Attacks on the Press 2010: Argentina

Top Developments
• Kirchner accuses two papers of colluding with the military dictatorship in 1976.
• Legislation would restrict media ownership in newsprint companies.

Key Statistic
400: Pages in government report that claims Clarín and La Nación media groups conspired with dictators.

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration accused top executives of the country’s two leading newspapers, Clarín and La Nación, of conspiring with the former military regime to commit crimes against humanity, allegations that dramatically escalated existing government-media tensions. In making a claim as controversial as it was aggressive, Kirchner called on the courts to decide whether the newspapers colluded with the dictatorship to force the sale of a newsprint supplier in 1976. The clash deepened divisions within the press itself, as journalists took sides on administration policies and tactics. Political talk shows on state-owned media lambasted government critics in the press. The space for balanced and unbiased journalism was significantly reduced, analysts said.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In Latin America,
A Return of Censorship

Country Summaries
United States
Other nations

Many analysts believed that the administration was trying to financially harm the two media companies and minimize their influence, particularly that of Clarín, with which it had often clashed in recent years. “Since the Kirchner-Clarín fight broke out, the government has taken actions unequivocally aimed at damaging Clarín‘s business,” wrote Silvio Waisbord, associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, in a Columbia Journalism Review article.

The storm erupted in August, when Kirchner presented the findings of an official investigation into the history and economic activities of newsprint manufacturer Papel Prensa. The government’s 400-page report, titled “Papel Prensa: The Truth,” alleged that the two newspapers conspired with military dictators to gain control of Papel Prensa, then leveraged their newsprint ownership to drive other publications out of business. In a nationally televised speech, Kirchner said the Graiver family, which owned the newsprint company, made the deal under duress from the military junta. David Graiver, a financier with close connections to the Montoneros guerrilla group, died in a mysterious plane crash shortly before the sale. His wife, Lidia Papaleo, was later tortured by the dictatorship.

By 2010, Papel Prensa was supplying newsprint to 170 dailies nationwide, 75 percent of the domestic market. Grupo Clarín owned 49 percent of the company’s shares; La Nación, 22.5 percent; and the government, 27.5 percent. Clarín and La Nación denied any illegality in the purchase of the newsprint producer and accused the government of trying to undermine their businesses for narrow political purposes. In a joint statement, they described the government move as an assault against press freedom itself, a position supported by the Inter American Press Association, the regional publishers group. They also questioned the timing of the accusation: “Never, in 27 years of democracy, has Papel Prensa faced an administrative or judicial question about its origin.” The outlets said the persecution was the government’s attempt to rewrite history “as a means of persecution and retaliation.” They said that the Graiver family sold Papel Prensa for economic reasons, and was not under pressure from the military. A day after Kirchner’s announcement, both papers published a full-page ad from Isidoro Graiver, one of the family members who negotiated the sale, saying the transaction was done without pressure.

Critics also questioned the neutrality of the report, pointing out that it was produced by Interior Secretary Guillermo Moreno, who has had a deeply adversarial relationship with the newspapers. In August, Moreno appeared at a meeting of the Papel Prensa board of directors with boxing gloves.

After submitting the report to the judiciary for a full investigation, Kirchner said the courts should rule on the validity of the sale, and whether the owners of the media companies should be charged with crimes against humanity. The government, legal experts said, pursued human rights charges against the companies because any other allegation could be dismissed due to statutes of limitations. The investigation was assigned to federal Judge Arnaldo Corazza, who was conducting an ongoing probe of crimes committed by the military dictatorship, press reports said. The judge had made no comment on the case by late year. 

The Papel Prensa accusations deepened divisions in an already polarized press. While reporters at Clarín and La Nación said Kirchner was engaged in a campaign to silence critics, journalists sympathetic to the government said that the Papel Prensa investigation was necessary to establish the role of the media during the dictatorship. A group of intellectuals close to the government argued that both La Nación and Clarín have been silent about crimes committed against opponents during military rule. “The world of Argentine journalism is divided between journalists K (for the Kirchners) and journalists anti-K,” wrote Waisbord in the Columbia Journalism Review. “As a result, the middle ground for journalism with nuance, distance, equanimity, and even accuracy has narrowed.” 

In October, the administration introduced legislation in Congress to declare newsprint supply a matter of public interest subject to government regulation. Kirchner said that regulating the production, distribution, and sale of newsprint would guarantee equal access, fair prices, and distribution to all of the country’s newspapers. The bill calls for newsprint to be sold at the same price to all buyers. It would also ban newspapers from holding more than a 10 percent share in newsprint businesses, a requirement that would force Clarín and La Nación to relinquish control of Papel Prensa. The bill was stalled in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, in late year.

