Argentina has a great degree of press freedom. The media industry is experiencing, as in much of the world, the ups and downs of a technological and economic paradigm shift that requires new responses to sustain the institutional role of the press in public debate and in scrutinizing acts of government.
The media are facing these challenges within a climate of respect for diversity of opinion and for the right to express criticism. Signs of intolerance do exist, however, and there remains unfinished business as well as new phenomena to which we must be alert.
The monitoring work of the Argentine Journalism Forum and the press freedom reports of the Association of Argentine Journalistic Organizations counted more than 60 assaults, threats, and efforts to coerce journalists or media outlets thus far this year. The most troubling cases are as follows:
In April, the press secretary of the Jujuy provincial government threatened a producer at Radio Universidad with the suspension of government advertising due to the tone of the station's journalistic work.
In late April, Jorge Riquelme, a photographer with the Association of Government Workers, was wounded in the head by provincial police officers while covering a demonstration outside the residence of the Santa Cruz provincial governor.
In May, José Allende, a union leader and provincial legislator for Entre Ríos, issued a death threat to journalist Martín Carbone in response to his criticism of the provincial health minister.
In June, journalists from Channel 12, Radio Mitre, and Radio Continental were assaulted and threatened by members of the truck drivers' union while covering a strike in the city of Córdoba.
Also in June, radio journalist Alejandro García reported that an officer with the police command in the Gonnet neighborhood of Buenos Aires had threatened him with a firearm in connection with his criticism of police actions.
In July, journalists from Crónica TV and La Nación were beaten by police while covering the eviction of workers from a Pepsico plant in the city of Florida, in Buenos Aires province.
In August, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a vehicle of Jornada newspaper in Chubut province. The incident is apparently related to protests by the Mapuche indigenous organization RAM, which was involved in multiple acts of violence in southern Argentina and in Buenos Aires. Grupo Jornada has endured a number of attacks by this group in recent months, such as the cutting of its antenna tensioners and the appearance of threatening graffiti on the front of its headquarters.
On October 3, national legislator Axel Kicillof claimed that private media outlets make their living by extorting politicians. "Information is a public good," he said, "and therefore only the government should provide it because it's the only one that can publish objective information."
On September 30, at marches held in various parts of Argentina over the disappearance of Santiago Maldonado, journalists from América, Crónica TV, C5N, TN, Clarín, and local media outlets in Río Negro province were assaulted.
In response to repeated acts of violence against journalists, the Association of Argentine Journalists advocated for the inclusion of press workers in a proposed law establishing harsher penalties for attempting to harm them. While some groups exhibit troubling measures of intolerance, one week ago Argentines celebrated legislative elections preceded by political campaigns that, in general terms, were conducted within a framework of civic coexistence and a high degree of freedom of expression.
Acts of intimidation and attacks by drug traffickers are a rising phenomenon in Argentina. On October 12, relatives of members of Los Monos, a criminal drug-trafficking gang, disrupted the presentation of an investigative journalism book about the organization.
Late July saw one of the biggest attacks on journalists in the last two decades, since the killing of José Luis Cabezas. Journalist Jesús Báez do Nacimento, owner of the FM Carretera 101 radio station in San Antonio, Misiones province, along the Brazilian border, was shot four times in the stomach and arm in a clear
attempt to kill him. There are multiple indications that the attack is tied to local drug traffickers and to allegations made by Báez on his radio station. Báez recovered and entered the journalist protection protocol implemented a year ago by the Ministry of Security under the advice of organizations of journalists and journalistic companies. This protocol was activated to protect a number of journalists at various times throughout 2017.
Two newspapers in Buenos Aires published an open letter signed by a group of journalists in solidarity with their colleague Horacio Verbitsky, who is facing the possibility of government retaliation for his reporting in the newspaper Página/12. Other colleagues expressed their disagreement with this protest, claiming that it is not a matter that involves freedom of expression.
In terms of government advertising, the self-regulation of the executive branch in allocating these resources on the basis of objective guidelines was a significant step toward preventing the discriminatory and propagandistic use of government advertising, as well as toward greater transparency. However, a law to effectively regulate the distribution of advertising has still not been passed.
The Law on Access to Public Information, passed last year, was an institutional milestone of the new administration and a major advance in freedom of expression. This law, however, was substantially amended by the recently issued regulations for its implementation. The enforcement entity is now losing the authority to decide its own structure, as the law originally provided, and instead this power was given to the Chief of the Cabinet of Ministers. Also, the entity's
work is subject to the budgeting of the office of the cabinet chief. This amounts to an amendment of a crucial law on transparency and institutional dynamics that should be debated in the legislature with the breadth and depth that such a far-reaching measure calls for.
The passage of similar laws remains unfinished business in most of Argentina's provinces.