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August 20, 2014
Saturday, June 7, 2014

Happy navel-gazing day

By Marcelo J. García
For The Herald

Journalists’ Day today arrives this year at a time of lights and shadows for the profession. At stake is the news you get to inform your opinion and, ultimately, your vote.

President Cristina Fernández said on Thursday journalists’ day should be traded for Journalism Day – a move to place less focus on the individual and more on the collective responsibility of delivering the news to the public.

“Journalism should move from the individual to the collective, a vocation to inform the public and socialize information,” said the president.

And yet the government has had its own ups and downs in terms of fulfilling its own responsibility in making information available to the public. Much of the poor quality in some of the journalism you consume in newspapers, radio and television every day is the result of reporters not being able to access reliable sources of information.

A few hours after the president made a speech to announce tax exemptions for small and medium size journalistic firms and the creation of a public audience ratings tracking agency, her Vice-President Amado Boudou appeared on prime time State television to blame the government’s media foes for his legal ills in an influence peddling story.

It is not news to see the vice-president blaming Grupo Clarín for his legal ordeal – after all he surfed the 2011 presidential campaign clad on a “Clarín lies” T-shirt. But Boudou went a step further this time by urging a Clarín daily journalist to reveal the source of a front-page story narrating an alleged meeting between the president and the vice-president to discuss the legal imbroglio. “What you wrote is a lie,” said Boudou, looking into the camera and naming the journalist by name. “If you want to save your career you should reveal who told you that.”

Source confidentiality has a constitutional status in Argentina. Thank goodness it has. Journalists may abuse the source protection privilege from time to time, but it is always better to leave it up to the public to discern when an unnamed source is not credible than to scare sources from talking in the first place.

Many journalists elsewhere would love such thing. Starting in the US, where reporters are even facing jail time when they decline to reveal sources in national security stories. The Obama administration has aggressively sought prosecutions against leakers. Seven of eleven prosecutions under the Espionage Act have happened under the Obama administration. This means potential leakers – think of “deep throat” Mark Felt, the source of the Watergate scandal – are increasingly afraid of talking to the press. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court declined to take a case presented by New York Times reporter James Risen to be allowed to protect his sources. US prosecutors are telling journalists loud and clear that the First Amendment does not include any special privilege for journalists. Risen has described the Obama administration as “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation.”

None of those problems affect Argentine journalists, yet. A recent attempt to try a journalist in the northern province of Santiago del Estero on charges of sedition under an anti-terrorism law passed by this administration in 2011 was a dangerous precedent that was ultimately dropped.

Other than that, most of the troubles haunting Argentine journalism are self-inflicted. Most journalists continue to find it hard to find a middle ground between their political passion and their duty to inform. In that context, information published becomes too often one-directional and targeted to achieve a political rather than a professional objective.

The political actors are right to complain about the poor quality of journalism but they are also part of the problem – as they also enjoy it when the lousiness works in their favour. Economy Minister Axel Kicillof complained on Thursday that the country’s two best-selling newspapers, Clarín and La Nación, failed to print on their front-pages the president’s announcement that a new scheme would help half a million pension-less Argentines to obtain a retirement benefit (the president also revealed that the Economy Minister had worked as a journalist a few years ago and only lasted in the job for a week, after engaging in a discussion with a fellow economist he was interviewing). Yet the government should understand that, in today’s multi-sourced information environment, it is not mandatory to be on a sacred cow newspaper’s cover to get to the public.

Yet as Journalists’ Day 2014 passes on, the guild continues to navel-gaze. The World Cup frenzy starting next week will not help to make things any better over the coming month. The president seems to be aware of this, as she urged the managers of the State news agency Télam to include more foreign news in their dispatches. “Argentina’s news channels only look at ourselves,” said the president. “If you want to know about world economics or politics, you have to watch foreign channels like Bloomberg or Telesur.” Boudou would be pleased to see the spotlight moving a little bit away from the Buenos Aires federal courthouses.

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