Freedom of the Press
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President Nestor Kirchner’s four-year term ended in December 2007 with the inauguration of his wife, former senator Cristina Fernandez, but the media environment for much of the year was affected by his particular news management style. Known as the “estilo K,” Kirchner’s media strategies included the use of government advertising money, reduced media access to the president, and intimidating calls to critical news directors. Although President Fernandez is a beneficiary of this strategy, there was hope (but little immediate evidence) that she would improve press relations. Overall, the year witnessed both positive and negative developments, with the courts interceding against discriminatory advertising practices, while legal and extralegal harassment of journalists continued.
Freedom of speech and of the media are guaranteed under the constitution; however, press freedom is occasionally restricted in practice. While federal insult laws that criminalize defamation of a public official no longer exist in Argentina, government officials have been known to use other federal “crimes against honor” laws that more generally prohibit accusing someone of committing a crime or impugning a person’s honor. Such civil laws call for the accuser to pay fines for any material or “moral” damages caused, while criminal laws carry jail time of up to three years. The use of criminal legal action against the press is more prevalent at the state level than at the federal level. Among the many legal cases brought against journalists throughout the year, a judge in the northwestern Salta province convicted radio journalist Sergio Poma of criminal slander in September and gave him a one-year suspended prison sentence and a one-year working ban for calling Governor Juan Carlos Romero “a crook of the worst kind.” Poma was also facing three separate criminal slander cases at the end of the year. The Inter American Press Association called on Argentina to use civil penalties to settle such disputes. Charges of inciting violence and arson brought against radio journalists Nestor Pasquini and Hugo Francischelli following a 2006 demonstration were dismissed owing to lack of evidence; the two were released in March after spending more than three months in jail. In July, state authorities in Santa Fe province ordered the closure without notification of printing facilities at the city’s only newspaper, El Observador, after a permit dispute. The Argentine Journalists Forum (FOPEA) accused authorities of ignoring a provincial constitutional ban against shuttering presses, and owner Andres Sharretta obtained an injunction from a local appeals court.
Media groups arguing that state advertising allocation practices were overly influenced by partisan political incentives sued on constitutional grounds. In an important decision in September, the Argentine Supreme Court ruled that while the media have no right to a specified amount of state advertising, “the government may not manipulate advertising by giving it to or taking it away from media outlets on the basis of discriminatory criteria.” The ruling, in a case filed by media group Editorial Rio Negro, ordered Neuquen provincial authorities to rewrite their regulations, which could set a precedent for a similar pending federal case filed by media company Grupo Editorial Perfil.
Some instances of physical harassment of journalists continue to take place. Media watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontieres cited 20 cases of attacks on reporters in 2007, down from 34 in 2006. Among them, police shot Santa Cruz radio reporter Adela Gomez in the foot with rubber bullets on September 13 after she identified herself as a journalist. Gomez was covering a protest of union workers who happened to be blocking the route of Kirchner supporters heading to a presidential rally. A commander reported that the operation’s leader and the border guard who shot the journalist were fired. Dario Illanes of the Salta province daily El Tribuno was arrested and beaten on August 1 after trying to report from a juvenile detention center. Charges were later dropped, and three police officers were suspended. Police in Entre Rios province physically assaulted and later released radio reporter Carlos Furman in September after he accused them of downplaying the desecration of a cemetery.
There are more than 150 daily newspapers, hundreds of radio stations, and dozens of television channels in Argentina. The country’s print media are all privately owned, while the numerous privately owned radio and television stations are able to broadcast without restrictions. While national publications have been hampered by discretionary use of state ad budgets, provincial publications have been even more vulnerable owing to weak local private sectors and politically cautious owners. In Kirchner and Fernandez’s hometown of Santa Cruz, for example, investigative journalist Maria O’Donnell reported that media owner and former Kirchner chauffeur Rudy Ullos Igor received almost US$1 million in state advertising in 2006 alone. His media group consistently featured Kirchner, and later Fernandez, prominently and favorably. The political use of state advertising seemed only to increase as the October presidential elections neared. According to a study by the Argentine nonprofit Association for Civil Rights, outgoing president Kirchner’s administration increased advertising spending 63 percent in the first half of 2007, as compared with the figure for 2006, in the run-up to the election of Kirchner’s wife, former senator Cristina Fernandez. The Argentine Community Radio Forum celebrated the first five broadcasting licenses to be granted to noncommercial radio since the Broadcasting Law was enacted 25 years ago under the Videla dictatorship, but it vowed to continue to pressure Congress to rewrite the law altogether. The licenses included an AM station for the famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. The great majority of radio stations continue to operate in legal limbo two years after the law’s provision prohibiting noncommercial radio was declared unconstitutional. In addition to the foreign news broadcasts that are widely available in Argentina, the internet served as an unrestricted source of information and was accessed by nearly 40 percent of the population.