May 18, 2013
Warning signal from Venezuela
Secret police target Lanata
The harassment in Venezuela of Jorge Lanata, the journalist who has become an unofficial leader of the political opposition to the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is more significant than it might seem at first sight.
Lanata, who was travelling with a camera crew to cover the presidential elections for the Clarín Group, was detained for questioning by state intelligence agents both going into and out of Caracas. The procedures used to harass him and his colleagues are familiar, reminding me of the time when I travelled to Cuba to represent a human rights non-governmental organization at a United Nations conference in Havana.
Upon arrival, I had my first encounter with the men from the Minint, the somewhat sinister name given to the Ministry of Interior. They wanted to send me back to Miami. But as a condition for holding the conference in Havana, which gave Castro-Communist Cuba a token of international prestige, the United Nations secured a guarantee that everyone from organizations affiliated with the UN must be allowed into Cuba to attend the conference. A journalist who travelled on the same plane was sent back because his US passport revealed that he had been born in Cuba.
Once in Cuba, I was followed and harassed in ways both picaresque and menacing. A colleague from the human rights organization got the jitters and left early.
When I finally left Havana my bags were searched and my notes and documents reporting the human rights situation were seized at the José Martí international airport.
It was routine police state procedure and it was exactly what Lanata and the other Grupo Clarín journalists were subjected to at the Simón Bolívar airport in Caracas. (How galling it is that two countries that restrict freedom of expression have airports named after genuine advocates for freedom.) Lanata, José Gil Vidal and Nicolás Wiñazki, of Clarín, and Gabriel Conte, editor of MDZOL, a digital newspaper in Mendoza, were given special attention by secret police who erased their reportage from their electronic equipment, alleging espionage, a charge that was not followed up.
The significance of this quasi-totalitarian attempt to restrict freedom of information by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service is that it is an indication of what could happen in Argentina if President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner should decide to imitate her friend President Hugo Chávez by trying to silence dissident voices and establish state control of the media.
It was clear from the start that the late president Néstor Kirchner and his widow viewed a free press as an enemy. Both the Kirchners set out to continue on the national stage the same policies restricting freedom of information that were imposed in their native province of Santa Cruz, which Néstor Kirchner dominated for almost two decades.
In my view, this caudillo-like attitude has kept the Kirchner administrations in the dark. Without a free flow of information from varied media outlets, any government is bound to lose touch with reality.
Freedom of information is not the same as freedom of expression. In Argentina today there is no limit on the latter, but there is a severe lack of public information. Instead of interplay between the government and the press, which requires not only frequent news conferences called by the President and her ministers, but also access to them by individual reporters, Cristina, like her husband, speaks over the heads of journalists. Instead of allowing the press to be a bridge to the people, the Kircher style of government bypasses the media. Without an established right to know, similar to that secured by the US Freedom of Information Act, the press and the people are locked out. Another consequence of the Kirchner “dog in a manger” attitude is a deepening estrangement from mainstream international thought. That is partially explained by the refusal of the President to give interviews to foreign correspondents. Their requests are not even acknowledged.
President Fernández de Kirchner pays lip service to freedom of expression but does not “walk the walk” by encouraging an exchange of views. The result has been a polemical cacophony of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Because of the lack of leadership and no identified common cause that brings politicians together, the place that, in a democracy, is occupied by the political opposition has been filled by journalists.
The opposition press, which prefers to call itself the independent press, has become like a political alliance, a coalition that has formed around key issues that the traditional parties have so far failed to communicate effectively to the public. These issues are, in no particular order but in line with my own preference: the defence of democracy; indignation over corruption; and concern about personal safety.
The star role has been filled by Jorge Lanata, who, in response to the government’s programme 6,7,8, came up with Periodismo para todos (“Journalism for everyone” which is also a jibe at the government’s Fútbol para todos, which provides free coverage of Argentine Soccer League matches.) Lanata has assumed the leading role in opposing the government with his popular Sunday night programme. It is a mixture of stand-up comedy, which Lanata does fairly well, exposure of corruption, which he does brilliantly, and saucy satire at the expense of official idiocy.
The satire is delivered by Fátima Florez, who does a devastating impersonation of Cristina Fernández http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=IE-OCDexYrU&feature=endscreen and Martin Bilyk, who is hilarious as former Cabinet chief Aníbal Fernández and as Hugo Chávez. Florez reminded me of Tina Fey’s exquisite send-up of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live.
I have followed Lanata’s career from afar since 1983 when he was the founder with Gabriel Levinas of the magazine El Porteño, which was the first serious journalistic challenge to the military dictatorship.
Returning for four months every year since 2010, I was here when he announced on the eve of his 50th birthday that he had decided that he would celebrate his half century by speaking out, never holding anything back.
He has been able to keep that promise with even greater effectiveness by joining the Clarín Group, which has provided the resources that have allowed him to reach a larger audience.
He has been critical of Grupo Clarín which, while far from being a monopoly, became the biggest media organization in Argentina by buying up newspapers and buying out radio and television stations. However, in a country where the state owns radio and television networks, no rival can ever achieve a monopoly. Additionally, the Kirchner administration has built up a network of private media that support the government.
Ten years ago, the expansion of Grupo Clarín was a problem because independent media were being squeezed out. Today the problem is the expansion of media that is either state-controlled or aligned totally with the government.
The fact that Jorge Lanata was targeted in Venezuela and that the Argentine ambassador sided with the secret police should serve as a warning that totalitarianism is a temptation that authoritarian governments and their officials find hard to resist.
That is why it is important to defend both media and journalists that oppose the imposition of a quasi-totalitarian state like Venezuela or a totally totalitarian state like Cuba, both of which would probably get an “I like” on their Facebook pages from many in the Kirchner administration.