In a disappointing development, the press freedom organization PERIODISTAS (Journalists) dissolved on November 11 amid internal differences. The group, which was established nine years ago and has done extremely important work uniting the Argentine media, defending local journalists, and promoting press freedom in Latin America, said in a press release that "after a long internal discussion about the association's main goals, it was impossible to find a consensus to incorporate all the different points of view."
The group foundered on a controversy over the decision of the daily Página 12 (Page 12) to pull a column by Julio Nudler, one of its most respected columnists, about government corruption. While Nudler argued that he was censored, Página 12 Editor Ernesto Tiffenberg—who was a member of the press freedom group—said it was an editorial decision. After a long debate, PERIODISTAS issued a release saying that Nudler was not censored. Some of the members disagreed and resigned, and the group decided to dissolve after finding it impossible to reach a consensus. The members said they will continue to support colleagues whose freedom is threatened, especially in the country's interior.
Beyond the PERIODISTAS/Página 12 controversy, the Argentine press operated freely in 2004. However, government-imposed advertising embargoes threatened the survival of many provincial media outlets. According to PERIODISTAS former Executive Director Mabel Moralejo, authorities in most of Argentina's 23 provinces manipulate the distribution of state advertising to reward supportive media outlets and punish critical reporting. Many small provincial newspapers and radio and television stations that depend on state advertising are struggling for financial survival, says Moralejo.
In some provinces, journalists complain that public officials who own news organizations receive most government ads and use their outlets as a tool for political propaganda. For example, in the northern province of Salta, Governor Juan Carlos Romero's family owns the daily El Tribuno (The Tribune), while in central San Luis Province, the only provincial paper, El Diario de la República (The Daily of the Republic), belongs to the Rodríguez Saá family, which has governed the province for decades.
In July, a cover story in the national newsweekly Noticias (News) titled "Plata Sucia" (Dirty Money) reported that President Néstor Kirchner's administration was spending most of its 80 million peso (US$26.6 million) advertising budget to reward supportive media. The government rejected the report, arguing that it was based on flawed information.
Noticias had requested detailed information from the government about spending on state advertising. The government didn't respond, so Noticias based its story on a private audit. However, on November 8, at the request of Poder Ciudadano, an Argentine nongovernmental organization that promotes civic participation, authorities released the numbers. According to Poder Ciudadano, the Argentine government spent almost 100 million pesos (US$33.3 million) on state advertising between January and November 2004. Página 12, a paper that has supported the government's policies, received almost 4.5 million pesos (US$1.5 million) in that period, while the daily La Nación (The Nation), which has a much larger circulation than Página 12, received 4.7 million pesos (US$1.56 million). According to Poder Ciudadano, "there is no objective rule" governing the distribution of state advertising, "which may favor friendly coverage and affect those who are not so friendly."
Local journalists describe the relationship between the government and media outlets that criticize its policies as tense. Several said high-ranking public officials have responded to stories that didn't please the government with pressure and intimidation. Nelson Castro, a renowned Argentine radio and television journalist, said that only a handful of reporters with solid careers are safe from the pressures that the Kirchner administration is attempting to exercise. In response, the government has said that it is exercising its right to express opinions about what the press says. However, Castro thinks that the government is trying to influence the news.
According to Darío Gallo, political editor for Noticias, journalists who are intimidated or pressured don't want any kind of publicity. Gallo said that some media owners don't want their journalists to tell colleagues at other news organizations about things they don't publish in their own outlets. The journalists who feel the most pressure are those who cover the government, he said. Meanwhile, President Kirchner remains an elusive political figure: He has only granted a handful of interviews to local journalists and foreign correspondents.
On December 2, the Senate Constitutional Affairs Commission introduced changes to a bill on freedom of access to public information. The bill, which was drafted by the government's Anti-Corruption Office and a large group of nongovernmental organizations and civil society advocates, is an important step toward eliminating government secrecy. As originally drafted, the law would allow citizens to request, among other things, information about government contracts and the use of public money. However, changes introduced by the Senate would require those who request information to explain their reasons, file an application similar to an affidavit, and, in some cases, pay a fee. Some of the groups that drafted the bill said the Senate's modifications would restrict access to public information and were contradictory to the goal of the legislation. The bill was sent to the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, which will do a second revision in 2005.