Attacks on the Press 2002: Argentina

Despite a catastrophic economic crisis in Argentina during 2002–including the default of US$141 billion in foreign debt, a sharp currency devaluation, and the banking system’s collapse–the media remain free to report on matters of national importance.

Argentines, 50 percent of whom live below the poverty line, repeatedly filled the streets to protest the government’s inability to cope with the failing economy. Media outlets have been hit hard as well. A free fall in both advertising revenue and circulation caused many small and medium-size publications to fold and also brought financial turmoil to some of the country’s biggest publishing houses and radio and television stations.

According to Lauro Laiño, president of the publisher’s association Asociación de Entidades Periodísticas Argentinas (Association of Argentine Journalistic Entities), the print media face an extremely difficult period because of increasing taxes and the higher costs of imported supplies brought on by the currency devaluation. He fears that the economic situation will eventually hurt the media’s ability to cover news freely. “The freedom of the press cannot be guaranteed without freedom to print publications,” he told CPJ.

Meanwhile, Editorial Perfil, Argentina’s largest magazine publisher, filed for bankruptcy in December 2001 and at the same time petitioned a judge to annul the Argentine journalists’ statute, which makes it difficult for companies to fire media professionals and requires employers to pay substantial compensation packages in cases of unfair dismissal. A judge ruled in the company’s favor, and workers, fearing layoffs, called a strike, which ended 23 days later, after the Labor Department helped negotiate an agreement.

In a country pervaded with hopelessness and a complete lack of trust in democratic institutions, the press continues to play a vital role in uncovering corruption, denouncing police repression, and publicizing the stories of the country’s most impoverished citizens. In September, María Mercedes Vázquez, a reporter for LT 7 Radio Corrientes, released transcripts of phone taps she had obtained revealing that several public officials may have been involved in a conspiracy to oust the governor of the northeastern Corrientes Province. Because of her reporting, on October 6, unidentified assailants threw a bomb at her house, but no one was injured. Previously, Vázquez received death threats and was beaten for her coverage of a political activist who was accused of looting businesses. The journalist has been under police protection since February.

CPJ documented an increasing number of attacks against journalists in 2002. At a rally for former president Carlos Saúl Menem on November 19, Menem supporters kicked and punched three journalists from the Buenos Aires TV station Canal 13. On November 23, a legislator from the southern province of Tierra del Fuego threatened and tried to attack a radio journalist after he criticized the lawmaker’s work.

A bill to repeal Argentina’s criminal defamation laws, which was developed by the press freedom organization PERIODISTAS, stalled in 2002 because Congress focused most of its time on investigating the country’s judiciary, which lawmakers have accused of rampant corruption. Taking advantage of the situation, politicians filed several criminal suits against reporters and columnists who have investigated corruption cases.

In mid-October, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) agreed to review the case against the newsmagazine NOTICIAS, which the Supreme Court convicted on September 25, 2001, of violating former president Menem’s right to privacy by reporting on his extramarital relationship with a former schoolteacher. The IACHR was still studying the case at year’s end.

Another bill currently before Congress would add three articles to the Penal Code criminalizing the operation of small, community radio stations without broadcasting licenses. Many of these stations have been awaiting licenses for years, but the government has not responded to their requests. Some have remained on the air anyway. Politicians have at times used the stations during political campaigns, and many broadcasters receive or have received government advertising. If passed, the law could expose hundreds of broadcasters nationwide to prison sentences.

On December 17, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, owner of Grupo Clarín–one of South America’s largest media conglomerates–was arrested for allegedly adopting two children illegally. The charges came during an ongoing investigation into adoption irregularities during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War of the 1970s and 1980s, which killed more than 30,000 people. Some sources suspect that the arrest may have come in retaliation for Clarín’s coverage of a scandal involving former president Menem, who was held under house arrest for five months for illegally selling arms to Croatia and Ecuador during his administration. Clarín called Herrera de Noble’s detention “abusive, illegal, and politically motivated.” CPJ continues to monitor the case.

