The Argentine Journalism Forum (FOPEA, for its Spanish acronym) warned this week that the ban on questions from journalists during government announcements about the coronavirus contributes to disinformation in the country.
Since the beginning of the crisis, the Casa Rosada – the office of the president in Argentina – has suspended press conferences, replaced by official announcements without the possibility of questions from journalists. Supposedly, the reason would be to not take the focus away from the announcement itself and ensure the disclosure of "accurate and reliable information, to bring peace to society," Clarín reported, citing a government source.
According to FOPEA, the risk is that the opposite may happen. "The lack of answers to the doubts does not end with them, but, on the contrary, amplifies them and facilitates the processes of disinformation," the forum warned in a statement released this week.
“Then the officials multiply in individual contacts with the journalists, most of them off the record, to explain the details of the measures,” Fernando Ruiz, president of FOPEA, told the Knight Center. “We have said that, at this time, where it is necessary to stop disinformation processes, press conferences where all the news media are present are important, and the official speaks to all at the same time.”
FOPEA suggests that the government conduct virtual press conferences, using videoconferencing tools, and open them to journalists across the country and not just those based in Buenos Aires. “The coronavirus epidemic gives us the opportunity to hold federal press conferences, which bring this tool to numerous journalists and media throughout the country that today do not have that possibility,” the statement reads.
The request for the resumption of press conferences is one of ten made by FOPEA to the federal, provincial and municipal governments of the country to improve the quality of public information and contribute to fighting the pandemic.
The list of demands also includes a caveat about the resolution that eased the requirements for the media to receive official publicity, streamlining the registration and re-registration of suppliers. “This measure can serve to speed up payments in a crisis situation, but it also opens up a huge breach that we want to avoid. For this reason, we request that, in order to make the process of contracting official advertising transparent, information about amounts and suppliers is available and accessible to the public,” the FOPEA statement said.
The measure will remain in effect until the Executive orders the end of mandatory social isolation to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.
“That resolution is not bad in itself. It is an understandable emergency mechanism. We only make an alert so that it does not become a mechanism of censorship of the media, due to the arbitrariness that it gives officials to distribute funds,” Ruiz said.
FOPEA also calls for measures to guarantee the health protection of teams of journalists working to cover the pandemic, whether they speak to government officials or work in the streets of the country. Journalists want even more transparency about emergency spending, as well as more details about data concerning the disease and its impact on the health system in the provinces.
According to Ruiz, FOPEA’s list of suggestions, covering topics such as security, access to information and distribution of state advertising funds, occurs under “the growing feeling that the pandemic is going to be a hard blow to journalistic work as it is structured today in the world.”
“It is a moment in which the journalist experiences an individual and family situation of great tension, and at the same time has an enormous demand from the audience. (...) As in wars, governments take a very strong role, and therefore the press must be on alert concerning its vocation for accountability along with its commitment to defending the health of society.”
The Knight Center sent a request for comment to the Casa Rosada, but did not immediately receive a response.