Politics and the pressSaturday, April 26, 2014
Pope Francis denied, twice
For The Herald
The Vatican denied Pope Francis this week. It is the second time it does it. Should there be a third, the tale could climax to reach Biblical proportions.
One comes to find out now, seven centuries after Louis XIV, that L’État ce n’est pas moi, not even in the case of the oldest political institution on the planet. The Vatican’s spokesman, Father. Federico Lombardi, issued an unusual statement in Italian, English and Spanish letting the world know that the pope’s “private” conversations do not signal Church policy. Since when does a world leader, let alone a representative of God on Earth, have anything close to a private life?
But the truth is that the Argentine Pope has made it a regular practice to personally pick up the phone and call friends, acquaintances and even strangers back home, in what looks like a carefully crafted strategy to keep abreast with the events in the ever-convoluted Argentina — and keep a local clout.
This time he called a woman who had written to him for guidance, saying her priest had denied her access to the sacraments because her husband's previous marriage had not been annulled. The pope told her she is free to take the communion.
The news about the conversation, which was made public by the couple in question through a Facebook post, triggered speculation that the Pope could be pushing for reform of Catholic rules barring communion for faithful people who remarry after getting divorced. The Vatican's bureaucracy was quick to say no.
"Consequences related to the teaching of the Church are not to be inferred" from the pope's private conversations, read the Vatican statement. "Several telephone calls have taken place in the context of Pope Francis' personal pastoral relationships," Lombardi said.
"Since they do not in any way form part of the pope's public activities, no information or comments are to be expected from the Holy See Press Office." And it goes a little bit further on, "That which has been communicated in relation to this matter, outside the scope of personal relationships, and the consequent media amplification, cannot be confirmed as reliable, and is a source of misunderstanding and confusion."
The tension between institutions and the individuals in them is one of the keys to understand where public opinion will move from here onwards.
The Vatican's press office had already clashed head-on with the pope's global popularity when it lambasted in January a cover story on the pontiff by Rolling Stone magazine. The times, they are a-changing, was the piece's headline. The article vibrantly praised Francis but, by contrast, lashed out at his predecessor, Benedict XVI.
"Unfortunately, the article disqualifies itself, falling into the usual mistake of a superficial journalism, which in order to highlight the positive aspects of Pope Francis, thinks it should describe in a negative way the pontificate of Pope Benedict, and does so with a surprising crudeness," Lombardi said in a January 30 statement. "This is not the way to do a good service even to Pope Francis, who knows very well what the Church owes to his predecessor."
Journalists have traditionally had trouble walking the tightrope of a job inserted in usually large media institutions, be they private or State-run. The novelty of our times is that journalists can now more easily build their own reputation from outside the media outlets and speak to their audiences straight through new media.
For instance in China, where there is little press freedom as defined by the Western democracy dictionaries, journalists are trying to escape the grip of the State-run media via Social Media crowd-funding techniques.
The most notorious case is that of Liu Jianfeng, who quit last year a long career in the traditional media to pursue a solo investigative journalism enterprise. He is barely surviving financially but plowing a path others are trying to follow.
The other side of the journalistic liberty coin is of course financial sustainability. Not all journalists can be as lucky as former Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, who got the founder of eBay Pierre Omidyar to produce a quarter of a billion dollars for a new journalistic venture already underway.
Institutional belonging comes with the perk of stability at a cost of freedom. The key, as it happens, is the balance between the two.
In Argentina over the last few years, many journalists have placed their institutional loyalties above both intellectual honesty and freedom. The result is that citizens live in a state of information insecurity, fuelled by all sides on a daily basis. Lines like the ones included in this year's press freedom report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ring somehow true, "The existence of a context of significant confrontation in which defamatory and stigmatizing remarks are constant generates a climate that prevents reasonable and plural deliberation, especially with regard to public matters."
The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression notes that in 2013, "polarization between the authorities and some media outlets has continued." The pope might have a long list of calls to make in the months to come.