December 18, 2014
New Year resolutions
For The Herald
Cameron, Echegaray, Capitanich
If a couple of images count for more than thousands of words, then the government started the year with the wrong foot. A blurry image of Energy Secretary Daniel Cameron chasing a golf ball amid massive blackouts in Buenos Aires, plus footage of AFIP tax bureau chief Ricardo Echegaray clad in Bermuda shorts staying in a luxurious hotel in Rio de Janeiro — let alone the reported violence exerted by people travelling with him on a television crew — are evidence that the government is only in control when it takes the initiative rather than when it sits still, on the defensive.
One of Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich's main jobs since landing on the Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration just over a month ago has been precisely that: to occupy the public space — both in the fields of politics and media. He has done it fairly well (yet not without a few stumbles), considering it has been a particularly difficult last month of the year for the government. So much so that many news junkies and journalists alike missed his morning press conference on Thursday and were pleased to see him back in action yesterday. The media machine needs a constant flow of news fodder.
But Capitanich is a front man rather than a leader. The Cameron and Echegaray incidents speak of certain day-to-day leadership vacuum, which hits the Fernández de Kirchner government every time the president is (voluntarily) out of the picture. Self-seclusion has been the exception rather than norm for the president since the death of her husband in October 2010, but it will arguably become more regular now that the head of State has turned into a lame duck. The head surgery she underwent in October — her second serious health incident in as many years — seems to have only helped to accelerate the process. The PR recklessness by the Cameron-Echegaray pair hints at a lack of political alignment in some government ranks which will become increasingly evident as the fate of the administration begins to rely more heavily on the hands of the recent promotions: Capitanich and Economy Minister Axel Kicillof.
Some polls are indicating the hectic December including police protests, scattered looting, the hottest days in decades, blackouts and rising inflation have harmed the public reputation of the president and her government, which would be no surprise. The real question, however, is what the government is planning — if anything — to do about it. The government made a swift attempt to regain some control of the agenda via a battery of announcements and press rounds yesterday, including a bulk of "204 objectives and 272 targets" for the government in 2014 (the semantic different between "objectives" and "targets" will be hard to explain to the average citizen, but it nonetheless introduces some planning glamour in a government more used to living on policy impulses instead). Yet it remains to be seen whether Capitanich will be shooting targets or chasing rainbows as he pursues as list that requires the cooperation of the entire Cabinet to materialize. Quick to differentiate himself from Echegaray's clash with the TV bunch in Rio, Capitanich nicely over-emphasized the importantce of journalists in keeping an eye on the government's promises. "I want to thank the media and journalists… who will help us to control the delivery of these targets." And he gently declined to take questions on the issue yesterday, saying it would be the AFIP boss himself the one who would talk about it.
Hopefully the main players involved in the four-year legal battle settled by the Supreme Court in October over the constitutionality of the 2009 Media Act made some good New Year resolutions as 2013 drew to a close.
Grupo Clarín's institutional line, as presented by its weekly newsletter, is that the government threatens press freedom. And yet Clarín is slowly appearing to comply with the Media Act and now waits for the AFSCA federal broadcasting authority to give the thumbs up to its proposal to split the conglomerate in six different business units. Grupo Clarín arguably still hopes that feet-dragging over enforcement technicalities could make it survive as it is through the rest of the Kirchner era, and dreams that a more moderate new government in 2015 will gently send the most controversial aspects of the Media Act down memory lane.
The government's erratic communication and information strategy, meanwhile, could also do with some resolutions for 2014. In the much-celebrated ruling that declared the Media Act legal, the Supreme Court said the government now needed to get its act together in other policy areas, namely the distribution of State advertising, the rules for accessing public information and the management of State-run media. It is not clear the administration is willing to take any major steps in that direction — except for odd-man out Capitanich and his morning press conferences. The ruling party continues to fail in finding a right post-media war tone for its media products, be it owned by the State or by government supporters. Radio 10 and cable news channel C5N, where journalists with critical views were showed the door this week, are just the latest examples of that.