Argentinian Media Face Harassment, Threats and Financial Pressure

A slap and a death threat on a public sidewalk; a radio antenna expertly sabotaged; overt warnings that some names must never be mentioned in print. Reporting on corruption in Argentina is dangerous work, and local journalists say it is getting worse.

While coming out of a store last December, Argentinian reporter Rigoberto Carrigall was confronted by two individuals who slapped him and threatened to kill him. They also ordered him to stop writing about a lawyer who until very recently was in public office and is now the executive director of a radio station.

According to Carrigall, the lawyer watched the aggression from a black BMW parked outside the store.

In February, a regional politician of the ruling party involved in a scandal told journalist Mario Otero that he´s going to rip his head off if he writes anything about his sons. When asked about it, the politician said the reporter had provoked him with an ironic comment but reiterated the threat. He added that it is also valid for any other reporter who mentions the involvement of his sons in the scandal.

Radio Goya, a small cooperative of 20 independent reporters, suffered the loss of its antennae one January night, when three of its steel wires where cut and made it fall down. The station´s representative said the type of cuts proves the attack was perpetrated by individuals who used special machinery and knew exactly which wires would affect the structure. The price of the antennae will stop the station from broadcasting for many months and, for the time being, is forcing it to broadcast from another station that reaches a far smaller audience.

These and similar cases are the first thing one notices when visiting the Argentinian Journalism Forum´s website (in Spanish) and help explain why Argentina dropped from the Moderate tier in 2007 to the Weak tier in the Global Integrity Report: 2008.

The country´s scorecard on media issues paints an ugly picture, where not only regional politicians try to restrict freedom of the press but the national government is also openly using public resources to manipulate publications.

In the Global Integrity Report: 2007, one of our peer reviewers gave the voice of alarm that in the last few years the use of cancellation of official advertising as a tool to punish or reward publications “increased tremendously”.

According to the report, under President Nestor Kirchner´s term (2003-2007) there was more self-imposed censorship than under Carlos Menem (1989-1999), who is currently on trial on arm-smuggling charges.

Menem’s legal process started after a journalistic investigation revealed that he approved the illegal sell of weapons to Croatia and Ecuador, in violation of U.N. and Organization of American States bans. He denies the charges.

There were expectations that in 2008, under new President Cristina Fernández, Kirchner´s wife, things would get better, but the Global Integrity Report: Argentina shows the opposite has happened. According to our lead researcher, the Government not only continues to utilize official advertising but has given a step forward and now even puts pressure on companies to make them advertise on certain media organizations only.

Reporters and opposition leaders point out there´s also a proliferation of private companies that sympathize with the Government and are dedicated to pursue millions in public advertising, by creating or buying media organizations.

While there is no pre-publication censorship in Argentina, “in some cases there are phone calls or verbal threats to stop the publication of information that may affect the Government´s public image”. This blog previously covered Argentina’s use of “soft censorship” via government advertising.

The tactic of punishing media by withdrawing advertising is so evident that in at least one recent case the Supreme Court ruled against that practice and more similar rulings are expected soon. However, the fight could be decided in Congress.

President Fernandez expects congressmen to start debating soon a Government-sponsored bill intended to regulate the work of the media, while the opposition is preparing on a bill to regulate the distribution of public advertising.

May freedom of the press win.

— Cross posted from the Global Integrity Commons