‘They slaughtered me, the attack was cruel’
For The Herald
Thirty years ago, Ricardo Lafferriere’s name fell from the centre of the news agenda into obscurity. The former Radical Party (UCR) senator is largely remembered for what led to his own ostracism from the media — a right to reply bill based on the principles laid out by the American Convention on Human Rights, commonly known as Pact of San José, Costa Rica. The bill prompted harsh criticism from the media, particularly from the Clarín Group, the country’s largest media conglomerate. Lafferriere reflected on those moments as he sat down with the Herald, while taking a look at the current political climate, which once again includes political power quarrels by and against the Clarín Group.
What was the right to reply bill about?
My assistant, Dr. Mario Podolsky, suggested that I support a bill focussing on the right to reply, which was not part of Argentine law. The bill established that anyone affected by inaccurate information had the right to speedy proceedings in the Judiciary. He or she could go to a court, the judge would notify the media involved and, in the event the media refused to give the person the right to reply, the court could establish a sentence within 48 hours. But media owners suspected there was left-wing infiltration within the Raúl Alfonsín administration (1983-1989), and believed the bill was a government offensive against the media. They slaughtered me, the attack was rather cruel.
What did they say about you?
They said the bill was a dictatorial advance from the extreme left wing of the administration. I saw the bill as a way to create a space for freedom of speech, which is what democracy must do. But they did not agree. Clarín wanted to buy state-owned TV Channel 13, and so it started to discredit me as a way to get closer to their goal.
Did you have the opportunity to talk face-to-face with media owners?
I did not, and I think that was my biggest mistake. If I had talked to them about the aim of the bill beforehand, and had asked for advice, they would have not interpreted it so badly. Besides, it was not high on the government’s agenda; it was absolutely my idea. The Alfonsín administration’s logic was, “With all the problems we’re facing, should we really be adding one more?”
Do you think the media overreacted?
Without a doubt. They framed it the wrong way and misinformed the public. There were UCR lawmakers who advocated the newspapers’ position to make the most of the moment. Politics took over — there wasn’t much to be done.
What were the consequences?
My name was linked to a supposed attack on free speech. It was a complex situation, where many points of views intertwined. There is this sort of legend that was created about how I disappeared from the newspapers. It may be true, but I also stopped sending articles.Then I disappeared from the media. It was a corporate reaction that included radio stations, newspapers and alternative media. It would be unfair to say I took particular offence. The media also didn’t cover much of my work as a senator but that’s the rules of the game.
Did you notice that your performance as a senator was scrutinized more as a result?
Yes, without a doubt. But that’s a right the media have — they have their own space and they’re the ones who must decide how and with what to fill it. Some journalist asked me at the time: “Why did you get involved in this? The newsrooms are very angry.”
What is your opinion about the discussion surrounding the Media Law?
The government explained the project but did not work to win consensus. People saw it as a war between Clarín and Kirchnerism, a battle between a media conglomerate and the government for power. Each has its own communication army, but the everyday citizen had no space in the debate. Besides, there are other aspects that have done much damage to Argentina.
The biggest damage is that it left the country in a poor situation to face up to international competition. You can’t compete in the big leagues of communication if you don’t have a strong group. The intelligent thing to do for a government that wants to progress is to reach an agreement with the main media group to send TV programmes abroad and spread our culture. And in exchange, you agree to certain rules of domestic behaviour. I don’t think Clarín would have had a problem with that.
Is it possible to create a more plural media model by considering the interest of the largest media conglomerate?
I think so. It is incredibly naïve to think the fight over the media these days is the same as it was in the 1950s.
Do yo think the influence of the traditional media is non-existent? In that case, it is unexplainable why Clarín defended its status.
Media influence does exist, but it’s less obvious than before. It emerged as a result of newspapers, radio and TV stations realizing that they couldn’t dominate any more. Newspaper covers and headlines remain important, but the stability of the government doesn’t depend on them any more. Media are public actors among themselves, but they no longer define the path that society takes.
How do you see the end of this political conflict?
I am a critic of Kirchnerism because of its populism. However, I can’t overlook that the Clarín Group-owned news channel TN has reports that are so grotesque they lose credibility. This makes it impossible to find the right way to arrange things in order to benefit everyday citizens. It’d be important that both Clarín Group and the government stop thinking of themselves as all-powerful. We also need regulation aimed at avoiding information monopolies. Internet broadband is the secret to democratizing society.@mparadalopez