‘I’ve been working as a journalist here for over 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve never seen such a compliant and silent media when it comes to the Kirchner Government.’
Jorge Lanata disheveled, chain-smoking and brilliant is often described as Argentina’s Michael Moore.
Lanata started working as a journalist at age 14. He is now in his late 40s. Given that 24 March is the 30 th anniversary of the coup that swept the bloodthirsty and incompetent military junta into power from 1976 to 1983, this means Lanata’s early years of journalism coincided with the bloodiest period in Argentina’s recent history.
At 26, Lanata founded Pagina/12, one of the three main papers on Buenos Aires newsstands. With numerous radio and television programs behind him as well, Lanata’s journalistic credentials can’t be doubted. And he says that there is currently almost no critical media operating in Argentina.
Lanata is not the only person concerned about the trend away from critical assessment of the Government of Argentina’s President Nestor Kirchner. The Association for Civil Rights (ADC) recently published a report (link: w.osji.org/db/resource2?res_id=103046&preprint=1 ) on the relationship between media and governments at all levels in Argentina. They found numerous patterns of abuse.
In some provinces, such as Patagonia’s Tierra del Fuego, 75 per cent of media funding comes from Government advertising deals. In one instance, Government officials made a large and unsolicited deposit directly into the bank account of local radio station, ostensibly for advertising, but in the absence of any specific request and entirely out of proportion to normal advertising budgets. The station returned the deposit, saying ‘we felt bribed and it was repugnant.’ In response, the local Government severed all advertising funding to that station.
There are also documented cases of Government officials writing copy for local papers. The stories, complete with typos, can then be tracked as they spread through other media outlets at regional and national levels. In other words, the Government is an undisclosed media producer.
Argentinian President, NÃ©stor Kirchner
Why do the provinces matter? Because, in Argentina, political figures have often risen to positions of national power from the provinces for instance, Nestor Kirchner who was Governor of the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz before becoming President in May 2003,
In his 2003 election campaign, Kirchner’s team paid local networks to ensure coverage of campaign events. As Martha Farmelo, author of the ADC report says:
this amounted to a double violation: not only had Kirchner’s Government used provincial funds for his own campaign purposes, but [he]had used them to purchase control over news content, broadcast as part of the regular, supposedly independent newscasts.
It’s hard to get a sense of who Kirchner is as a person. Since coming to office in 2003, he has never granted a single direct interview to any reporter, either in Argentina or internationally. Few members of his ‘team’ speak directly to the media. Like something out of an Orwellian satire, even the Minister in charge of the Government’s press office will not talk to the media. Nor will Kirchner’s wife, Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who, like an Argentine Hillary Rodham Clinton, may run for President herself at some stage in the future.
While there is little open communication, there is a troubling degree of contact behind the scenes. Government officials make calls to journalists, not only to correct facts contained in stories, but to complain about them, and even to talk to reporters before a story hits the pages or airwaves. More recently, calls are being made to media owners, rather than to the journalists themselves.
And it’s not just low-profile journalists who are being affected. Pepe Eliaschev used to host a well-known radio program on Argentina’s public broadcaster. Without warning, his program was canceled on 30 December last year.
Outspoken and independent, Eliaschev says that the order came ‘from above.’ The obscure and unexplained circumstances that led to his program being scrapped have generated a wave of alarm even from establishment politicians, including two former Presidents and several currently serving Senators, as well as international organisations like Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
The ADC found several other similar cases of journalists being sacked or shows being pulled, apparently for political reasons.
None of this amounts to outright corruption. But, with the 30 th anniversary of the military coup approaching, Argentines are in a reflective mood.
Kirchner came to power in extraordinary circumstances. In the first round of the Presidential elections, Kirchner’s opponent, the previous President Carlos Menem received 24 per cent of the vote 2 per cent more than Kirchner. But Menem later decided to stand down (because opinion polls predicted he would be decisively beaten in the second round of elections). Kirchner therefore was, in effect, elected on 22 per cent of the public vote and was a political unknown.
Like John Howard, Kirchner has proved most adept at consolidating power. His managerial approach and success in steering the economy from meltdown to hot-house have cemented his position. In last October’s midterm elections, his Victory Front Party galloped back into power winning 17 of the 24 Senate seats up for grabs. There is currently no effective opposition to keep the Victory Front’s power in check.
In these circumstances, some of Kirchner’s moves to consolidate power, in the true tradition of Latin American presidential democracy, have civil society on guard.
30 years after the military coup, Argentina’s political institutions remain weak. They passed the test posed by the profound economic and social crisis caused by Argentina’s massive debt default in 2001, but they are still far from sturdy. And at the moment, the media normally responsible for policing the Legislature and Executive is missing in action.
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