New president of Argentina promises normal relations with the press, even when journalists disagree with him

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  • October 26, 2019

By Monica Yanakiew*

Buenos Aires – Argentina’s newly elected president, Alberto Fernández, will take office on Dec. 10, as the country faces a debt crunch and rising fears of default. He promised to broker a “social pact” between business owners, workers and political parties, to stop inflation from spiraling out of control. But, Fernández also vowed to protect freedom of expression and maintain a normal relationship with the press – even with journalists who eventually may criticize his government.

There were times when that relationship was not so "normal."

Alberto Fernández (Photo: Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation) [CC BY 2.5 ar])

Alberto Fernández (Photo: Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation) [CC BY 2.5 ar])

On August 22,  two months before Argentina’s presidential elections, media conglomerate Clarín hosted a seminar on democracy and development in Buenos Aires. Conservative President Mauricio Macri, who was running for a second term, and his main political rival, left-wing candidate Fernández, took turns on stage taking questions from journalists. One of the main issues was the future government’s relationship with the press.

I have many friends who are journalists and do not agree with my ideas. But we cannot live in a country where posters of journalists are displayed so people can spit on them,” Fernández said. “It's shameful,” he added, referring to one of many smear campaigns which took place during Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s administration (2007-2015). His words were greeted with a round of applause, for more than one reason.

Long before U.S. President Donald Trump started his media war, accusing the press of peddling “fake news,” Argentines witnessed a seven-year brutal conflict between Cristina Kirchner’s administration and mainstream media – notably the dominant Clarín Group. Each side accused the other of manipulating information, outright lying and – much worse – of attacking democracy.

During Cristina Kirchner’s administration, investigative journalist Diego Cabot was economic editor at La Nación newspaper. “It was a difficult time because, as journalists, we were dealing with unraveling lies on a daily basis,” Cabot told the Knight Center. “The government manipulated official statistics to conceal rising inflation and put pressure on businessmen. Many of the people we interviewed were prohibited from using the word inflation. They pressured them. I cannot tell you how many times I interviewed them and they did everything to talk about inflation without mentioning the word.”

Even worse, says Cabot, was working in a hostile environment. “The way we did our jobs, as reporters, was at the center of a public debate, which was quite unequal: Cristina used the lectern of the president to attack our credibility, and you could not debate back or clear doubts in front of a public that were not your consumers.”

(Photo: Guillermo Tomoyose [CC BY 2.0])

(Photo: Guillermo Tomoyose [CC BY 2.0])

Attacks grew nastier and personal. Posters, T-shirts and even socks with the slogan “Clarín Lies” were distributed at rallies. In 2010, human rights organization Madres de Plaza de Mayo staged a mock trial and publicly condemned seven well-known journalists from five media outlets as “traitors.” They were accused of having turned a blind eye to the military dictatorship (1976-1983), “of having betrayed the people, of having allowed them to kill and torture, of having silenced the horror.

At the same time, Clarín was criticized for having too much political and financial power among the country’s media. In 2012, the Committee to Protect Journalists wrote: "The consequence of this bitter fight is an intensely polarized press. On one side, Kirchner's critics accuse her of stifling press freedom by rewarding allied media and hammering - with regulation as well as advertising - unsympathetic outlets into silence. On the other side, many believe that Clarín has too much power and leverages its huge media holdings to further its private business interests."

But, some journalists noted positive advancements for the press with Kirchner’s government.

“During Cristina Kirchner’s administration, a law was passed eliminating criminal sanctions against journalists, for libel and slander,” Página 12 journalist, Martin Granovsky, told Knight Center. “That made a difference. During Carlos Menem’s presidency (1989-1999) our newspaper was being sued all the time.”

Tensions between the press and the government largely cooled when Macri was elected in 2015. Government officials no longer referred to journalists as "enemies" and were more prone to giving interviews, both to the local and international press. Clarín economic editor Silvia Naishtat says she never had so much access to information as in the past three and a half years. “There has been a change in policy regarding the press: government officials answer the phone. They may not give you the information or quotes you asked for, but they take your calls,” Naishtat told the Knight Center. “I hope that doesn’t change with the new government.”

Since last August, Macri's chances of being reelected started looking very slim. "Yearly inflation is over 50 percent, probably the third highest in the world, after Venezuela and Zimbabwe, and the economy will shrink an estimated three percent in 2019 - under these circumstances, it is very difficult for a government to win an election," political analyst Rosendo Fraga told the Knight Center.

The cover photo for Alberto Fernández’s Twitter account shows the president elect along with running mate and future vice president, Cristina Kirchner (Screenshot)

The cover photo for Alberto Fernández’s Twitter account shows the president elect along with running mate and future vice president, Cristina Kirchner (Screenshot)

Now, Cristina Kirchner will return to power as vice president. She was elected on the Peronist ticket with Fernández, who served as cabinet chief under her husband and predecessor in office (2003-2007), Néstor Kirchner, and also during the early months of her presidency. After leaving the administration in 2008, Fernández became a vocal critic of his former boss – also on matters related to the government’s war with the press.

“When I was cabinet chief, I was also in charge of  TV Channel 7 and while I was there, there were no political programs – precisely to avoid being criticized for using public television to do politics,” Fernández said during the seminar. “After I left (the administration) they created (the political program) 678. I was also crucified on that program,” he added, recalling how he was referred to as “the Clarín Group lobbyist” every time he spoke out against the government.

