'Milei's problem is with journalists, not with the press itself': 5 questions with Argentine researcher Santiago Marino

In the style of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, whom he considers examples, the new president of Argentina, Javier Milei, uses openly hostile rhetoric towards the press, amplified on social media by his followers.

Since taking office at the Casa Rosada on Dec. 10, 2023, this hostility has already translated into actions. One of the first measures announced by the government was the cutting of advertising funds from the Executive branch to the press for 2024. In addition, a government spokesperson has also been accused of mistreating at least one journalist.

These measures may be followed by others that have not yet materialized: Milei, a self-proclaimed anarcho-capitalist, promised to close all public media outlets in Argentina, accusing them of being “propaganda mechanisms.”

Along with harsh rhetoric, the government finds it difficult to follow State management protocols. Its first undersecretary for Media, Eduardo Roust, resigned in the first week of the government, being followed in late December by the body's head, Belén Stettler.

To help think about the Milei government's relationship with journalism, LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) spoke to a leading Argentine researchers in the area of communication policies: Santiago Marino, professor at the National University of Quilmes and head of Practical Work on “Policies and Planning of Communication” at the University of Buenos Aires.

​​In partnership with Agustín Espada, Marino wrote – in the second half of 2023 – the study “Viability of media and challenges of communication policies for Latin America” for UNESCO.

In the conversation, he reflects on the direction of Argentine public communication policies, on tensions between media and the president and also on the state of journalism in the region as a whole.

The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.

Since before the elections, Milei has had a tense relationship with the press. This was confirmed on the first day of his government, when journalists were prevented from attending the Cabinet inauguration ceremony. Last week, there was an incident with the presidential spokesperson, Manuel Adorni, who gave a sarcastic response to a journalist. Other episodes also include cuts in official advertising. What else can be expected in terms of the Milei government's relationship with the media? In terms of practical measures, what can we expect?

In reality, the problem Milei has is with journalists, not with the actual press. Because, among other things, Milei is a communication product; He comes from there, from a very successful management of social networks, and from taking advantage of his personality traits, from his charisma, from exploiting his presence on television. Until a while ago, he was a panelist on television shows in his capacity as an “economics specialist,” to use his own words.

However, on very few occasions he has been exposed to interviews with journalists who do not share his ideas. He is very grateful to two journalists in particular: one is a television presenter, a showman more than a serious journalist: Alejandro Fantino, a late night television host. And the other is a journalist who has just been appointed as Secretary of Public Communication, [Eduardo Serenellini], a journalist who has a consulting firm. Later, Milei became much better known than the journalist himself, who was a marginal journalist in large media such as La Nación. He was confirmed as Secretary of Public Communication after defending the economic adjustment, even proposing that, if some people had to eat once a day, that was what had to be endured.

So, I don't think he has problems with the media: he has problems with journalists, first of all. Secondly, he is a person who finds it difficult to establish dialogues with those who think differently, it is really difficult for him to accept criticism or more or less uncomfortable questions. What it shows is a combination of arrogance, improvisation and lack of knowledge of the management of the State. Managing networks and communications platforms to conduct an electoral campaign, where almost anything goes, is not the same as the public responsibilities of managing national State accounts.

So, not even a month has passed and the government management has two significant resignations in the communications area: its first undersecretary of media and the secretary of public communications resigned. It has an episode of managing official networks as if they were personal with a young man who managed the Casa Rosada account and who was moved to another area, and now the episode of the presidential spokesperson.

This is combined with a logic of attempting to refound the State in general and communication in particular. This is also manifested in even the attempts at a regulatory framework that has been proposed. The decree and the [omnibus] bill [presented by the government] are a kind of constitutional reform disguised as regulatory changes.

One of his proposals is to close public media. What would be the consequences? Sectors critical of the previous government [which was left-leaning] said that these media had a bias in their coverage. What can you expect about that? What are the consequences going to be if the media are closed? And do you also think that the media have opened space for that type of attack?It's impossible to know what to expect. This government is a kind of essay on reality; It is a kind of experiment, both economically and in any of the areas that we think about. This implies that I have no idea what to expect, but you can expect anything.

Let's see, let's support this statement with evidence: the president said that, once elected, the first thing he would do was privatize the state-owned media. A couple of days ago, the Minister of Economy criticized a journalistic article and asked citizens to be informed only through public media. There's a contradiction that this improvisation and lack of knowledge that I previously mentioned make clear.

The state-owned media in Argentina are historically pro-government. This has happened since 1951, when public television appeared, and since 1937, when public radio appeared; especially in the editorial line of politics news and in the news programs. Even so, and this does not change with a different political color, all [public] media have been pro-government, all governments have had pro-government public media.

Now, the question of the eventual impact of the closure of the media implies that no media in the country will have national coverage, because the state-owned media are central to national coverage, they are the only ones that are federal. Radio Nacional [part of the public media system] has a chain of stations throughout the country, which all other radio stations in Buenos Aires lack. Its closure would dramatically affect pluralism and diversity, because it would reduce all info communication development to the logic of the market. Argentina has very few cities with more than 500,000 inhabitants that could support media with private financing. The effect would be truly dramatic.

According to a graph that you prepared yourself, official advertising represents around 5.7% of total media funds in Argentina. How serious are the cuts to the financial sustainability of the media?

Look, it depends on each particular media outlet. Effectively, we are talking about the advertising of the Executive branch, and that does not include national companies that are also large advertisers, such as Aerolíneas Argentinas, Banco de la Nación and decentralized agencies such as ANSES [the National Social Security Administration].

