Horacio Verbitsky: Awardee 2001

International Press Freedom Awards

HORACIO VERBITSKY is one of Argentina’s leading investigative journalists, and a columnist and press freedom activist. He has built his distinguished career by fearlessly exposing government corruption and battling restrictive press laws. A working journalist since 1960, Verbitsky’s relentless pursuit of a story has earned him his nickname el perro, or the dog.

In January 1991, Verbitsky was thrust into the national spotlight after writing an article alleging that Argentine president Carlos Menem’s brother-in-law had demanded a bribe from a company in return for tax exemption. The scandal became known as Swiftgate. Menem called Verbitsky’s scoop “a journalistic crime,” but the affair forced the president to purge half his cabinet and put corruption on the national agenda.

His best-selling book The Flight contained the first public confessions of an official involved in Argentina’s “dirty war” and related how hundreds of prisoners of the military regime from 1976 to 1983 were thrown to their deaths from airplanes. Verbitsky has played a front-line role in strengthening democracy and safeguarding press freedoms in Argentina and Latin America.


Verbitisky is one of the founders of the Latin American press freedom organization Periodistas.

He writes a column for the online journal Página/12.

Read his acceptance speech in English and Spanish.


The Argentine Constitution that is the most successful importation from the U.S. guarantees the most complete freedom of expression. We have our own First Amendment, but during the 20th century, we have in Argentina more governments elected by bullets than by ballots. Then this was cast a statement in a book, but not a real right. After the ending of the dictatorship in 1983, Argentine press started to occupy the spaces that the military left. And notwithstanding that we have government elected by popular vote, the rights stated in the Constitution were not a real practice. Then the press has to side to conquer these rights in real terms.

After, after the ending of the dictatorship in 1983, the Argentine press started a real fight to conquer these rights stated in our Constitution. The public scrutiny of the functionaries was, was something that Argentine people was not accustomed to. Each democratic government was seen as a mere interregnum between 2 military coups. Then here prevailed a culture of fear and each dictatorship was more cruel than the previous one. Then we have to learn the exercise of freedom. In this process the Argentine press has had a significant role because it started to investigate firstly the human rights abuses during the dictatorship. And then the corruption during the democratic governments. As a consequence of more than half a century of authoritarian governments we had a very repressive legislation. It was contradictory with our Constitution. Then in a series of trials, we started to object these kind of legislation. A lot of journalists who were convicted by the tribunals for investigating functionaries. In 1991 I was convicted on charges of contempt to one justice of the Supreme Court. This was a conviction…

One of these authoritarian laws was the Desecato law, in Spanish. That is something similar to a special kind of contempt against public functionaries. This kind of legislation which does not exist in the United States and that prevents the public investigating the misdeeds of the functionaries. I was convicted in 1991 on grounds of the Desecato against one of the justices of the Argentine Supreme Court. And I denounced the Argentine state before the inter-American commission on human rights of the realization of American states. I went into the United States where the OAS has its headquarters and filed a complaint against the Argentine government. And I myself suggested a friendly settlement that is one of the mechanisms of the inter-American committee and the Argentine government accepted it and committed itself to repeal the Desecato law. And this commitment was honored by Congress in 1984 when by a unanimous vote repealed the Desecato law. This was a very important fact for the Argentine public because it eliminated a special protection from monarchical origins that privileged the functionaries and was an obstacle for the public scrutiny of its needs.

That, one of the problems that we confronted is, the use of transforming decisions of the inter-American system that protects human rights into laws, internal laws. Then in 1993, I had a clash with former president Menem because when he sent to Congress the promotion of 2 officers of the navy that were involved in kidnapping storchers [PH] and killings of prisoners during the Dirty War, among them 2 French nuns, President Menem start said that he had moral authority to promote that man because he has been tortured too in the military. This seemed very strange to me because it’s not a logical reasoning. And then I started an investigation on President Menem during the military dictatorship and I established clearly that he had never been tortured and then he ran this piece in language paper, Paciadors . And then he lawsued me and during the trial I was able to prove that my article was right and, uh,—during that trial, was clearly established that he had lied. And in the, in the ruling, the judge stated that I had fulfilled my duty not only exercise a right but fulfill my obligation as a journalist to investigate President Menem. This was a very important decision of the judiciary. After the repealing of the Desecato Law, former President Menem and other members of his family and government started to sue journalists invoking slander and libel laws. And as in Argentina, the judiciary was backed by the executive branch. The tribunals passed decisions adverse to journalists. In 1990 President Menem increased the membership of the Supreme Court from 5 to 9 members. And he got the resignation of two of the biggest members and then overnight he created a majority of six out of nine members of the Supreme Court.