The program 678 first aired in 2009 as polarization in Argentina grew. Its main purpose was to single out what it considered to be a biased use of information by mainstream media and offer the other (mostly the government’s) side of the story – but for most journalists it was mere political propaganda. The debate at the time, however, was about something else. “I have no doubt 678 is political propaganda – but I think it’s legitimate (for the government) to have such a program, especially when there are so many in the opposition,” said human rights activist and seasoned journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who is seen as somebody close to the Kirchner administration, during a panel in July 2018. As an example he mentioned Todo Noticias (TN) -  Clarín Group’s  24-hour cable TV news channel:  “It does just as much political propaganda as 678.”

As soon as he took office, Macri put an end to 678 and modified, by decree, the Media Law – one of the more controversial reforms passed by Kirchner. The law was proposed as a long overdue, modern and democratic set of regulations, replacing those dating back to 1980, when there was no internet or cable TV and Argentina was ruled by a dictatorship.

The 2009 law placed restrictions on media holdings, in an effort to prevent them from establishing monopolies in the sector. But, it was seen as a government tool to dismantle the Clarín Group, which it considered to be its greatest and most powerful opponent. The holding owns or has a share in Argentina’s largest daily, Clarín, other newspapers and magazines, radio stations and television channels, as well as the country’s only newsprint plant, Papel Prensa.

Macri’s decree lifted restrictions on the ownership of multiple licenses (broadcast television, broadcast radio, cable television or internet) and on the total number of broadcast licenses that each media group can hold. This reversed the forced disinvestment processes, which media groups were required to undertake to comply with Kirchner’s Media Law. In 2016, Julio Blanck – who was Clarín’s editor-in-chief for a decade – gave an interview on what it was like to work during the Kirchner government: “We did wartime journalism. It was bad journalism. But we were good at war, we’re alive and we managed to survive until the end,” he said. “But circumstances were different then and I did things I would probably not have done in normal circumstances.”

So, how normal will these circumstances be under the next administration? Fernández says both sides are to blame for the war and it’s time to let bygones be bygones. He portrays himself as a politician who can unite Argentines, at a time when the highly indebted country faces a major economic crisis – which also impacted the media industry.

Maurico Macri (By Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation), [CC BY 2.5 ar])

Maurico Macri (By Casa Rosada (Argentina Presidency of the Nation), [CC BY 2.5 ar])

In September, representatives of eleven “recovered newspapers” (publications which have gone bankrupt and were taken over by their workers) held their second national meeting to discuss their survival. The U.S. dollar, which was worth 13 Argentine pesos in 2015, is now being traded at 60 pesos. “Importing newsprint paper has become prohibitive,” Gerardo Aranguren, editor of Tiempo Argentino’s online page, told the Knight Center. “We can buy locally, but prices have gone up. Argentina’s sole manufacturing plant, Papel Prensa, is controlled by Clarín and La Nación, the second largest newspaper.”

During Kirchner’s presidency, Tiempo Argentino belonged to a media group with strong ties to the government and was seen as a propaganda tool. When Macri won the election, the small daily lost state funding and the owner stopped paying his employees. They took over the building in 2016 and formed a cooperative, to run the “recovered newspaper.”

It’s now printed only on Sundays and is mostly funded by subscribers.

“We still print because, in Argentina, it’s very difficult to make a profit on the internet,” Aranguren said. Eighty three people work for the cooperative – most of them journalists, who now do a bit of everything, from reporting and editing to accounting and marketing. But news media in Argentina – big and small – rely heavily on government advertising. Tiempo Argentino  hopes to get a bigger share with Fernández as president.

What does Página 12 journalist, Martin Granovsky, expect from the new administration? “I hope that the discrimination that existed during Macri’s administration will stop - for example, against the October Group (owner of Página 12 and AM radio station 750). I hope that the state adopts public policies to ensure the diversity of voices in the audiovisual industry, according to the parameters established by Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).”

Journalists in the mainstream media are still wary of Fernández. “Alberto Fernández won the election as a moderate politician, but it was Cristina Kirchner who decided he would run for president on the Peronist ticket and she is the one who has the most votes,” Cabot said. “We still don’t know how much she will weigh in on the future government.”

During the campaign, Kirchner hinted that she still thinks most media is biased against her and blamed journalists for favoring Macri, by not reporting on how serious the economic crisis was. “I told Alberto (Fernández)…if you did not buy (newspaper) Página 12 or watch (television channel) C5N, Argentina was doing well, everything was marvelous,” she said during an August 2019 presentation. But, she also admitted that “anger and confrontation” were not the best way to deal with criticism – be it truthful or not.

In its annual meeting, the Association of Argentine News Entities (Adepa), called on presidential candidates to maintain freedom of the press. “We hope the new administration will ratify Alberto Fernández's promises not to reissue harassment or persecution against media and journalists," Adepa’s president, Martin Etchevers, told the Knight Center. “We also hope that freedom of the press will not be restricted directly or indirectly; that access to information will be promoted in a broad and equal manner; and that the government will not persecute those who criticize them.”

The meeting also addressed new issues. Advertising in newspapers and magazines has dropped as a consequence of Argentina’s economic crisis coupled with the digital revolution. Now, “the largest share of digital advertising, which represents the main portion of the global advertising cake, is being absorbed two companies. Google and Facebook feed on journalistic content, from which they obtain direct and indirect economic benefits, without paying those who make it,” Daniel Dessein, president of Adepa’s Freedom of Press Commission, said during the meeting. That is yet another challenge Argentine media organizations face.

*Mónica Yanakiew is a Brazilian-American print and television journalist, with vast experience covering major events worldwide, from wars and revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, to political and economic crises in the European Union and South America. She has worked for Brazil's main newspapers and television channels and also for the Philadelphia Inquirer. She currently lives in Buenos Aires and co-authored the book, "Argentinos: Mitos, Manias e Milongas" (Planeta 2005).