But anyway, yes, given that there are not many widespread mechanisms in Argentina to promote advertising and content production, official advertising is a very important element. For some media, it is a lubricant in the Government's relationship with the media, and in addition, there is the contagion effect that could lead to the reduction of advertising investment from other public units. It is also true that, although the decree excluded decentralized organizations and public companies that have media, there have been calls to privatize these companies, so we do not know what will happen, but the impact would be very significant for the financing of the media.

No media outlet is completely financed by advertising. That is not the case, but in some cases it reaches, for example, 40%, and there are media in which official advertising accounts for 40% of their financing. So, we are facing a certainly complicated scenario.

And in terms of coverage, how do you see the situation? Milei's government has some differences compared to other so-called radical right-wing populist governments such as Trump or Bolsonaro, because he has a very dominant economic dimension… So, from an economic point of view, it could be expected that media with a more liberal orientation, such as Grupo Clarín, would be sympathetic to the government's proposals. On the other hand, the way in which these reforms are being proposed …contradict the procedural practices of established democracies…How do you view trends in coverage in Argentina? 

Also in terms of coverage, everything remains to be seen. On the one hand, in Argentina, the media with the best results in terms of audience, in all governments, are media with an oppositional stance. In this context, it is expected that some media will realign their editorial lines based on this, given that there will not be, at least until 2024, official advertising that could function as a lubrication mechanism for the relationship. Or at least not in official terms: one is observing in terms of coverage many articles that could fall into the category of advertorials, let's say, articles that are published without a byline, especially on news portals, that talk about, I don't know, the price of meat falling. They use some element to make the government look good. In general, I tend to think that's the model we're going to see, but that's going to be more or less marginal.

Then there is the other central problem, which is to think the following: the Milei government conceives communication as a business, just like almost all economic activities. The problem is that, in Argentina, the media are in crisis and have not worked economically for a long time. No media outlet functions economically. If you ask yourself who the owners of the media are and when the question is answered, you understand that those owners also have something else, that is, they have to maintain other businesses. Let's think about Grupo Clarín: its main source of income is the provision of Internet and mobile phone services. Let's think about the other owners of open television: the Vila-Manzano Group has investments in oil and is the owner of a public service provider. There are interests in private health. The same for the Indalo Group signals. Grupo Octubre is in the hands of a very powerful union in the City of Buenos Aires. Therefore, the media are also used by their owners to lubricate relations with the State in order to obtain benefits indirectly.

That partly explains that the media are going to play to defend their interests, without a doubt. They are going to defend their interests, and their interests are financial. This will surely impact the working conditions and journalistic activity of media workers in Argentina, who are already going through a dramatic situation with a high level of labor flexibility and poor pay. And this will only deepen in a context where the State also advocates that the market be the one to regulate itself.

Furthermore, Argentina has a highly concentrated media system with a high incidence of foreign capital, specifically Paramount from the United States and the Mexican Grupo Slim. In fact, we could say that the main beneficiary of the Government's recent measures is Slim. Then we could think about the Werthein Group, which is the group that has DirecTV in Latin America and where there is, for example, in Argentina, a conflict of interest, because the owner of the Werthein Group is going to be appointed, if approved by the Senate, as the Argentine ambassador to the United States. Therefore, what one notices now is that, having eliminated the limits of property concentration, the market has been stimulated to regulate the system with the logic of supply and demand.

What is possible to think is that Argentine private commercial media will be at the mercy of being bought or disappear. If there is no economic scale, it does not work, given the withdrawal of the State and the lack of planned development mechanisms. In addition, there are proposals to dissolve existing mechanisms that are state policy. Argentina has a policy to promote cinema, for example, which turns 30 this year. And in this context, the omnibus bill practically proposes the total definancing of that policy.

A question about the region to finish. Recently, in collaboration with a colleague, you wrote a policy paper for UNESCO with public policy recommendations for the region. There are four main recommendations, the first two refer to payment by platforms to update a Promotion Fund for content production and local journalism, among other things. However, from a political point of view, this seems like a challenge, and the platforms are lobbying strongly against it. How important is this policy, and do you think it will be adopted in the near future? Is there any example of a country in the region where it could be approved?

I consider that it is very important to apply policies like the one proposed by UNESCO in the policy briefs, and in the sustainability that we write about in particular. It seems central to me because the crisis of the media system and its financing is not a crisis of Argentina, Brazil or Chile, it is a general crisis, it is a crisis of the traditional system that cannot resolve its survival. The traditional model is in crisis, the new model has not yet found a clear development and financing mechanism. In this transition, if the States do not make decisions so that the platforms that appropriate these productions do not contribute to their generation, there is no future. In fact, this is so clear that the European Union is clearly making progress not only in regulation, but in establishing certain limits to the concentration of ownership, the expansion and control over content, and the privacy rights of users, among others.

Unfortunately, I do not find any country in the region that has the possibility of applying these types of mechanisms that UNESCO proposes and that are necessary for the countries. Not even the government of [Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] seems to be moving in that direction. Maybe this is just beginning. This week I learned about a decision by Lula's government that seems central to me, which is to decide to charge a tax on gaming platforms. Well, that would be necessary, a public health mechanism. You could decide what to do with what you raise, which is a lot of money in Brazil, in particular. Gambling prevention policy measures could be implemented, among other things. That would be the way to go with audiovisuals. Audiovisuals have a lot to contribute to national cultural development. Imagine the production capacity that Brazil has if it charged a percentage or forced Netflix to produce a certain number of series and movies in the country. The same for Argentina. However, I do not see a political scenario conducive to this development in the region, unfortunately.

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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