Some legal scholars warned that a bill regulating newsprint production could violate constitutional guarantees and the American Convention on Human Rights, La Nación reported. Article 32 of the Argentine Constitution states “the Federal Congress shall not pass laws that restrict freedom of the press or place it under federal jurisdiction,” while Article 13 of the American Convention says more explicitly that “the right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint.” Supporters of the newsprint initiative rejected the argument. “Its goal is to ensure access to fair pricing of the critical supply, with Congress’ oversight, in which the ruling party is in the minority, and with the counsel of the concerned newspapers,” the influential journalist Horacio Verbitsky wrote in the Buenos Aires daily Página 12, a newspaper supportive of administration policies. 

The Papel Prensa report came a week after the Kirchner administration decided to cancel the license of the Grupo Clarín-owned Internet service provider, Fibertel. The government said Fibertel’s merger with the company’s cable television unit, Cablevision SA, was illegal. Cablevision vowed to fight the action in court, describing the decision as “totalitarian.”

These were simply the latest episodes in a long-running feud between the government and Grupo Clarín, the nation’s largest media conglomerate. The company–owner of newspapers, radio stations, broadcast and cable television outlets, and the Internet service provider–has had an antagonistic relationship with Kirchner since a 2008 conflict over farm taxes. The government has accused Clarín and other private media of biased coverage.

Clarín has been subjected to official harassment, CPJ research shows. In September 2009, about 200 tax agents raided Clarín‘s offices after the paper ran a front-page story alleging the government had improperly granted a farm subsidy. Clarín and others decried the raid as government intimidation. In August, the newspaper’s offices in Rosario were vandalized. The same month, posters and graffiti attacking Clarín and its executives appeared in several Buenos Aires locations.

Since the dispute heated up, analysts said, the government made a number of decisions clearly directed at damaging the media group’s businesses. These included the enactment of a broadcast law in 2009 that the government billed as democratizing the airwaves but that many analysts saw as weakening Grupo Clarín. Regulations capped the number of radio and television stations a media company could own and banned companies from holding both broadcast and cable TV channels, requirements that would force the conglomerate to sell some of its assets. While the government said the law would curb monopolies, media owners and opposition politicians saw it as a means for the government to exert greater control over news media. 

Legal challenges slowed the law’s implementation in 2010. In October, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court injunction that suspended the requirement that media companies divest holdings within a year. But the high court also said the injunction should not block implementation of the overall law. CPJ was monitoring the implementation to ensure that broadcast regulators were not subjected to political interference.

The September murder of a journalist in an impoverished Buenos Aires neighborhood took news media by surprise; lethal violence against the press has been rare in Argentina. Reporter Adams Ledesma Valenzuela was stabbed to death by unidentified assailants, news reports said. Ledesma, 46, a Bolivian-born reporter for the community weekly Mundo Villa and director of local TV station Mundo Villa, was found near his home in Villa 31, a shantytown in northern Buenos Aires. His wife, Ruth Marlene Torrico, told CPJ that the journalist left home around 4 a.m., possibly to fix an electrical problem in the neighborhood. Her husband, who was found with a screwdriver in his pocket, was often called on to make small neighborhood repairs, she said. Known as a community advocate, Ledesma often wrote about local problems such as unsanitary conditions and damaged roads, Mundo Villa‘s editor, Joaquín Ramos, told CPJ.

Ledesma’s wife reported being threatened after the attack; a woman warned her at the murder scene that something similar could happen to her and her six children if they didn’t leave the neighborhood. Two women approached her sister the following day and made similar threats, she said. Authorities assigned federal agents to patrol the family’s home. Judge Mauricio Zamudio issued an arrest warrant in October against a Paraguayan identified only by the nickname “El Pichu,” but authorities had not located the suspect by year’s end. In an interview with the newspaper Perfil, Ledesma had said he planned to investigate celebrities coming to the shantytown to purchase drugs.

The sudden death of former President Néstor Kirchner of cardiac arrest on October 26 stunned the country. The 60-year-old Kirchner, who ruled from 2003 to 2007, was widely credited with bringing the nation back from the economic collapse of 2001. When he was president, he had a contentious relationship with the press. During his three terms as provincial governor in Santa Cruz and his one term as president, he institutionalized a system in which the state rewarded supportive media with government advertising while punishing critical media by withholding ads. In November 2009, during his wife’s administration, Congress decriminalized defamation on issues of public interest, a major advance for press freedom in the region.