Outgoing President Néstor Kirchner’s administration dramatically increased its advertising budget, rewarding friendly media with government spots, punishing critics by withholding ads, and, in the process, influencing coverage of the presidential election won by Kirchner’s wife, Sen. Cristina Fernández. The manipulation of state advertising undermined press freedom and constituted the single greatest danger to the Argentine press, CPJ found in a special report issued in October. A court ruling that struck down a provincial government’s discriminatory advertising practices, however, offered hope that the system might be reformed.
Since Kirchner became president in 2003, the government’s advertising budget had jumped more than 350 percent, according to data released in July by the nongovernmental organization Poder Ciudadano (Citizen Power). In the first six months of 2007, the federal government spent 164 million pesos (US$52 million) on official ads, a 63 percent increase over the same period in 2006, according to a report by the nonprofit Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (Association for Civil Rights), or ADC. Federal officials said inflation was a leading cause of the election-year jump, but local journalists noted that the increase far exceeded the inflation rate of 8 percent.
In the October special report “News for Sale,” CPJ documented how Kirchner had institutionalized a system of rewards for supportive media and advertising embargoes for critics during his three terms as provincial governor in Santa Cruz and his one term as president. Because national and local governments are not bound by clear rules concerning the placement of advertising, CPJ found, the targeted influx of ad dollars had influenced press coverage.
A provincial media group in Santa Cruz led by Rudy Ulloa Igor, Kirchner’s former chauffer and one of his closest advisers, received more than 3 million pesos (US$957,000) in official advertising in 2006, according to María O’Donnell, a well-known journalist and author of Propaganda K: Una Maquinaria de Promoción con Dinero del Estado (Propaganda K: A State-Financed Promotional Machinery). Annual ad revenue for the media conglomerate exceeded that of many news outlets with national reach. Records reviewed by CPJ showed the trend continuing in 2007. The Ulloa group regularly featured candidate Fernández in its coverage and consistently portrayed the senator in a positive light.
Elsewhere, news coverage of the presidential election was uneven. A report by Poder Ciudadano showed Fernández receiving about four hours of airtime on state-owned Canal 7 in September while opposition candidates drew virtually no coverage during the same period. Argentine Cabinet Chief Alberto Fernández called the report biased.
Government ads publicize services such as hospital and school programs, and they inform citizens of their obligations and rights. In some cases, though, the ads simply highlight the routine activities of officeholders or state institutions. In provinces like Santa Cruz, home of the first couple, official advertising constitutes a large portion of media revenue, in most cases more than 50 percent, according to a 2005 report by the ADC and the New York-based Open Society Institute. With such dependence, managers were under great pressure to avoid critical stories that could hurt their companies financially.
National government advertising has been bound by two regulations that leave officials with broad discretion. Under a 1971 decree, all advertising transactions must be conducted through Télam, the official news agency. A subsequent decree, issued in 1996, makes the national government’s press secretary responsible for setting priorities and assigning funds for ad campaigns. Neither decree seeks to ensure an objective, market-based approach to ad placement. Free press advocates have contended that manipulative government advertising violates Articles 14 and 32 of the Argentine Constitution, which bar censorship and guarantee press freedom, respectively; and Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which bars indirect means of media control.
The Supreme Court of Justice struck a blow to the state advertising system in September, when it ruled against the province of Neuquén. Provincial officials pulled ads from the daily Río Negro after the newspaper published a report in December 2002 on corruption in the local legislature. While the court found that “the media have no right to obtain a certain amount of state advertising,” it concluded that official advertising cannot be used as a tool to pressure the press. The ruling declared that the state “cannot manipulate official advertising, distributing it or withdrawing it with discriminatory criteria.” The government of Neuquén was ordered to present a plan for distribution of official advertising that would follow the decision’s guidelines.
“This is a landmark decision in Latin America that protects free press,” said Eduardo Bertoni, former special rapporteur for freedom of expression for the Organization of American States. “It is the first time that a supreme court in Latin America found that the media has legal protection against arbitrary allocation of public advertising.”
In another closely watched case, the nation’s largest magazine publisher, Editorial Perfil, filed suit in July 2006 alleging discrimination in government advertising in retaliation for the group’s critical reporting. The case was pending in late year. Roberto Saba, ADC’s executive director, said he was optimistic given the Río Negro ruling. The most important result, he said, would be clear and transparent legislation that would “limit governments’ discretionary authority when allocating official advertising.”
The debate prompted Congress to consider several bills aimed at ensuring more objective distribution of official advertising. ADC and Poder Ciudadano have urged that the reforms include moratoriums on state advertising in periods just prior to elections.
Fernández took office in December after handily winning the October 28 presidential balloting. The 54-year-old senator took 45 percent of the vote, nearly double that of her nearest rival and enough to be declared the winner without a runoff. During Kirchner’s presidency, the first couple rarely had direct contact with the national news media, saying they would rather speak directly to the people. Kirchner, in fact, never held a formal press conference during his four-year term. Administration officials who felt targeted by critical journalists would block access to official sources and events.
Several journalists told CPJ they believed Fernández would be more open with the press, but they also noted that she has called some news media the opposition. In postelection interviews, Fernández urged the media to act “with responsibility” and examine their own mistakes.