from the country under investigation) complained that to “compare Kirchner to Castro and Chávez”‘ was a gross exaggeration, “a caricature; and all Argentine colleagues share the same opinion.” I thought the same. Having spent some time in both Cuba and Venezuela it was clear to me that the situation in Argentina was very different.
You had to be paranoid to see the Kirchner administration following in the footsteps of Castro or Chávez. I agreed with Kraiselburd that the semi-leftwing government that came to power almost accidentally with only 22.2 percent of the votes in 2003 was unlikely to veer to the extreme left.
My work with IAPA has led me to the conclusion that the organization has more influence with rightwing governments in protecting freedom of the press than governments with leftwing tendencies. The best way to persuade a leftwing government to accept dissent and respect democracy is to make an effort to understand why the mainstream media in most countries in Latin America in seen as an enemy in the leftwing lexicon.
In the case of Argentina IAPA merely needs to re-read the report of a mission by Edward Seaton of the Manhattan Mercury of Kansas and Ignacio Lozano of La Opinión of Los Angeles. Their report on the state of the press under the dictatorship, reveals the failure of the mainstream media to report the disappearances in what was essentially a cover-up of the “Final Disposition” which, thanks to the confession of former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, we know was the Argentine military version of the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” There were honourable exceptions, apart from the Herald, such as El Día of La Plata, owned by the Fascetto and Kraiselburd families, the Rajneri family’s Río Negro, Father Fred Richards of the The Southern Cross, Herman Schiller’s Nueva Presencia, as well as Héctor García’s Crónica and Radio Colonia.
Horacio Verbitsky, who tells some of the truth some of the time, told the story of that epic IAPA mission in Página/12 on June 7, 1998.
Unfortunately, Verbitsky cites the IAPA only when it suits his agenda, in this case the Kirchner government’s campaign to discredit the mainstream media.
The dirty little secrets that are entwined in the media scene in Argentina need to be aired and resolved. That, I think should be a priority.
My colleagues now find themselves divided by ideology. Lies have become a common currency in the battle between the media establishment and official or officially-sponsored and funded media. The virulence of the insults flying to and fro has driven civility out of newsrooms and broadcasting studios. I hope that it is a passing phase but I fear that it may herald a breakdown of governability because people will not know who or what to believe any more.
Ideological certainty can lead to moral blindness. That, I think, must be the explanation for the astonishing fact that a major newspaper, Página/12, which, by the way, was one of my favourite newspapers, has taken a leaf out of the book of Stalin by eliminating any mention of Jorge Lanata, who founded Página/12 and was its chief editor for a decade.
I was not surprised that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner did not mention him in the speech she gave to mark the newspaper’s 25th anniversary. Lanata has become the foremost voice of dissent in these turbulent times. However, I was astonished to discover that he has been made a nonperson. A search on the Página/12 website come up blank. La Nación put me on a similar blackout list for a few years, but eventually desisted.
The staff of Página/12 should insist that Jorge Lanata, who is already in the pantheon of great journalists, is returned to digital life.
Página/12 will wear a badge of shame until an apology is offered along with the restoration of the newspaper’s founder to its website.