Wile Argentina fell deeper into economic crisis during 2001, and President Fernando de la Rúa resigned in disgrace as a result, the media worked largely unhindered. But the worsening economy hurt advertising and sales, and the Supreme Court dealt damaging blows to press freedom.
2001 was Argentina’s fourth year of recession, and the country saw widespread street protests and strikes against austerity measures aimed at erasing the country’s budget deficit. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) provided a US$8 billion bailout in August, but by year’s end, the fund withheld a US$1.26 billion loan installment. At press time, Argentina had defaulted on its foreign debts and had devalued its peso.
On May 1, Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo imposed a 21 percent value-added tax (VAT) on all media sales, according to Gabriel Matijas, manager of the publishers’ association Asociación de Entidades Periodísticas Argentinas. Matijas told CPJ that before May 1, print media were only required to pay VAT on advertising revenues. Since the new tax would have bankrupted many media outlets–especially smaller ones in the provinces–the government halved the tax and allowed publishers to reduce their social security payments in an equal amount to what they paid in VAT taxes.
Few attacks on press freedom occurred in 2001, a fact attributable to Argentina’s vibrant and combative media, which publicized attempted restrictions with gusto. Yet the press was powerless against the Supreme Court, which is stocked with supporters of former president Carlos Saúl Menem. On November 20, the Supreme Court threw out charges against Menem, who had been under house arrest since June on accusations of illegal arms trafficking with Ecuador and Croatia–a scandal that was uncovered by the media. In its widely criticized ruling, the court took the opportunity to warn other judges against the pressure of public opinion, “whether spontaneously formed or oriented by the media.”
The Supreme Court handed Menem another victory on September 25 in a case against the newsmagazine NOTICIAS. The court ruled that the weekly had violated Menem’s right to privacy by reporting on his extramarital relationship with a former schoolteacher. Besides requiring the newsmagazine to pay Menem 60,000 pesos (US$60,000), the Supreme Court ordered NOTICIAS to publish the judgment.
On November 15, Horacio Verbitsky and Eduardo Bertoni, secretary-general and legal adviser, respectively, of the Argentine press freedom organization PERIODISTAS, presented the NOTICIAS case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C. Accompanied by CPJ board member and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page and World Press Freedom Committee executive director Marilyn Greene, Verbitsky and Bertoni presented a 68-page complaint to IACHR executive secretary Santiago A. Canton on behalf of PERIODISTAS and NOTICIAS asking the IACHR to suspend the verdict while the commission examines the case. At year’s end, the commission was studying the case.
Verbitsky was in the United States to receive one of CPJ’s 2001 International Press Freedom Awards for his pathbreaking reporting and his efforts to fight for a better legal framework for press freedom.
A bill designed to rid Argentine law of criminal defamation statutes was signed by then-president Adolfo Rodríguez Saá on December 27 and is currently awaiting congressional approval. After the IACHR negotiated a friendly settlement in 1999 between PERIODISTAS and the Argentine government relating to several criminal defamation cases, PERIODISTAS developed the legislation, which introduces and codifies the “actual malice” and neutral reporting standards.
Under the “actual malice” standards, first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1964 case New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, plaintiffs must prove not only that the published information is false, but also that 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 from an explicitly mentioned source. While the new law only outlaws criminal defamation in the case of public figures, it provides significant additional protections for Argentine journalists.
On August 23, 2001, the Supreme Court confirmed its 1986 decision on neutral reporting standards. The ruling upheld a lower court decision rejecting former army major Arnaldo Luis Bruno’s lawsuit against the daily La Nación over an article that linked him to the 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires.
In the investigation into the 1999 murder of Ricardo Gangeme, publisher and editor of the weekly magazine El Informador Chubutense, three jailed suspects were released on September 21 because they had spent two years in prison without being brought to trial, according to Juan Carlos Rojas, deputy editor of La Jornada, a daily that Gangeme edited until 1998. No trial date had been set at year’s end, Rojas said.
Unidentified individuals ransacked the offices of the weekly Análisis, based in the town of Paraná in Entre Ríos Province, north of Buenos Aires on the Uruguayan border.
The attack likely took place in the early morning hours, when the office was closed. The doors to the weekly’s offices were not forced open, leading staffers to believe that the perpetrators had a key. The entire office was ransacked and drawer locks were tampered with, suggesting that the premises had been thoroughly searched.
The attackers took documents, audio recordings of interviews, a videotape, and two cellular phones. They also searched the desk of editor Daniel Enz, taking documents but leaving valuable items such as signed checks. Because they did not steal any expensive office equipment, robbery was not a likely motive.
