Alejandro Astesiano was arrested by the police at the end of September 2022. The then-chief of security of the current President Luis Lacalle Pou, falsified documents to obtain passports for Russian citizens who had no links with Uruguay. From that moment on, and during months, this story was on the front page of newspapers and was the main news of web new sites. It even reached the international press such as BBC News or CNN. As his Whatsapp chats were leaked to the press, his criminal record, other crimes he was allegedly committing, and his wide network of contacts and influences became public. An internet search shows that the amount of information generated by the Uruguayan press about the Astesiano case is overwhelming. Here are some clues to understand the dilemmas of this extensive and complex coverage.
The criteria and journalistic dilemmas in the Astesiano case were discussed at a panel held at the School of Information and Communication of the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, on March 28. Four editors from some of the main print media in the country were present: Guillermo Draper from Semanario Búsqueda, Lucas Silva from La Diaria, Martín Natalevich from El Observador, and Rosario Touriño from Semanario Brecha. The editors spoke about the mapping of Astesiano's Whatsapp chats, and the attack on the press by the Uruguayan government in recent months.
"We came across Astesiano’s first chats due to the formalization act, when the prosecutor held the first press conference there were already some chats present," Silva said. He said that the first news outlet to make this information public was the Uruguayan newspaper El País, so La Diaria had to "map who had access to the rest of the information and work to obtain it. More than receiving the information, we went looking after it". By Nov. 16, 2022, they already had access to the investigative file with 1,300 Whatsapp chats between Astesiano and ministers, political leaders, diplomats, police chiefs, and businessmen.
On Dec. 1, 2022, El Observador accessed 843 text files with Astesiano's Whatsapp conversations. Later they accessed a second batch. Natalevich said that, as soon as they received the information, they put together a working group of six journalists and three editors to process the data. "We wanted to read it fast and read it all." That is why they divided the chats and put together an Excel sheet with the contacts, names, telephone numbers, what relevance the chat had, and observations to work on the material as a group. "This was quite effective for working, so we had a picture of the whole forest," the editor said.
As La Diaria had an advantage in the publication of the case, Natalevich said that his newspaper was concerned about "carrying out coverage that could differentiate them from the rest of the media." And he added: "We chose to tell who Astesiano was, with whom he moved around, how he acted, and why he was a relevant figure." That is how they came to publish an article by journalist Carolina Delisa that showed the link Astesiano had with the president's family and the power he wielded through his Whatsapp messages. The articles that emerged from processing data from that first batch of chats were published between Dec. 8 and 14.
In Búsqueda they also accessed the material later than La Diaria, which for Draper meant a "personal frustration." For them, access to these chats "was very important." Although he recognized that as a journalist, "you always want to get the scoop, when the information is distributed the work is richer."
On the other hand, Touriño said that at Brecha they did not number the number of files they received, they simply found themselves "with a huge folder." Faced with the challenge of processing all that data, she got together with another journalist with whom she spent several days until three in the morning reviewing Whatsapp chats. Then other colleagues joined the team.
"Already seeing what La Diaria had published, we decided first to work on the profile of the military men who were linked to Astesiano, something that other media had not done." The military men Touriño mentioned run Vertical Skies, a company that asked Astesiano for the personal files of two opposition politicians. "We verified who was behind the Vertical Skies' corporation. We saw other bids by this company, we saw they had connections with other political actors, and we saw that Astesiano's group of influence was very large," she said.
Astesiano was the President's Chief of Security and was part of an organization that committed crimes by providing false documents to foreigners. Through an investigation by the Prosecutor's Office, it was learned that some of the meetings of this organization were held on the fourth floor of the Executive Tower, where the president works. In addition to this crime, Astesiano was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for influence peddling, disclosure of a secret and combining personal and public interests.
For the editors, it’s important for this not to be forgotten. Because at the beginning, one of the government's strategies to lower the public profile of the case was to declare that Astesiano was a mere "custodian" (or bodyguard) of the president, while the president assured that Astesiano's reputation was "irreproachable."
Then, the government began to attack the media. On more than one instance, president Lacalle Pou said that some "news outlets clearly have a political connection." On another occasion, one of his ministers said that information on the Astesiano case was being leaked "in a trickle" and with "intel" to benefit the opposition. Another minister questioned the attitude of the press, deciding "when one chat comes out and when other chats and messages come out." The Uruguayan Press Association (APU, by its Spanish acronym) expressed concern about the president's statements because they stigmatize the media.
Faced with these accusations, Silva said that at La Diaria they were working and publishing the material based on availability. "We work under very precarious conditions and hold multiple jobs, so we did what we could." For Natalevich, the reason for publishing a little at a time and on different days was an "editorial economy": "If you publish all the stories at once, they get lost in the shuffle." In his case, Draper emphasized the importance of "working and processing the information, and publishing it when the issue is hot" in the public agenda. Touriño’s thoughts were along the same lines. She’d measured "public interest" to know when and what to publish.
The editors agreed that publishing the conversations Astesiano had via Whatsapp "in raw form," without processing the information, was never an option. "We left out some material because it made no sense to make it public, it was private material. It’d have been suicidal to publish everything raw," Silva said. For him, what is happening with the current government "is a dispute over the control of the narrative. The fact that every day the press published a new story, that’s how it works in the rest of the world. It’s a balance of power. We can argue that the daily press conferences [given by the president during the Covid-19 pandemic] were a trickle of information."
While the press was processing Astesiano's chats to which it had access, it made public a conversation Astesiano had with the deputy executive director of the police. In this case, Astesiano asked him for specific information about a personal flight of the president's ex-partner, Lorena Ponce de León. The separation between the president and the former first lady was confirmed in May 2022 and, according to the media, this event happened in July of the same year.
The incident was covered by most of the national media, except for one: El Observador. The newspaper's management decided not to make this information public because it dealt with "personal issues" that "violate the privacy of individuals." Despite this decision, the newspaper's journalists (including Natalevich) soon had an article, so they unilaterally decided to post a copy of the text on their social media accounts. "For us it was journalistically relevant that the President's chief of security was investigating people behind their backs and without their consent. That's why we published it any way we could," Natalevich said during the panel.
At the time, according to an article in La Diaria, social organizations such as the Center for Archive and Access to Public Information and Amnesty International called management’s attitude at El Observador "regrettable," "a worrying instance," and that it "weakens public debate." APU even qualified the incident as "censorship," and made it clear there were calls from the government for this information not to be published.
For Draper, within the media "there are permanent discussions about whether to publish something from people’s private life or not. This specific case has the flavoring that it deals with the private life of very public people, but there was also a lot of private life material that was not published." In her case, Touriño reiterated that if "the president uses his security to follow his ex-wife, people have to know about it, it’s in the public interest."
Regarding pressures the media and journalists receive while practicing the profession, the editors agreed they are constant. "We’re under pressure every day. It’s part of the game and we have to know how to deal with it, we’re used to it," Natalevich said. Then, the editor assured that the pressures come from "power in its broadest sense." According to Touriño, "this is a government that is making calls to the media by advisors who are very close to the president." And she added: "For example, they did not want this to be known as the Astesiano case, it had to be the passport case. They sought not to link it to Astesiano. I never saw such a case of censorship."
Florencia Pagola is an independent journalist from Uruguay. She researches and writes about human rights and freedom of expression in Latin America.