IAPA Midyear Meeting 2016
Punta Cana, Dominican Republic
April 8-11

The change in government that was produced late last year marked the end of a political era in which there came about the greatest offensive against the independent press since the end of the last military dictatorship.

Kirchner government engaged in an extraordinary campaign against the press and critical voices in general that included the use of public resources to mount a gigantic communication apparatus aimed at the discrediting of journalists and media; the partisan politics of publicly-owned media; the discriminatory distribution of official advertising with the objective of awarding its beneficiaries and punishing non-addicted media; the selective application of norms to harass dissidents; the enactment of specific laws to break up critical media and favor semi-official voices; the pressure on private sector advertisers for them not to advertise in media that are not aligned with the government interests; the use of control bodies and intelligence services to pressure, intimidate and spy upon; the undue government intervention in the preparation or commercialization of news industry supplies; the cancelling of presidential press conferences, and the selective closure of official sources of information.

The Kirchner government made a great effort to install the fallacious notion that the full existence of press freedom should be derived from the mere existence of a critical look by certain media and journalists. There were, moreover, demonstrations of a press that questioned several aspects of the public governance. But in all the cases their promoters and authors suffered reprisals which on occasions led to an anxiousness to please or silence.

Multiple mechanisms of indirect censorship violated press freedom in recent years. The Kirchner government spent, in the last year of its mandate, $380 million on official advertising, an amount 25 times more than the one in 2003, the first year of the Néstor Kirchner presidency. If added to the official advertising are the costs of maintaining publicly-owned media, digital TV, the program Football For All and the official agencies of the communications sector, the propaganda apparatus maintained by the government of Cristina Kirchner implied an outlay of more than $1.4 billion in 2015 alone.

The excessive growth of official advertising, combined with a distribution remote from any criterion of effectiveness linked to public communication and marked by a political use, gave rise to deep distortions on the media map. Many newspapers, magazines, television channels, radio stations and online sites were born as a consequence of the arbitrary distribution of advertising funds that the Kirchner government made. The financial equations of two-thirds of the media universe ended up depending on those resources.

The new government found itself faced with voices artificially multiplied to disseminate the Kirchner official discourse and with innumerable media financially unviable without state assistance. The first efforts by President Mauricio Macri to rationalize the administration of public funds in the public information area clashed with recriminations for threatening the survival of media and journalists' sources of work, proposals that reveal a deep distortion and conceptual error that should not be confused with the debate on means of protection or promotion of the press that are discussed in other countries.

The new officials also faced anomalies and corruption schemes linked to the news industry. One of the country's main media groups was acquired during the Kirchner government years by Cristóbal López, a businessman very close to former president Cristina Kirchner and head of one of the holdings of greatest expansion in the last decade. An unlawful tax evasion of more than $1 billion is said to have been utilized, among other things, for the purchase of a media group.

The amendment of some of the most controversial articles of the Law on Audiovisual Communication Services by a decree ratified by the Legislative Branch and the commitment to debate a new legal framework in Congress were decisions welcomed by the audiovisual media industry. The radio, television and cable groups pointed out the sense of the changes for granting stability in licensing, establishing criteria of sustainability and competitiveness in the face of such phenomena as the convergence and competition of international players and eliminating some distortions said to be discriminatory. At the same time the amendment put forward questions by various organizations generally identified with the Kirchners that sought and obtained the holding of a hearing by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to deal with the issue with noteworthy speed, given the habitual slowness that the body had shown in recent years in dealing with denunciations by journalists and organizations dedicated to the defense of freedom of expression, and notably did not call upon entities representing media or involved in that sector.

In its first four months the Macri government has shown a clear difference from the previous one. Since the first day it has opened several channels of communication with the press and what were recently eradicated, press conferences and interviews with the President and other officials. As a counterpoint controversy was aroused in the journalistic sphere by the coverage that was made by President Macri's communication team exclusively for Snapchat concerning the visit of President Barack Obama to Argentina. This was done through an audiovisual production with restricted access for the rest of the media which recorded that important event of pubic interest.

Among the advances promoted by the government there should be noted the removal of all prosecutorial policy against critical voices and also the disappearance of any vestige of hostility or stigmatization in the official discourse, the auspicious and emerging process of making publicly-owned media less partisan and more professional, and the opening up of various requests for dialogue such as that which urged officials of the Public Information Ministry to meet with representatives of various organizations of journalists and news companies to learn of concerns, seek proposals and express the need to promote a transparent and balanced blueprint in the assignment of state resources.

One of the great unresolved issues inherited from the past government that has been put on the agenda is the enactment of a Law on Access to Public Information. The government has drafted a bill, based on the OAS model law, to be passed by the Congress and taken up by the three braches of government.

In the last six months there have been several attacks on and threats to journalists and media. Some were beaten during labor union protests or public demonstrations, among them the news team of Crónica TV in December, beaten up by demonstrators belonging to the Tranviarios Automotor Union; Karina Vallori of Doce TV of Córdoba during a union protest in that province in the same month; Liliana Franco of Ámbito Financiero, jeered at by pro-government militants during an event chaired by Cristina Kirchner in late October; Gloria Velásquez of Radio Lafinur of San Luis, given a death threat for having investigated into police links to drug trafficking; or Mercedes Ninci, a reporter with Grupo Clarín, insulted and spat upon by pro-Kirchner militants during coverage of a march marking the 40th anniversary of the 1976 coup d'état in Buenos Aires in March. There were also journalists restrained by police forces, among them Juan Cruz Taborda of SRT of Córdoba and Luciano Barrera, a photographer with of Catamarca. In the list of aggressions against journalists outstanding is the savage attack carried out by drug traffickers against the director of FM Luna radio station of San Antonio de Areco, Sergio Hurtado, whose wife was raped while he was being held, in apparent reprisal for his journalistic work.