Attacks on the Press 1999: Argentina

During his decade in office, former president Carlos Menem used a flurry of lawsuits to stifle independent reporting in Argentina. His best efforts failed. When Menem stepped down on December 10, he left behind a vital and independent Argentine press.

Journalists, particularly those in the provinces, continue to worry about their physical safety. The May 13 murder of Ricardo Gangeme, publisher and editor of the weekly magazine El Informador Chubutense, in the town of Trelew, in Chubut Province, drove home the point. At year’s end, investigators were focusing on the theory that Gangeme was killed because of his reporting on local officials.

In Córdoba Province, a judge investigating the kidnapping of infants under the military dictatorship uncovered a state-sponsored operation to spy on local media, politicians, unions, and even the Catholic church. In May, four members of the army intelligence service were implicated in the case and relieved of their duties.

The Argentine press freedom organization Asociación Periodistas documented several other attacks against journalists. Among them were threats made in July against Cristian Alarcón, a reporter with the Buenos Aires daily Página/12, who was investigating the intelligence services in the coastal city of Mar del Plata. Alarcón received several warnings to cease his inquiries and then discovered that documents had been stolen from his hotel room.

The 1997 murder of photojournalist José Luis Cabezas also continues to cast a pall over the press in Argentina. On December 14, the trial of the men alleged to have carried out the killing got under way in the Dolores appeals court. One of the defendants is the security guard for Alfredo Yabrán, a reclusive millionaire with alleged ties to organized crime. Yabrán was reportedly angry that Cabezas had published his photograph in the newsweekly Noticias. Yabrán committed suicide in 1998, just as police were preparing to arrest him in the Cabezas murder.

The most important legal development of 1999 was an effort to reform the criminal-defamation law. If successful, this would give Argentina one of the best legal frameworks for press freedom in all Latin America. In January, Periodistas lodged a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) alleging that the Argentine Supreme Court had violated both domestic and international law in three separate rulings on cases of alleged defamation. During the October 1 hearing in Washington, investigative reporter Horacio Verbitsky, the vice president of Periodistas and a defendant in one of the cases, proposed a negotiated settlement with the Menem government.

Surprisingly, the government agreed to Verbitsky’s terms, pledging to work for the repeal of Argentina’s criminal-defamation law and promote the introduction of “actual malice” and neutral reporting standards. Under the “actual malice” standard, first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, plaintiffs must prove not only that the published information is false but also that the journalists knew or should have known it was false at the time of publication. The neutral reporting standard, already accepted by the Argentine Supreme Court in a 1986 case, holds that plaintiffs may not sue journalists for accurately reproducing information obtained from an explicitly mentioned source. While the new law would apply only to public figures (defamation committed against private individuals would still be a criminal offense), it would provide significant additional protections for Argentine journalists.

Menem’s successor, Fernando de la Rúa, pledged during his campaign to reform the criminal-defamation law that Menem used repeatedly to prosecute journalists. After de la Rúa took office, the bill moved onto the legislative docket. The Senate held an initial hearing on December 28; most observers expect the bill to come up for a vote in early 2000.

The urgent need for legal reform was highlighted by troubling developments in several legal cases. On April 8, the Fourth Chamber of the Appeals Court handed down a suspended one-year sentence and a US$20,000 fine to journalist Eduardo Kimel in a case dating from 1995. Judge Guillermo Rivarola accused Kimel of insulting him in the 1989 book San Patricio’s Massacre, which details the 1976 murder of five Argentine priests. And on August 10, the Supreme Court overturned the 1996 acquittal of Verbitsky, Página/12 publisher Ernesto Tiffenberg, and Fernando Sokolowicz, the paper’s editor, in a libel case brought by former president Menem.

While the Argentine press made great strides under Menem, many remained concerned about the growing concentration of media ownership. Menem did not help matters in September, when he raised the maximum number of radio and television licenses that can be held by a single individual or company from four to 24.

May 13
Ricardo Gangeme, El Informador Chubutense KILLED

A gunman shot and killed Gangeme, 56, editor and publisher of the weekly magazine El Informador Chubutense, in the town of Trelew, in Chubut Province. At 1:28 a.m., as Gangeme was parking his Chevrolet in front of his apartment, he was shot point-blank in the head with a .38 caliber pistol. A police officer who heard the shot arrived at the scene within a few minutes. Witnesses saw a man fleeing the scene on foot. Gangeme’s wallet, which contained checks and a large sum of money, was not taken, which made robbery an unlikely motive.

Gangeme founded El Informador Chubutense in 1992. Since then, the weekly had become well known for denouncing corruption and revealing intimate details of the lives of local authorities and businessmen. According to local press reports, Gangeme’s hard-hitting journalism earned him many enemies. A total of six suspects had been placed in so-called preventive detention at year’s end; their trial was expected to take place in mid-2000.