By Robert Cox From Where I StandSunday, October 3, 2010
Emblematic Jorge Lanata
In 1983, some three years after we were forced out by death threats and two attempted kidnappings following a short spell in a jail that was also a torture centre, I realized that Argentine journalism was coming back to life.
The welcome news came in an unwelcome fashion. A powerful bomb had destroyed the offices of a new magazine, El Porteño, and Gabriel Levinas, the editor, had been warned to close down the magazine or he would be murdered. A reporter received a telephone call telling him not to worry so much about the disappeared, “or the same thing will happen to you.”
The wife of Levinas was not only threatened by phone, she was followed by two Ford Falcons, the cars used by the death squads, while driving her two small daughters home. The two cars rammed into her vehicle in what was probably a kidnapping attempt similar to the experience of my wife three and a half years earlier. But Levinas, his wife and the young staff of El Porteño did not buckle. The magazine came out with a special edition with stories about the disappeared and human rights.
I first heard about El Porteño a few months earlier. Friends told me that a group of young writers and artists had dared to report about the forbidden topic: los desaparecidos. The number of people who had “disappeared” after being taken from their homes by armed men who refused to identify themselves was already known to be in the thousands. The power of the military government was waning and human rights organizations, protected by the United States during the presidency of Jimmy Carter, had come into their own right.
Next I heard about a journalist in his early twenties who had made a name for himself working for El Porteño. His name was Jorge Lanata. Fast forward a few years and I heard about a newspaper with the unusual name, Página/12. Jorge Lanata was a co-founder of that highly original daily newspaper. Over the 30 years I worked in Charleston, South Carolina, for The Post and Courier, the flagship of the media group that owned the Buenos Aires Herald from 1968 to 2008, I heard of Lanata again and again. My youngest daughter Ruth, who returned to Buenos Aires and lived here for a time, was a fan of his. So was my son David, who met Lanata when he produced a television documentary about the desecration of the tomb of Juan Domingo Perón, whose hands were severed from his corpse and stolen. David Cox and Damian Nabot wrote two books about the grisly crime.
Jorge Lanata has never been far from my thoughts during the quarter century that has passed since Argentina’s return to democracy. He was, and is, for me, emblematic of free and independent journalism. You could tell whether freedom of expression was in good health by his presence or absence from the radio waves and television screens. He showed his independence by walking out of newspapers and leaving television shows that put limits on him. With glee, he says that people say he is unpredictable: “They are scared of us because they don’t know what we’re going to do. And they’re right because I, too, don’t know what I’m going to do.”
It is a good sign that Lanata is back with a regular programme nightly, 9.30 pm to 10.15 pm on (cable) Channel 26. His outspoken, vernacular editorials are like a blast of fresh air in the fetid atmosphere that is choking free expression in the media. Of course, there is a but: his editorials are constantly diced up, not only to serve a particular interest, but also to defame Lanata.
For example, when Lanata was pondering the approach of his 50th birthday he said that he had decided to celebrate by speaking freely, regardless of the consequences. He said that he was fed up with the government harping on about the military dictatorship and human rights to the detriment of issues like poverty, education and child welfare. He said he expected to be reviled for saying that he was sick and tired of hearing about the dictatorship. And, of course he was right. The television show 6,7,8 on state-run Channel 7 ran repetitive clips of Lanata saying he was fed up with hearing about the military dictatorship. The idea was to trick viewers into believing that Lanata had sold out. He expected as much: “They’ll say that I have been bought by the milicos. (Now I’m) Colonel Lanata.”
At the same time that he was being defamed by the pro-government media, anti-government media and bloggers were using Lanata in an equally defamatory attempt to claim him, subtly, for themselves by giving the impression that he wants everyone to forget the past. My reaction after viewing the You Tube video I was sent by e-mail was outrage. Lanata ends his editorial by quoting the words on a piece of paper pinned to a corkboard in his office: “Freedom exists when you can say to other people what they do not want to hear.”
The problem with that is that the motive behind the wide distribution of Lanata’s statement that he is fed up with hearing about the dictatorship is that many people who are opposed to the government are already saying just that. In effect he was using his freedom to say what a great many people WANT to hear, not what they DON’T WANT to hear.
Lanata is not one-sided as the video clip appeared to suggest. Totally by chance, a few days after seeing Lanata on the video, Silvina, a friend of my daughter Ruth, invited my wife and me to hear Lanata at the Colegio Marín in San Isidro. It was billed as “Charlando con Jorge Lanata” and it was, indeed, a conversation, spontaneous and warm-hearted, between Lanata and several hundred people who filled the auditorium to overflowing. For more than two hours he talked, answered questions and listened to members of the audience who joined in the conversation. His generosity in giving so much of his time to a community event was rewarded because he was able to talk freely, telling some in the audience who came in the hope of hearing Lanata dismiss the appalling crimes of the military what they didn’t want to hear. He took pains to explain the juridical difference between terrorism and state terrorism and then spoke from experience. He covered the historic trial of Videla, Massera and Agosti and the other former members of the military juntas and has continued to report on the horrors that continue to be unveiled by the current trials. Then he spoke from experience and from then heart. What the military did, he said, was so terrible that the crimes of the Montoneros and other groups that took up arms and carried out acts of terror have been overshadowed. I was left in doubt about where Lanata stands. He stands on the side of democracy. Hence, it was appropriate for me to ask the question that nags at me night and day: “Is democracy in peril? I asked him. “In other words are Cristina and Nestor Kirchner democratic?
He said that he did not think that democracy is in danger, gave the President and the ex-president the benefit of the doubt while noting that the government is authoritarian.
The message that emerged for me was that fight between the government and Clarín/La Nación is over power and money. The struggle to advance democracy and freedom will be long and difficult. As a result we could see freedom limited by the advance of the state in communications and in the media if they manage to crush or cripple our flawed but relatively free semi-independent press.