CommentarySaturday, January 4, 2014
Testing time for journalists
From Where I Stand
This is an important moment in Argentina, equivalent to the time when the military dictatorship set out to silence the press. Tragically, and at the cost of thousands of lives, the dictatorship largely succeeded in securing the self-censorship of the media, thus preventing the Argentine people from knowing the truth.
Shameful as it is for me as a journalist to write this, it was not fear that silenced the major media. The reason that the military were able to drench Argentina in blood, secretly burn or bury the victims and strew the seas with corpses was that there was a general agreement to go along with whatever the government willed. Questions were not asked.
The equivalence today is that apart from the opposition press, which likes to call itself the independent press, the media is once again censoring itself. This time, not so very different from the majority view of the press during the dictatorship, the audio-visual media, newspapers and magazines that make up the official press believe they are acting in the national interest by not reporting cases of official corruption. That would be bad enough, but the official press also seeks to discredit journalists who continue to do their job regardless of whether the information will please or displease a government that is out of touch with reality.
It is extremely unfortunate that Argentina does not have an independent news organization like the British Broadcasting Corporation or the US Public Broadcasting System, both of which have earned public credibility by refusing to buckle to the government of the day. But Argentina today, unlike the country I worked in as a journalist for more than 25 years, does have an organization that is making a difference.
I refer to the Argentine Forum of Journalism (FOPEA), a truly independent organization of journalists who do their utmost to be impartial in reporting the news. It was formed 10 years ago to mark the 20th anniversary of the return of democracy and it has traversed a rocky road.
FOPEA is a point of reference when I am trying to get to the truth, which is often hidden behind propaganda or distorted by the polarization of the press into two separate camps.
I turned today to its website http://www.fopea.org/ to see how it would handle the case of TN journalists who were roughed up when they were reporting on the trip to Rio by AFIP (Tax Bureau) Chief Ricardo Echegaray. FOPEA roundly repudiated the aggression and threats to the TN crew.
When I learned about the shameless behaviour of Echegaray, I hoped, for one crazy moment, that he would have the decency to resign his post or that he would be called upon to resign. When I watched him perform at the staged press conference that he held in the AFIP headquarters, I realized that he is beyond redemption. As he sees it, he was the victim. He stole a line from US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas by claiming that he had been subjected to “a media lynching.”
I noted that FOPEA has also drawn attention to an ever graver threat to journalism and the people’s right to be informed. Daniel Santoro, a leading investigative journalist, has information that he is being spied upon by military intelligence.
As charges of corruption swirl around President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner herself, it is important to ensure that journalists do not succumb to self-censorship — and to hope that all journalists will take off their blinders.
I fear that the inexplicable silence of the President may have an explanation. I think that she may have been reading the brilliant and devastating reporting of Hugo Alconada Mon in La Nación, who has described how the Kirchner family fortune grew like a beanstalk in a fairy tale. Even Queen Elizabeth II, who retreats to Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands each summer, is more visible and more in touch than President Fernández de Kirchner. The Queen goes to church each Sunday and mingles with the locals. The only news we have of the president is that she may have been glimpsed at a garden centre.
It is unnerving to re-read what I wrote in 1980 when I was in exile and realize that it is still pertinent today. Obviously, as I noted that at that time, there was a “lack of information and an atmosphere of fear in which nothing can be discussed frankly.” I added, “Without a concerned and committed press, none of the institutions can function properly. The return of rule of law, for example, depends on a press that will insist that justice is seen to be done.”
It is long past time for the press to insist that the judiciary does its job in tandem with journalism.
Starting today former Herald Editor Robert Cox will be writing a column the first Saturday of each month.