In 1990, President Menem increased the membership of the Supreme Court from 5 to 9 members. He got the resignation of 2 of the biggest members and overnight he appointed 6 out of 9 members of the Supreme Court. This packing of the Supreme Court was the key instrument to control the press during his presidency. And this was the reason why I again denounced the Argentine government before the inter-American commission on human rights. And in 1999 I got a new commitment of the Argentine government that was in its last days to pass a new bill including in our legislation the real malice standard that the American Supreme Court established in 1964 in a trial against the New York Times in the case of Sally…[INAUDIBLE] . The 2 presidential candidates in Argentina accepted the commitment to pass this bill and after the swearing in of President Fernando de LaGua, he sent to Congress this bill that was drafted by the organization periodistas, that is Spanish to mean journalists. I am founding member of it and Secretary General. And this bill is now in Congress awaiting to be passed.

I will talk now about my investigation from Menem’s brother- in-law en mi idioma. In my column’s in the newspaper and in the book named Robbery for a Crown, I investigated the involvement of presidential advisor and brother-in-law, In my columns in my newspaper and in a book named Robbery for the Crown, I investigated the involvement of Menem’s advisor and brother-in-law, Emilioma [PH] who asked an American corporation,

In my newspaper and in a book named Robbery for the Crown, I investigated Menem’s advisor and brother-in law, Emilioma [PH] who had asked an American corporation, a bribery for authorized investment in Argentina. And this book had a huge impact because it was the first one that investigated corruption in the higher levels in the then new government in Argentina. And then President Menem promised not to forget, never forget these offense and started a persecution against me. And this was the origin of a lot of trials that Menem himself and a lot of functionaries of his government drafted against me. Eventually I was acquitted in all of them and in some cases some independent tribunals acquitted me in order to prosecute the functionaries involved. And in this moments, Menem’s brother-in-law is in jail as it is Menem himself, by a tribunal that investigated the illegal, illegal sale of arms to Croatia during the blockade.

When I was attacked by Menem and other people linked to him, I never, I never, you know…Menem’s attacks were not directed personally against me but against the possibility of his government being investigated and being really known by the Argentine government. I never interpreted it as a personal attack but as a political strategy to prevent his government being scrutinized by public opinion.

All over Latin America, the press has been very helpful to investigate corruption and to, to build a more sane democracy. On more sound foundations. Investigations in Brazil, Venezuela, in Peru ended with a corrupt governments and that helped to strengthen the democratic institutions and to protect our peoples.

Working as a journalist in Latin America is risky but funny. [LAUGHS] And in Argentina at least never, never boring.

The freedom of the press is a condition necessary but not sufficient to build a democratic future for Latin America. It is of the air that we breathe. We need desperately.

We have created our NGO’s, periodistas, no… Few months after the creation of our organization periodistas, a colleague of ours, Jose Luis Cabezas, was kidnapped, beaten, killed, and chart Buenos Aires. We started immediately a national campaign asking for the punishment of those responsible. For them being held accountable. And this mobilization that we started in that moment was a symbol of all the Argentine people in their struggle for freedom and for democracy. it was an example for all the journalists in Latin America and Cabezas became a symbol all over the continent.

The trial against the killers of Cabeza was not satisfactory for us. We believed that not all those responsible had been convicted. Maybe the dire perpetrators, but not the intellectual responsibles of that crime. And we asked for the investigation being completed and all those responsible being punished.

Acceptance speech of Horacio Verbitsky upon receiving an International Press Freedom Award of the Committee to Protect Journalists on November 20, 2001

Dear Friends

I share this award with the one hundred journalists that were kidnapped, tortured and killed under Argentina’s state-led terror. Thirty thousand people were then disappeared. This unacceptable outrage against human dignity is an indelible stain.

The CPJ helped us then to bring the suffering of the Argentine people to the attention of the world, from the moment that our colleague Jacobo Timerman was kidnapped by the military junta and his paper, La Opinión, was confiscated and put under direction of a general of the Army. And it is helping us again, to get rid of antiquated criminal defamation laws, which threaten freedom of expression in less direct ways.

