The Baez Sosa case in Argentina shows how Latin American media don’t know how to cover racism, experts say


Young man in a graduation cap and his mother

Fernando Báez Sosa and his mother. (Twitter: Justicia por Fernando Báez Sosa page)

During the month of January, a criminal trial was held for the crime committed against Fernando Báez Sosa, the young man beaten to death three years ago by eight young men in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The victim was the son of Paraguayan immigrants and the perpetrators were an Argentine group of middle class rugby players. Specialists say the media coverage of the trial was "emblematic in ethno-racial terms," and and that the media react to the most violent racist events without explaining the phenomenon in depth. 

Baez Sosa was 18 years old when he went to spend his summer vacation with friends in the coastal town of Villa Gesell. On the night of Jan. 18, 2020, they went out to a dance club where he had an altercation with another group of young people — none of them were over 21 years old —, so the venue's security guards escorted them all to the exit. Once on the street, the same group of eight — popularly known as "the rugbiers" — punched and kicked Baez Sosa. Although he got help from witnesses, he died that same night

In the media, the victim was presented as a young man of humble origins coming from an immigrant family, a scholarship student at a private school whose parents could not afford to pay the monthly fee, a law student who was murdered while his attackers shouted "you freaking darkie." The victimizers were white Argentine middle-class rugby players, with family ties among themselves, who acted savagely as a group to murder Báez Sosa once he was lying on the floor, and who then went to eat hamburgers at a fast food joint. 

A group of men in a courthouse in Argentina waiting to hear the verdict, surrounded by guards and other people

Sentencing in the Báez Sosa case in Argentina, on Feb. 6, 2023. (Screenshot, CNN en español)

The trial had a great impact at the judicial, political and social levels. It generated an avalanche of articles, opinions, comments, and information. The live broadcast broke all metrics and ratings indexes. It was possibly the piece of news with the largest audience and the most clicks of the last few months in this South American country. The sentence of life in prison, which was finally issued on Jan. 31 against five of the eight accused, was massively celebrated by society and the media. 

Despite the sensationalism of the trial — some used the label "infotainment" —, independent news outlets and civil society organizations pondered on the classism, machismo, the punitive nature and, ultimately, racism that exists in Argentine society. One of them is Identidad Marrón, an Argentine organization with seven years of anti-racist militancy — against racism in all its forms — that makes visible the existence of "marrón people," those with brown skin who may have Indigenous, mestizo [mixed race], migrant, or peasant ancestors. 


Those without name, without history


The Baez Sosa case is "an emblematic case in ethno-racial terms," Alejandro Mamani told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). He is a lawyer and member of Identidad Marrón. "The media has always befriended silence regarding racism in Argentina and Latin America.”

In this case, although "many news outlets took up the issue of racial insults," both "in the traditional media and in the ruling, the lawsuit and the prosecution, racism did not figure as an issue."

"This is a marker for the current state of public debate," Mamani said. The reason for this silence, according to him, is that this is still a complex topic. “We tend to think that racism is science fiction, what Hollywood shows us, [but] it goes far beyond that." It goes beyond the lack of "Black players" in the Argentine national team recently mentioned in a Washington Post article, or beyond the class struggle represented by the image of a white doll with a portion of sushi and a black doll with a "choripán" (chorizo sandwich) in the Argentine newspaper La Nación. 

However, Mamani pointed out some positives, from an anti-racist perspective, in the coverage of the Baez Sosa crime trial. This being a crime of a racialized person, "this is the first time that the victim's name was mentioned in different media." Because when a person is racialized someone who suffers the impact of racism because of his or her racial category their name disappears. Examples in Latin America abound: The historical red headline used by the Argentine news outlet Crónica Tv: "Two people and a Bolivian die," or the Colombian program Noticias Caracol, which during the social protests of 2021 announced: "Citizens and Indigenous people clashed." 

"Those racialized by the media lose their name, their individuality, their history, their identity. It is the non-humanization of the racialized subject," Mamani said. 

Identidad Marrón noted that some independent news outlets did raise the topic of racism, albeit in a "limited" or "timid" way. Which, according to Mamani, "is not correct in terms of the anti-racist movement, but it is a turning point for a Spanish-speaking Latin America that has not yet debated racism." Mamani believes "this is part of a militancy continuity by many collectives and organizations" in Argentina and the continent. "We are at a point where society is beginning to ask itself what racism is," he said.  


Racism that doesn't make it into the news


"There is a very strong notion that racism is like a disease that affects only a few bad individuals who are racist. And every time these individuals go crazy and commit racist acts, journalism covers it," Marco Avilés, a Peruvian journalist who has covered issues of racism and discrimination for years told LJR. "This is a totally wrong view." 

"Racism is not a disease that only affects some people and not others. It is a set of ideas, a system that involves the whole society. We are all educated in this system,” Avilés said. “The evidence of this racist system is not only the insults or murders. It is the poverty and lack of opportunities in which racialized peoples and communities live." 

Although crimes such as that of Baez Sosa are "the most newsworthy, the most spectacular within the nuances of racist violence," Avilés said, "there are a series of racisms that are not considered news and that are part of everyday life in Latin America." 

That is why, for him, it is important to move to a more proactive way of covering racism: "To start explaining the relationship between poverty, inequality and racism in our countries; racist violence in schools and the lack of anti-racist education; or the relationship between racism and xenophobia." 


The importance of more diverse newsrooms


In order for the media and journalists to improve their coverage of racism, it is important to understand that "racism is a real problem that is part of Latin America," Mamani said. "To think that the murders of racialized people are murders without any background speaks to the need to have an anti-racist perspective in the media.”

Key points, according to Mamani, are to make this topic visible; training and awareness-raising in universities and journalism courses; and the integration of editors with expertise in diversity and racism in newsrooms.

In Latin America "we need to talk about racism in a local way," Mamani said. "The media need to understand that racism is local and its solution is also local. They lack localized training that can help them understand the context. The solution is to listen to expert activist groups working on this issue." 

Avilés emphasized the serious fact that news management in Latin America "is usually in the hands of white or mixed-race people." Margaret Sullivan, former editor at The New York Times, said that "in a newsroom that is not diverse, the biases that individual people have add up," Avilés said. That's why having many straight men in a newsroom creates a lot of bias. The same can be said for having too many white people in a newsroom. 

"When white people manage communication having this power, they invisibilize the complaints and experiences of racialized people. Thinking about solutions: Newsrooms, TV stations and radio programs should diversify themselves in a more aggressive way," Avilés said. “[Having] More racialized people doing journalism will create spaces in which to discuss racism."


Contributor Florencia Pagola is a freelance journalist from Uruguay. She does research and writes about human rights and freedom of speech in Latin America