In the January 25 issue of Análisis, Enz wrote that days before the break-in, individuals who appeared to be plainclothes intelligence agents kept the weekly’s offices under surveillance.
Enz claimed the attack was intended to intimidate the paper’s staff. He speculated that local officials ordered the attack in response to Análisis’ critical coverage of the provincial government.
Later on January 18, local police visited the Análisis offices to gather evidence and dust for fingerprints. Examining magistrate Raúl Herzovich was subsequently placed in charge of the investigation.
At press time, the inquiry into the assault was stalled, and Enz had not been called to testify.
Marcelo Bonelli, Clarín
Julio Blanck, Clarín
Bonelli, a journalist with the national daily Clarín, and Blanck, Clarín‘s national political editor, were charged with breaching tax confidentiality after an article by Bonelli in the June 5, 2000, edition of Clarín reported that Víctor Alderete, the former head of the Comprehensive Medical Attention Program, the national health service for retirees, was being investigated by the General Direction of Taxes (DGI) for tax evasion.
Bonelli reported that the DGI suspected Alderete, who claimed to have a negative income, of hiding income behind loans he obtained from a dummy corporation in order to purchase a farm for 4.5 million pesos (US$4.5 million). Bonelli also wrote that Alderete was suspected of bribery and channeling money from bribes to the dummy corporation.
In his article, Bonelli cited Alderete’s 1997 and 1998 tax returns, the latest available.
On March 28, 2001, federal judge Claudio Bonadio did not deny the truthfulness of the article but ordered the prosecution of Bonelli under Law 11.683, which guarantees the confidentiality of tax information. In the same ruling, the judge dismissed the charges against Blanck, contending that he had fulfilled his responsibility to ensure that the information published was correct.
The charge against Bonelli carries a prison sentence of one month to two years, according to the local press freedom organization PERIODISTAS.
On July 17, the Federal Appeals Court overturned Judge Bonadio’s decision and ruled that press freedom should prevail over individual privacy, especially when the news is of public interest or involves a public official. The judges further ruled that Law 11.683 did not apply to journalists.
On July 7, 2000, Alderete was prosecuted for tax evasion and held in preventive detention. He was released on September 18 of this year, but the investigation into his finances continued at press time.
Jorge Fontevecchia, NOTICIAS
Héctor D’Amico, NOTICIAS
The Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling against the weekly newsmagazine NOTICIAS, its director Fontevecchia, and its former editor D’Amico.
According to the judgment, NOTICIAS violated former president Carlos Saúl Menem’s right to privacy by reporting on his extramarital relationship with Martha Meza, a former schoolteacher who is currently a parliamentary deputy.
In 1996, Menem sued NOTICIAS for invasion of privacy over a series of 1995 articles about his relationship with Meza.
NOTICIAS reported that the relationship began in the early 1980s during Argentina’s military dictatorship (the future president was detained in Formosa Province at the time), and that Menem was the father of Meza’s illegitimate son, who was born in 1981. The weekly also reported that Menem gave various expensive gifts to Meza.
Meza, who by 1995 had become a provincial congressional deputy for Menem’s Justicialist Party (PJ), currently serves as a PJ deputy in the federal parliament.
Menem lost the case, but an appeals court overturned the ruling in 1998. On September 25, five of nine Supreme Court justices voted to uphold the 1998 verdict against NOTICIAS, with four abstentions.
The Supreme Court’s September 25 ruling also upheld an appellate court order requiring NOTICIAS to publish the judgment. However, the Supreme Court lowered Menem’s damages award from 150,000 pesos (US$150,000) to 60,000 pesos (US$60,000).
Neither Menem nor the judges have ever questioned the accuracy of the magazine’s reporting.
On November 15, Horacio Verbitsky and Eduardo Bertoni, secretary-general and legal adviser, respectively, of the Argentine press freedom organization PERIODISTAS, filed a petition on the NOTICIAS case with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, D.C.
Accompanied by CPJ board member and Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page and World Press Freedom Committee executive director Marilyn Greene, Verbitsky and Bertoni presented a 68-page complaint to IACHR executive secretary Santiago A. Canton on behalf of PERIODISTAS and NOTICIAS. The complaint asked the IACHR to suspend the verdict while it examines the case, as well as to urge the Argentine government to amend its legal system in order to guarantee freedom of expression.
CPJ published an alert about the case that same day. At year’s end, the IACHR was still reviewing the complaint.