Last year, the organization that I am part of, Periodistas (which means journalists), together with CPJ organized a seminar in Buenos Aires to push for the approval in Argentina and in the other countries of the region of legislation that incorporates the “actual malice” standard, as established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1964. We are hoping that President Fernando De La Rúa complies with his commitment and sends to Congress the bill under which no citizen would risk her or his freedom for what she or he says or writes.

Let me give you the candid view of a foreign journalist about recent developments in the US.

After the appalling September 11 terrorist attacks the United States may be tempted to erode its high standards of free expression, to restrict its own liberties and to ignore the suffering of other people.

We read in the American press that due process is at stake and even the possible use of torture is being debated. We hear your president talk of being either “for us or against us”. Worst of all, we see the huge popularity of this approach.

In this context Argentine experience can be useful, in spite of our obvious different political cultures and history.

In our country we learned that sacrificing civil liberties and human rights standards in the name of security has devastating effects; that under every circumstance the civilized values cannot be protected by any means; that our commitment as journalists must be to the truth, not to any government; that fights between absolute Good and Evil, as theology teaches us, usually lead to Apocalypse.

Once more, many many thanks for this kind tribute.

Traducción del discurso de Horacio Verbitsky al recibir el Premio Internacional a la Libertad de Prensa del Comité para la Protección de los Periodistas el 20 de noviembre de 2001

Queridos amigos

Quiero compartir este premio con el centenar de periodistas que fueron secuestrados, torturados y asesinados bajo el terrorismo de Estado en la Argentina. En esos años, treinta mil personas fueron hechas desaparecer. Este inaceptable atentado a la dignidad humana es una mancha indeleble en nuestra historia.

El Comité para la Protección de los Periodistas, CPJ, nos ayudó entonces a llamar la atención del mundo sobre el sufrimiento del pueblo argentino, desde el momento en que nuestro colega Jacobo Timerman fue secuestrado por la dictadura militar y su diario, “La Opinión”, confiscado y puesto bajo la dirección de un general del Ejército. Y el CPJ de nuevo nos está ayudando ahora a librarnos de las anticuadas leyes que castigan la difamación a funcionarios públicos con penas de cárcel y que, en forma menos directa que los métodos de la dictadura militar, también amenazan la libertad de expresion.

El año pasado la organización que integro, Periodistas, organizó junto con CPJ un seminario en Buenos Aires para impulsar la aprobación en la Argentina y en los demás países de la región de una ley que incorpore a nuestra legislación la norma de la real malicia, tal como fue establecida por la Corte Suprema de los Estados Unidos en 1964. Estamos esperando que el presidente Fernando De La Rúa cumpla con el compromiso que asumió y envíe al Congreso el proyecto de ley por el cual ningún ciudadano arriesgará su libertad en función de lo que diga o escriba.

Permítanme transmitirles ahora con sinceridad el punto de vista de un periodista extranjero sobre los hechos recientes que ocurrieron aquí. Después de los atroces ataques terroristas del 11 de septiembre, los Estados Unidos pueden sentir la tentación de rebajar sus elevadas normas de libertad de expresión, de restringir sus propias libertades y de ignorar el sufrimiento de otros pueblos.

Leemos en la prensa estadounidense que las reglas del debido proceso y el derecho de defensa están en peligro y que hasta ha llegado a discutirse el empleo de la tortura. Oímos a vuestro presidente decir que hay que elegir entre estar “con nosotros o en contra de nosotros”. Peor aún, vemos la enorme popularidad de este enfoque.

En este contexto la experiencia argentina puede resultarles útil, pese a las obvias diferencias que existen entre nuestras respectivas culturas políticas e historias. En nuestro país hemos aprendido que el sacrificio de las libertades civiles y de los derechos humanos en nombre de la seguridad, tiene efectos devastadores; que en ninguna circunstancia los valores civilizados pueden ser defendidos por cualquier medio; que nuestro compromiso como periodistas debe ser con la verdad, no con gobierno alguno; que, como enseña la teología, las batallas entre el Bien Absoluto y el Mal Absoluto, conducen al Apocalipsis.

Una vez más, muchas gracias por este afectuoso reconocimiento.