05 March 2015
At the start of a year of crucial presidential, congressional and local elections in Argentina the scenario is increasingly complex for the press. The discovery of the body of prosecutor Alberto Nisman with a bullet in the head one day before going to Congress to give details of a denouncement of Argentina’s President has been unsettling citizens for the last month and a half. The government reacted by accusing sectors of the judiciary and news media of engaging in political destabilization maneuvers. President Cristina Kirchner railed against the media for its coverage of the mass march that took place on the one-month anniversary of the prosecutor’s death, referring once more to the “national chain of hatred and pessimism,” accusing Clarín and La Nación of having appropriated the newsprint company Papel Prensa and describing freedom of expression as an apparently exclusive privilege of those newspapers. In her first public declaration about the matter Kirchner suggested a hypothesis of conspiracy that would suggest that the front pages of Clarín were related to the denunciation by the dead prosecutor. She then outlined a hypothesis that suggestively linked the Grupo Clarín group with Diego Lagomarsino, the only person accused in the affair of having given Nisman the weapon found alongside his body, erroneously says that his brother was the systems manager of the newspaper company. For his part the national council of the Justicialista Party accused La Nación and Clarín of “intending to besmirch the President with a clearly destabilizing intent.” A worrisome surge against Clarín came about when Cabinet Chief Jorge Capitanich, following the habit of Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, tore up two pages of that newspaper in the middle of a press conference. Damián Patcher, the journalist who first broke the news of Nisman’s death, decided to go into exile in Israel, declaring that he feared for his safety. The official news agency Télam and the government headquarters on their Twitter account disseminated information and images with details of the journalist’s flight ticket provided by the state airline Aerolíneas Argentinas. The Belgian embassy in Buenos Aires sent to the Argentine Foreign Ministry a request for consular protection by Belgian-Spanish journalist Teresita Dussart, who expressed concern at harassment displayed by media close to the government over her coverage of the Nisman case. In recent days, we have witnessed actions which are evidence again of the criminal prosecution of critical newspaper editors, apparently linked to coverage of the Nisman case. The government revived its old accusation against these newspapers of committing crimes against humanity arising from the purchase of Papel Prensa, an issue which had already been resolved democratically, without any crime being found to exist. In this context, the judge hearing the case had in the last few weeks been placed under pressure in presidential speeches and official news cables, into taking statements from the editors. Following the same line, towards the end of the year and at the suggestion of the Attorney-General (who is aligned with the Executive Branch), the prosecutor leading the case was removed and following a dubious process, another prosecutor faithful to a group closely allied with the government was appointed. Before Nisman died the press was carrying out its role amid a climate fed by hostile and defamatory demonstrations on the part of officials, discriminatory governmental media and initiatives restrictive of freedom of expression. On February 11, during a teleconference with the President, minister and presidential pre-candidate Florencio Randazzo declared that the media “what they do is omit information, distort, fail to tell the truth, responding to interests far from those they say they defend.” On February 10 a wire from the official news agency Télam said that the Grupo Clarín group’s cable company had undeclared bank accounts in Switzerland, despite the fact that the media group assured that they were legally registered with the Argentine tax authority for the payment of obligations abroad. The levels of official advertising continued to grow in the last six months. In February the government announced a decreed increase of the equivalent of $21 million at the official rate of exchange destined for the dissemination of national official acts. This left the amount used by the federal government during 2014 above $200 million, which is practically double what was approved at the due time by the federal Congress. If there are added the advertisements of decentralized bodies and state-owned companies, the Fútbol para Todos (Soccer for All) program and the maintenance of public media the total figure is tripled. Beyond the exponential growth that official advertising has had in recent years of no less concern is the discretional nature with which it is distributed. This continue to be used as a tool of editorial restriction, in open contradiction to what has been established by the Supreme Court in its rulings and by the recommendations made by the OAS Office of Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression among other international bodies. This practice is not exclusive to the federal government. The government of the city of Buenos Aires has increased the level of official advertising in an exponential manner since it took office. And that of the province of Buenos Aires, to mention the other of the two big Argentine districts, has flooded the streets with announcements that carry the color which distinguishes the governor, fully launched, and ahead of the legal times, for his campaign for president. In the legal area, during November Bahía Blanca Federal Judge Santiago Ulpiano Martínez tried as an accessory after the fact Germán Sasso, director of radio and news site La Brújula 24, an action to which was added a raid on the media outlet and the seizure of journalistic material, which implies clear pressure that goes against the constitutional protection of the right to protect news sources. On December 12 Judge Horacio Alfonso issued a precautionary measure that suspended the forced break-up of the Grupo Clarín group’s media, previously ordered by the AFSCA (Federal Audiovisual Communication Services Authority), in an action that amounts to discriminatory and instrumental use of the law, contrary to the ruling of the Supreme Court that requires equal treatment in the application of the media law. Two weeks ago an appeals court ruling upheld Judge Alfonso’s decision. At the same time, 10 leading Grupo Clarín journalists obtained a writ issued by Judge Pablo Cayssials which suspended the termination of those media due to the certain risk to their sources of income and their freedom of expression. In recent days, we have witnessed actions which are evidence again of the criminal prosecution of critical newspaper editors. Following reports of the Nisman case which has been extensively covered by newspapers such as Clarin and La Nacion, the government revived its old accusation against the directors of these papers. Also in December, on the 16th, the governing majority passed in the Chamber of Deputies a law regulating the telecommunications market, favoring telephone companies and eliminating restrictions imposed by the Law on Audiovisual Communication Services for them to offer audiovisual services. Prior to this, and despite the restrictions, the AFSCA, the body authorized to apply the media law, approved the modification presented by one of the television channels owned by the Telefónica company. Meanwhile the scourge of drug trafficking continues to extend in Argentina and is beginning to seriously hinder the work of the press. On November 13 Germán de los Santos, La Nación correspondent in Rosario, received telephoned death threats as a result of his reports on the activities of drug gangs in that city. He and his family had to leave Rosario and submit to a police protection program to ensure his safety. This case is added to other previous ones that show an increase in the serious threats to the press, until recently infrequent in Argentina.