Politics and the PressSaturday, February 22, 2014
The end and the beginning
For The Herald
At first sight, the entire thing popularly known as “media war” that brought the government heads-on with the country’s strongest media organization was useless. When the AFSCA broadcasting authority rubberstamped Grupo Clarín’s proposal to finally abide by the anti-trust rules established by the 2009 Media Act this week, many were left scratching their head and thinking, “Is this it?”
The answer: yes, it is; but no, it is not.
It is both possible and plausible to believe that the impressive government energy placed on taming Grupo Clarín as the conglomerate became persona non grata circa 2008 was a whole waste of time and resources. The Cristina Fernández de Kirchner administration subsumed the entirety of its political drive to the media issue, hoping that targeting the messenger could have an effect on the message (reality, as perceived by Argentines). The “victims” — i.e. Grupo Clarín and other media that describe themselves as “independent” — also reacted irrationally, in the understanding that their survival depended solely on the political death of the Kirchner era.
Touché: the Kirchner era is still going on, the Media Law (almost) fully implemented and Grupo Clarín is still standing — and ready to split in six (both shrink but potentially expand) as a result of abiding by the new legislation.
The words of the main actors in this story do not exactly match reality. AFSCA head Martín Sabbatella boasted this week that Grupo Clarín had “finally surrendered” and that the decision amounted to “the end of hegemonic positions in the media market.” Clarín newspaper’s editor Ricardo Roa wrote, “nothing changes.” A headline in El Cronista Comercial, a business daily critical of the government, went, “The Media Law languishes.” Other government officials or supporters, many of whom have in the past been outspokenly ready to chip in words of war about a fight once described as “the mother of all the battles” for the Kirchner government, did not echo Sabbatella’s euphoria en masse.
But despite the remnants of wartime, the media debate in Argentina is likely to consolidate a tidal shift that is placing formerly authorized voices to question, starting by those of bigwig journalists. Argentines, sceptical by nature, are hardly buying anything they read or listen to on the radio or TV. Looking for the devils of private interests behind every discursive bush is healthy as long as there is any language worth trusting. It is not clear that is the case yet.
The government in particular but the political establishment in general now has an obligation to reinstate certain credibility in the public word. And paradoxically, one way the administration can do that is by doing rather than saying.
The announcement last week of the new cost of living index by Economy Minister Axel Kicillof bringing the inflation numbers closer to something credible looked like a first step. But other recent developments are less encouraging.
Differing opinions within the government on how to characterize Argentina’s relationship with narco-trafficking this week can only startle a public increasingly concerned about an issue that can potentially harm — it is already harming — the country’s way of life. Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich and Security Secretary Sergio Berni contradicted comments made by Defence Minister Agustín Rossi and by Sedronar drug watchdog Juan Carlos Molina that Argentina was already a drug-producing country. At times when a single speech crack is endlessly used by the press against you, the government should keep a strict control of the only variable it can control: its own words.
A government that is not used to having multiple spokespersons — or any spokesperson other than the President — is now shifting to a discursive laissez-faire that tends to highlight contradictions over policy definitions rather than healthy exchanges of opinion. And it also shows that opinion — even at the highest government spheres — is not always backed by information.
The one thing governments here and elsewhere can do to restore public credibility is to open up information for the public (yes, and to journalists too) to reach their own conclusions. A debate in Argentina about the allocation of State advertising was the result of the government opening up the information some years ago. Now voices, from the Supreme Court to opposition leaders, are calling for legislation to introduce some rules into the State advertising matter.
On the contrary, a report this week in the daily La Nación (a conservative broadsheet that renewed its management and newsroom leadership to introduce a new generation) said that the Executive was declining to release information as basic as the salaries of the President(http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1665577-presidencia-se-nego-a-informar-los-sueldos-de-cristina-kirchner-y-sus-ministros) and her ministers. After the report, the government backtracked and published the information. As the government engages in wage talks with the teachers’ union and moves to serve as an arbiter in dozens of sectorial collective wage bargaining engaging workers and their employers, some thought that knowing how much government officials have raised their own paychecks over the last year would be useful information. Only when information is freely available — among other things — the end of the media war would lead to the beginning of something better.