On December 23, a former local police chief, Alberto Gómez, was sentenced to life in prison for organizing the kidnapping and murder of journalist José Luis Cabezas. Cabezas, a photographer for NOTICIAS, was found murdered on January 25, 1997, in the city of Pinamar, Buenos Aires Province, after having photographed a reclusive business tycoon thought to be the head of Argentina’s mafia.

September 17

Thomas Catan, The Financial Times

Catan, the Buenos Aires correspondent for the U.K.-based newspaper The Financial Times, had his phone records subpoenaed by a federal judge. The records could have potentially revealed the sources the journalist had used for a story about alleged bribes requested by Argentine legislators.

On August 20, 2002, Catan, citing unnamed bankers and diplomats he had interviewed, reported that Argentine legislators had solicited bribes from foreign banks operating in Argentina as a condition for stalling a bill that, among other things, would have reinstated a 2 percent tax on interest and commissions for a failed health scheme for bank workers. Foreign banks have strongly opposed the tax because they could reportedly lose hundreds of millions of dollars.

A federal investigation into the bribery allegations was launched in early September, and Federal Judge Claudio Bonadío called Catan to testify. In his September 17 tes- timony, Catan said that four sources, whom he refused to identify, supported his story. Judge Bonadío asked the journalist to give his phone number, without explaining why it was necessary. As Catan finished his testimony, however, the journalist was told that his phone records would likely be subpoenaed.

After learning that on September 18 Judge Bonadío had ordered the State Intelligence Office (SIDE) to provide him with Catan’s phone records, the journalist appealed the order to a higher court, claiming that the decision violated Article 43 of the Argentine Constitution, which protects the “secrecy of the sources of journalistic information.”

In early October, Judge Bonadío rejected a request by Public Prosecutor Guillermo Marijuan to return the phone records to the journalist with a note stating that they had not been used in the investigation. Instead, the judge gave the phone records to the SIDE.

On October 28, the Federal Chamber, to which Catan had appealed Judge Bonadío’s decision to take the phone records, ruled in favor of Catan, concluding that it was unnecessary to reveal Catan’s sources to gather evidence since the information could be obtained by other means. The court also declared that Judge Bonadío’s order “constituted an unreasonable restriction on freedom of expression and, therefore, [was] illegitimate.” The ruling further instructed Bonadío to recover the phone records from SIDE and destroy them in the presence of Catan or his lawyers.

In late October, Catan left Argentina for Great Britain, where he continues working for The Financial Times.

October 6

María Mercedes Vázquez, LT 7 Radio Corrientes

A group of unknown assailants hurled a homemade bomb at the home of Vázquez, a reporter with LT 7 Radio Corrientes, in the northeastern province of Corrientes. No one was injured, according to local press reports. In September, Vázquez had released transcripts of phone taps she obtained revealing that several public officials may have been involved in a conspiracy to oust the governor of Corrientes.

That was the third time in eight months that Vázquez was attacked or threatened in retaliation for her reporting. The journalist has been under permanent police protection since February, when she received death threats for her reporting on a corrupt judge. In one of the anonymous calls, answered by Vázquez’s elder daughter, the caller described how the journalist would be killed. Two months later, two individuals stopped Vázquez in the street and beat her, telling her not to talk about a political activist wanted by police in connection with several crimes.

October 26

Alberto Recanatini, Indymedia Argentina
Tomás Eliaschev, Indymedia Argentina

Eliaschev and Recanatini, reporters for Indymedia Argentina, an international alternative media outlet, were attacked by police while covering a protest in the capital, Buenos Aires. The protestors were calling for the release of 30 activists arrested during a Greenpeace Argentina demonstration.

In an attempt to disperse the crowd, the police fired rubber bullets and tear gas. Eliaschev told CPJ that when the police realized that they were being filmed, they shot rubber bullets at the journalists and tried to destroy their equipment. Although Recanatini was hit by three bullets and Eliaschev sustained six shots to his legs, neither was seriously injured. The journalists filed a complaint before judge Wilma López. At year’s end, the judge had taken no action on the case.