The Argentine press continued to work freely and largely without fear
of physical attacks. But several provincial administrations and the national government have manipulated the allocation of state advertising to punish critical reporting and reward supportive media. Two new studies determined that the politically based distribution of government advertising undermines the free press in Argentina.
Poder Ciudadano, a nongovernmental organization that promotes civic participation, found that the distribution of state advertising is governed by “no objective rule,” enabling officials to favor “friendly” media outlets. The group’s analysis showed that Clarín, the largest daily, with a 420,000 weekday circulation, received the most government advertising, a total of 7.1 million pesos (US$2.3 million).
But the study uncovered anomalies elsewhere. La Nación, the second-largest daily with a weekday circulation of 160,000, received 17 percent less in government advertising revenue than Página 12—even though it reached more than twice the number of readers on weekdays.
“This distortion contrasts with the circulation of both dailies,” the report said. The national newsweekly Noticias, which criticized the government vigorously, did not receive any government advertising at all.
Poder Ciudadano, which released its report in September, noted that the national government’s advertising budget was 88 million pesos (US$29 million). Regional agencies buy advertising as well; the ads publicize such things as hospital services and school programs, and they inform citizens of obligations and rights. The report concluded that “freedom of the press is affected as those outlets that benefit from official advertising could restrict coverage on sensitive issues or provide information influenced by the flow of state money.”
A report released in December by the Open Society Justice Initiative, a New York–based group that promotes law reform worldwide, and the Argentine nongovernmental group Asociación por los Derechos Civiles also examined the distribution of government advertising.
The report, titled “Buying the News,” found “an entrenched culture of pervasive abuse by provincial government officials who manipulate distribution of advertising for political and personal purposes,” and indicated that such decisions are particularly “insidious” in provinces where official advertising is critical for the survival of many media outlets.
In one of the four provinces studied, Tierra del Fuego, the media derived 75 percent of its advertising revenue from government agencies, the report found.
While national media outlets depend less on government advertising, the report said, “this does not stop the federal government from allocating advertising in ways that can only be described as political favoritism.”
In a national survey of reporters, 53 percent of respondents identified the media’s dependence on state advertising as the most pressing problem facing the profession. The results, released in November, were based on data provided by 282 respondents to a nationwide questionnaire from the press group Foro de Periodismo Argentino (FOPEA).
The press continued to have a contentious relationship with President Néstor Kirchner and his administration. In July, Kirchner accused the media of being “hysterical” when press reports said increases in retiree payments were politically motivated. Mabel Moralejo, FOPEA’s executive director, said the government often sought to discredit journalists who questioned its policies. Kirchner and other officials said the government was expressing its right to disagree with its critics.
Journalists said the government has not been forthcoming or open, citing the lack of even one presidential press conference since Kirchner took office in 2003 and the mere handful of interviews he has given in that time. “The best journalists are the photographers, because they don’t ask questions,” Kirchner told cabinet members during a July photo-taking session.
Access to public information remains limited, prompting reporters to rely on leaked information and confidential sources. A freedom of information bill, which had been seen by press groups and nongovernmental organizations as an important step toward eliminating government secrecy, died in Congress in 2005. As originally drafted, the measure would have allowed citizens to request, among other things, information about government contracts and the use of public funds. But changes introduced by the Senate would have required those requesting information to explain their reasons, to file an application similar to an affidavit, and, in some cases, to pay a fee. Supporters said the Senate revisions contradicted the goal of the legislation, and the measure languished in the Chamber of Deputies.
A 2003 executive decree from Kirchner was billed as a way to improve public access to government information, although a study by Buenos Aires University questioned its effectiveness. The study found that the executive branch fulfilled just 18 of 71 requests made in a three-month period between April and July. The government claimed a far higher rate, saying that it had fulfilled 96 percent of 386 requests made between April 2004 and July 2005, La Nación reported.