December 12, 2013
POLITICS AND THE PRESSSaturday, October 12, 2013
Informational Intensive Care
The way the news about President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s health situation reached the public was a sad but self-explanatory show of the state of Argentina’s public information system. And it was an irony it happened on the week of the fourth anniversary of the approval by Congress of a Media Law that promised to make Argentina’s communication more pluralistic and better informed.
Don’t blame it on the law just yet. News-consuming Argentines are stuck between a government that is reluctant to deliver transparent and timely information and a private media system (including media both critical and supportive of the administration) too blinded by their own politicking to concentrate instead on servicing the public’s information needs. The result: a government who believes any information it reveals could be used against it and a private media system that uses the information vacuum generated by the government with a certain dose of irresponsibility.
This means Argentines live in a permanent state of information insecurity. The Media Act of 2009 did not regulate content but the entire market revamp it proposed would indirectly — and ideally — generate enough competitive incentives for the offer of information to become more varied and rational. It did not happen. Why?
The president’s health saga this week serves as a good example. The government delivered information at a painstakingly slow pace — often incurring contradictions. The public received news that went from Cristina Fernández undergoing a routine medical checkup on a Saturday afternoon to the first official version that she had been told by doctors to rest for a month to eventually the news that she would be undergoing surgery on Tuesday. Medical events change as the state of health — even for heads of State — develops into different scenarios, but it was more worrying to see the government virtually brought to a halt, both politically and communication wise, in the days before the President went to surgery.
It is no news that Argentina’s political system heavily relies on the presidential figure at the top. That is even more the case when the person in charge carries the government’s entire communication strategy on her shoulders. In the last leg of a series of two odd television interviews the president gave before falling ill, she said that she did not hold massive Cabinet meetings like other presidents had in the past because they were only good to get information about government activities leaked to the media. “It was all about internal government gossiping, and speculation about the Cabinet meetings ended up being more important than government action,” said the president.
What the president did not say is what is her alternative to the Cabinet meeting was in terms of the government’s internal communication. This week it seemed fairly clear that her government struggles to strike a single tune without her around. Her usual speeches — and most recently her periodical Twitter feeds — serve to keep the public informed about her views but also (and maybe more importantly) to set the line of her administration and even settle internal rifts within her Cabinet. The president runs her team through verbal carrots and sticks, which are often invisible to the outside eye but play out well within the Palace walls.
When those ordinal words are not around, the Cabinet and the Kirchner following overall seems at a loss. The perfect example was Amado Boudou saying in his first speech as acting president that Fernández de Kirchner was taking “a well-deserved break” right at the time it was being reported she would go back to hospital and undergo surgery the next morning. One ruling party leader in the province of Buenos Aires, Fernando “Chino” Navarro, said it openly by midweek, ‘The concern about protecting the President left some of the government first line without information.”
That said, the government seemed to get a decent act together once the head surgery was over and the president started to recover. The daily medical reports issued by the doctors were appropriate even if their delivery by spokesman Alfredo Scoccimarro failed to add much value — apart from the key fact that the president was having steamed vegetables and baked apple for lunch or watching movies with her sister in the evenings.
The Media Act turns four without having delivered any concrete result capable of changing the masses’ perception about public communication in Argentina. All the actors involved carry some of the blame. The big private media stuck to their privileges, the courts dragged their feet (a Supreme court ruling should be imminent by now) and the government failed to rally credibility that its commitment to the law was fully noble.
In its (sensible) struggle to trim down big media clout in Argentina, the government arguably picked a wrong strategy. What would have happened if, instead of creating its own biased and one-dimensional communications army, the government had offered the public an informational golden standard via government communication and State media? The question is too counter-factual for a good hypothetical answer: maybe it is also too late to have a second chance.