Buenos Aires Times

opinion and analysis FROM WHERE I STAND

In Argentina, the media is a weapon

Successive governments have talked about giving up the state communications system, but none has made any move yet to get out of the propaganda business.

Saturday 21 October, 2017
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Foto:Pablo Temes - CEDOC.

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Marshall McLuhan’s famous but profoundly enigmatic statement that “the medium is the message” misses the point regarding Argentina. Here the media is a weapon in the battle for political power. So it was when news, opinion and information first came off the presses. So it is today as the media envelops up incessant social chatter, a blitz of images and a barrage of advertising videos. The current media landscape resembles a battlefield, after a long period of trench warfare.  

The dominance of the media outlets set up during the Kircherite years has faded because it is now the government of Mauricio Macri that is doling out public money in advertising revenue for a whole gamut of communication entities. Kirchnerite-friendly outlets like the once-highly influential Pagina/12 have crumbled in significance, while the state communications network – TV Pública, Radio Nacional, and Télam, the state news agency – is now controlled by the M’s, not the K’s.

It is not a satisfactory situation, although it is fortunate that the Kirchnerite governments failed in their efforts to misuse a reasonable media law meant to create a level playing field. The government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner tried to use the law as a bulldozer to flatten opposition media, particularly the Grupo Clarín.

The Kirchnerite assault on Clarín gave rise to some brilliant journalism, most notably by Jorge Lanata, a fiercely independent journalistic entrepreneur. He was recruited by Héctor Magnetto, the genius who created and still presides over the media megalith. In the end, Magnetto’s group emerged stronger than ever.

Today, Macri rules the non-commercial media world and that is not good either. What is needed – and urgently – is an independent broadcasting system, like the BBC in the United Kingdom, or PBS in the United States, which people can rely on, or at least use to check against the news provided by commercial broadcasters. Successive governments have talked about giving up the state communications system, but none has made any move yet to get out of the propaganda business.

I’m intrigued, however, to see changes taking place in the market. The august La Nación, for example, is evolving into a multimedia organisation with a strong commercial wing in the form of the highly popular Club La Nación.

Currently I think, the most interesting independent journalism is provided by Perfil, which every Friday and Saturday reports on the news in-depth with the views of a politically diverse group of journalists, academics, philosophers and other writers. The Saturday edition you read today includes the reborn Buenos Aires Herald, now the Buenos Aires Times, which once a month finds the Vatican’s L’Osservatore Romano nestling beside it. I find Perfil’s newsmagazine Noticias to be essential reading for an overall view of public affairs, entertainment, literature and society in general.

I was truly alarmed by the Kirchners’ concerted effort to take over or destroy Grupo Clarín, which became a major rallying point for public opinion to express opposition to the anti-democratic objectives of former president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. On the political front, Sergio Massa’s strong showing in the 2015 elections ended her hopes of securing a third term. She initially sought to become ‘Cristina eterna’ (“Cristina Forever”) by means of an amendment to the Constitution. When the Supreme Court blocked that move she hoped she could cling to power by giving Daniel Sciolli the green light to run for the presidency, but only on the condition that Carlos Zanelli, Cristina’s longest-serving advisor and strategist, was in the number two spot (and, as the saying goes, only a heartbeat from the presidency.)

With President Macri in charge I think that the most dangerous threat to freedom of expression – which was the neo-totalitarian populism of the Kirchners – has evaporated. But I was disturbed to read that President Macri, like Richard Nixon, has an “enemies list.” I hear that, privately, he “jokingly” refers to a list of 562 troublesome people he would like to send on a rocket to the moon.

On the list, apparently, is Horacio Verbitsky of Pagina/12, who revealed the names of people close to the president who “whitewashed” their foreign bank accounts under the blanqueo. Under President Macri I hope to see an open, tolerant government that upholds the law, while a strong but fair opposition press fulfils its necessary role in democracy. Argentina’s dark past does not permit even light jokes that recall the time when lists were drawn up of people to “dispose of.” There were more than 100 journalists on those lists during the dictatorship. I don’t think, to paraphrase McLuhan, that the president was sending a message to the media. Nevertheless it is no laughing matter. 


Postscript: This is written in the thrall of the saga of Santiago Maldonado, before the family confirmed the body found on Tuesday is indeed his. We now know him well. He was an engaging, indeed charming young man who seems to have been liked by everyone he met. I have no idea what the equally delightful young journalist following in the footsteps of Santiago expected in her coverage. What I do now is that she painted a video portrait of a sweet, good person, one which belies the filth told and written about him by what, I believe, are called “media trolls.” I also abhor the mistreatment of Santiago’s family, who all come across as fine human beings. I would like to quote Buenos Aires Province Governor María Eugenia Vidal who has called on us all to show “prudence and respect” at this time when nothing seems to be certain about the death of a young man who has become a symbol for the importance of Nunca Mas – ‘no more’ violations of human rights.

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