IN A FRUSTRATING YEAR FOR PRESS FREEDOM in Argentina, a proposed bill that would have eliminated criminal penalties for defamation cases involving public officials foundered after local journalists implicated members of the Senate in a major bribery scandal. Senators who had supported the proposed bill quickly withdrew their support.
The long battle to reform Argentina’s onerous press laws began in 1992, when then-president Carlos Menem filed criminal charges against investigative reporter Horacio Verbitsky for desacato, or disrespect. Verbitsky appealed his prosecution to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which ruled in his favor. Under the settlement terms, the Argentine government agreed to repeal its desacato law, which it did in 1993.
In October 1999, Verbitsky, who is also secretary general of the local press freedom organization Asociación Periodistas, reached a settlement in a separate suit he had brought before the IACHR. Periodistas had alleged that the Argentine Supreme Court violated both domestic and international law in three separate rulings involving defamation offenses. The government agreed to Verbitsky’s proposed settlement, pledging to work for the reform of the country’s criminal defamation law.
The bill, developed by Periodistas and endorsed by President Fernando de la Rúa during his campaign, eliminates criminal defamation in the case of public figures, and introduces the “actual malice” and neutral reporting standards. Under the “actual malice” standard, first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1964 case of 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 doctrine, already accepted by the Argentine Supreme Court in a 1986 case, holds that accurately reproducing information obtained from an explicitly mentioned source is not actionable.
After taking office in December 1999, de la Rúa asked Congress to consider the bill immediately. A first hearing was held in the Senate that same month, but the bill stalled after a number of representatives expressed reservations.
In June, CPJ and Periodistas hosted a conference on criminal defamation in the Americas that brought prominent journalists and lawyers from throughout the hemisphere to Buenos Aires. The conference sought to raise awareness about how such laws are used to stifle independent reporting and punish journalists who criticize powerful officials, and to discuss ways to work for their elimination. At the same time, the conference participants expressed their support for Argentine government efforts to reform the law. Addressing the participants, Argentina’s then-minister of justice, Ricardo Gil Lavedra, noted that, “the protection of information related to the public interest represents a great responsibility for the state.”
But just as the bill was gaining momentum, the Argentine press helped blow the lid on an explosive bribery scandal that implicated at least 11 senators. Allegations that the lawmakers had accepted large sums of money in return for their approval of a controversial labor reform bill rocked the de la Rúa administration, which had been elected with a mandate to clean up government.
After the president reshuffled his cabinet in October, popular vice-president Carlos &AACUTE;lvarez resigned in protest against de la Rúa’s failure to dismiss two officials implicated in the bribery scandal. The scandal also forced Senator José Genoud of the ruling Radical Civic Union (UCR), who had endorsed the press freedom bill, to step down as acting president of the Senate on October 8 under a cloud of suspicion.
Among the 11 legislators called to answer questions before a judge was Senator Augusto Alasino, who was forced to step down as leader of the opposition Justicialist Party Senate bloc in September. In an apparent effort to get back at the press, Alasino later introduced a bill rejecting “the unlimited use of freedom of expression.” On December 29, a judge ruled there was not enough evidence to prosecute the 11 senators.
Meanwhile, the neutral reporting standard that was accepted by the Supreme Court and then codified in the proposed press bill was violated when television journalist Bernardo Neustadt was found guilty of defamation based on remarks about a local judge that a guest had made on his talk show “Tiempo Nuevo.” On February 9, according to Periodistas, the Buenos Aires Civil Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s 80,000 peso (US$80,000) judgment against Neustadt, his television station, Telefé, and the offending guest.
On September 14, the Supreme Court dealt press freedom another blow by rejecting an appeal brought by journalist Eduardo Kimel, who in 1999 was found guilty of insulting former judge Guillermo Rivarola in his 1989 book San Patricio’s Massacre, which dealt with the 1976 murders of five priests. In April 1999, Kimel received a one-year suspended sentence and a fine of 20,000 pesos (US$20,000). The case has been presented to the IACHR.
While Argentine journalists reported numerous threats last year, there were no violent attacks on the press in 2000. Meanwhile, the investigation into the 1999 murder of journalist Ricardo Gangeme, publisher and editor of the weekly magazine El Informador Chubutense in the town of Trelew, Chubut Province, was inching forward at year’s end.
Just before he was killed, Gangeme had published a series of articles about procurement irregularities at the Trelew Electrical Cooperative. The man accused of masterminding the crime, Osvaldo Daniel Viti, was expected to stand trial in March or April of 2001, along with the assassin and an accomplice. Viti was once an advisor to the board of the cooperative, according to Gangeme’s colleague Daniel Alejandro Morales.
Three other suspects, who had been detained in 1999, were freed in 2000, Morales said.
On February 2, an appellate court passed life sentences on eight men convicted of participating in the 1997 assassination of news photographer José Luis Cabezas. On January 25, 1997, the photographer’s charred and handcuffed body was found near Pinamar, a beach resort where he had been on assignment for Noticias magazine. The court found that the murder had been masterminded by businessman Alfredo Yabrán, who committed suicide in 1998. (Cabezas was one of the first journalists to photograph this reclusive tycoon.) But many Argentines felt that the investigation into the slaying left unanswered questions about the possible involvement of top government officials.
La Voz del Interior
Unidentified individuals threatened and harassed employees of the Córdoba daily La Voz del Interior in response to the paper’s allegations of corruption and misrule in the northern province of Santiago del Estero.
On July 1, a man driving an unregistered white Fiat Duna intercepted a delivery van carrying copies of La Voz del Interior in Santiago del Estero. The man told the driver of the van, Eduardo Gómez, that subsequent issues of the paper would disappear or be burned if they contained articles about provincial governor Carlos Juárez, an 83-year-old, five-term incumbent from the now-opposition Justicialist Party.
La Voz del Interior subsequently filed a complaint, but Santiago del Estero law enforcement authorities have yet to identify the vehicle or its occupant.
These threats coincided with a two-part series titled “El Reino de los Juárez” (“The Reign of the Juárezes”) which ran in the June 30 and July 1 issues of La Voz del Interior. The series strongly criticized what it described as the personalistic and authoritarian governing style of Juárez and his wife, Mercedes Aragonés de Juárez, who also serves as vice-governor. In addition, it denounced allegedly pervasive corruption in the local judicial system, which suffers from a massive case backlog.
On the morning of August 1, according to local press reports, an unidentified man called the main offices of La Voz del Interior, in Córdoba Province, and asked to speak with a newsroom editor. The call came a few hours after the newspaper had sent a correspondent to Santiago del Estero. “You take note,” the caller said. “We know your journalist is here, at a hotel. He may suffer an accident if you keep bothering Juárez.” At around 5 p.m. that afternoon, another anonymous male caller threatened to “crush” the newspaper.
In public statements, the Juárez government downplayed the seriousness of these threats. On August 4, CPJ included the La Voz del Interior case in a news alert about threats to journalists in Santiago del Estero Province.
Julio César Castiglione, El Liberal
In an apparent attempt to intimidate the local daily El Liberal, members of the ruling party in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, aided by a compliant judiciary, filed a criminal defamation complaint against editorial director Castiglione. In addition, several El Liberal staffers were harassed and threatened by unidentified individuals.
Santiago del Estero Province is run by Governor Carlos Juárez of the Justicialist Party (PJ). Juárez’s wife, Mercedes Aragonés de Juárez, is the provincial vice-governor and head of Rama Femenina (Feminine Branch), a women’s organization affiliated with the PJ.
In June, El Liberal published a two-part series exposing alleged irregularities and corruption in the Juárez government. The first article quoted leaked state intelligence reports that suggested the involvement of provincial authorities in a surveillance operation set up to spy on church and opposition leaders in the area.
The second article documented a pattern of irregularities in the awarding of construction contracts for public housing. In addition, El Liberal reported that Rama Femenina had improperly used government connections to obtain public housing for its supporters.
In mid-July, El Liberal‘s staff received threatening phone calls, while unidentified individuals distributed flyers that insulted three of its journalists. The newspaper also complained that its phone lines had been tapped.
On August 5, El Liberal reported that 40 members of Rama Femenina had filed a criminal defamation complaint against Castiglione. Filed on August 4, the complaint alleged that El Liberal had damaged their reputation by reprinting an article from the Córdoba-based daily La Voz del Interior that referred to Rama Femenina supporters as rameras, which means “prostitutes” in Spanish.
La Voz del Interior was not sued for publishing the original article.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Carlos León González &AACUTE;valos, declared that he was also representing Rama Femenina’s total membership of 4000 women, who planned to file similar complaints in groups of 40 members. The total damages could amount to 20 million pesos (US$20 million).
A few days later, El Liberal reported that Gregorio Héctor Layús, its correspondent in the town of Las Termas, Santiago del Estero Province, had received a package containing a fake bomb. The package, which was addressed to “Mr. Layús – Las Termas,” was left at the entrance to the journalist’s home during the morning of August 7, and was discovered by a relative.
After the local police were called, they transported the box to the police station. When explosive experts opened the box, they found an Eveready battery wired to an alarm clock and three wooden sticks in place of dynamite. Local police opened an investigation into this threat.
On October 20, a local penal court ordered El Liberal to post a bond of 384,000 pesos (US$384,000), pending the outcome of the various defamation suits. The trial had not concluded by year’s end, but it was clear that an unfavorable ruling against El Liberal would financially cripple the newspaper.
Jorge Larrosa, Página/12
Three days after his work was introduced in court as evidence against a local policeman, news photographer Larrosa began receiving a series of anonymous phone threats.
Larrosa, who worked for the Buenos Aires daily Página/12, told CPJ that when he answered the phone, he would hear a recorded funeral march. On August 19, the journalist disconnected his home phone. A few hours later, at around 1:30 a.m. on August 20, an unidentified man called Página/12‘s newsroom and said to a receptionist, “Tell the photographer to be careful.”
On August 26, at around 9:50 p.m., another anonymous caller phoned Página/12 and told fellow journalists, “That meddling photographer is a dead man.” At this point, Larrosa filed a complaint with a local court.
The threats were related to Página/12‘s coverage of a botched 1999 police operation known as “the massacre of Villa Ramallo,” in which police were accused of colluding with thieves who took hostages in the course of a bank robbery in the town of Villa Ramallo, Buenos Aires Province.
Página/12 assigned Larrosa to cover the hostage crisis. The photographs that he took allegedly showed a policeman hiding material evidence, which later disappeared, in the trunk of a patrol car. In January, a police officer was detained and accused of hiding evidence and being an accessory to the robbery. And on August 11, the investigating judge ordered another officer’s arrest on the basis of Larrosa’s photographs, according to local press reports.
On August 31, CPJ wrote to Attorney General Nicolás Eduardo Becerra, expressing concern about the death threats against Larrosa and urging a complete investigation.