We Interrupt This Program To Bring You Another Message From Your President
By Nick OlleOctober 2, 2012
Argentina’s president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is clocking up long hours of face time on television, but it is all on her own terms and there are no questions allowed.
With ordinary programming temporarily suspended, all eyes were trained on the President as she stepped to the lectern and adjusted the twin microphones that would project her voice across the nation's airwaves for the next 64 minutes.
It was the afternoon of August 9, 2012, and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had something to say to the Argentine public, something worthy of interrupting the radio and television broadcasts they'd tuned into. Sixty-four minutes of worthiness.
Not Happy, Cristina
"We need a public ethics law for the fourth estate," she said, "once and for all, so we know whether or not people who manage public information receive money from companies."
She went on to rail against one particular journalist, publicly questioning his motives for writing stories critical of her government. "We all know who I'm referring to," she said, and proceeded to name and shame him anyway.
The broadcast went out from a refinery of the recently re-nationalised oil and gas company YPF in Buenos Aires province, where the president was on hand, ostensibly, to inaugurate some building works.
That small slice of Argentine afternoon is noteworthy for a number of important reasons. A closer look both at the president's message and her means of delivering it tells us a lot about Argentina's media landscape, its polarised society, and the government's role in — and manipulation of — both.
Let's start with the broadcast itself.
Under Argentine law, the federal and provincial executive powers can oblige all licensees to cede the airwaves to them in "serious, exceptional or institutionally important" situations. So far in 2012 the president has availed herself of this so-called cadena nacional on 18 different occasions for a total of more than 15 hours. In 2011 she took to the airwaves 25 times. Mostly routine announcements, these presidential monologues can't really be described in terms of the extraordinary circumstances seemingly contemplated by the law. Then again, the legislation in question — the controversial Law 26.522 or Ley de Medios (Media Law) as it came to be known — was proposed, relentlessly pushed, and ultimately enacted (in October 2009) by this government during the president's first term. She was elected for a second term in a landslide a year ago, winning 54 per cent of the compulsory popular vote. We'll return to the Media Law later, but suffice it to say for now that the president describes her use of the cadena nacional as "legal".
"I don't use it to tell my life story or to ask you to vote for me," she argues. "[It is] to say the things that they [the media] want to hide."
The "us and them" language bears a striking similarity to that of the president's ally in the north and fellow populist, Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez, who recently defended the same activity like this: "Why do I do it? Because the media doesn't cover the good news."
In South America, Chávez is the undisputed master of seizing the airwaves for political purposes. In this election year, despite his well-documented battle with cancer, he has 75 hours of publicly funded airtime under his belt. And in May, the Aló Presidente! radio show — the centrepiece of his spin machine — celebrated 13 years of broadcasting. In Argentina some commentators have adopted the feminised term Aló Presidenta! to refer to President Fernández de Kirchner's penchant for using the cadena nacional.
Andrés D'Alessandro, executive director of Argentina's only professional journalism organisation, FOPEA, says the legality of the practice is still, technically, unclear because there has yet to be a judicial ruling on the issue.
"I personally think there is an abuse of the instrument," he adds.
"The issue is, 'What is the message?' If it is to make an announcement, this could be done in a small amount of time. It wouldn't require the same time as a message charged with subjectivity and opinion.
"Often it ends up being a platform to reply to other political actors or journalists and also to publicly question and attack these same actors."
And, importantly, these cadena nacional presidential broadcasts are inherently one-way. The environments are controlled, and though you can often hear the raucous approval of carefully assembled government supporters, the only speaker is the president and there is no room for questions. In other words, it can be a direct president-to-population line of communication in times of genuine emergency, or it can be a presidential soapbox. That a president has the power to take over the free-to-air airwaves in the former case is uncontroversial, but there is mounting opposition to a perceived presidential indulgence with regard to the latter.
Recently, some of these broadcasts have sparked spontaneous cacerolazos, demonstrations in which protestors bang pots and pans. The 18th and most recent cadena nacional, on September 13, coincided with the biggest anti-government demonstration since Fernández de Kirchner took office in 2007 (see accompanying video). Having organised themselves through social media, tens of thousands (or perhaps hundreds of thousands — the reported numbers vary) took to the streets around the country to protest against the perceived failings of the government, including corruption, economic policies, and insecurity as well as its handling of the media.
The government played down the size and importance of the demonstrations, cabinet chief Juan Manuel Abal Medina quipping that the protestors were unrepresentative "well-dressed people" who are "more concerned with what is happening in Miami than [the Argentine province] San Juan". A bit rich coming from a man whose declared wealth increased by a cool 49 per cent between 2010 and 2011. In any event, this "middle-class cacerolazo" obviously did get under the government's skin to some extent. A counter-march is being organised and will likely take place on October 27, the second anniversary of the death of Néstor Kirchner, Fernández de Kirchner's late husband and predecessor.
What all of this really points to is the deep division in Argentine society. The population is polarised and the democratic ideal of consensus has been largely forgotten as the "us-versus-them" narrative plays out. It is widely believed that Fernández de Kirchner will seek to change the constitution à la Chávez to remove presidential term limits so she can run for a third consecutive term. She rejected the idea 18 months ago, but has been silent on the issue as rumours have recently gathered pace. The government does appear to be targeting the youth vote for whoever the next candidate is for the Frente Para La Victory (Victory Front) coalition. The president wants to lower the legal voting age to 16, a call that coincides with the controversial incursions of the Kirchnerista political youth organisation La Campora into the nation's schools. The Buenos Aires mayor, Mauricio Macri, an opponent of the federal government and seen as a future presidential candidate, responded by setting up a free 0800 hotline to report political interference in schools in the capital.
According to Pablo Mendelevich, director of the journalism faculty at the Universidad de Palermo in Buenos Aires, this division in society is reflected in the media. "The Kirchnerists understand politics as a confrontation between the good guys — 'we who govern, the patriots' — and the bad guys, who are the big media and agro-farming corporations," he says.
"They are not adversaries but enemies. It is all set out like that and in this framework journalism also ends up divided in this polarisation. Now there are journalists who are very critical of Kirchnerism and journalists who are fanatical supporters of Kirchnerism.
"For those who are critical and want to maintain the paradigm of objective professional journalism, it is very difficult. Why? Because they are permanently treated as the enemy."
Retired British journalist Robert Cox agrees. He's spent a total of "about 50 years" in Argentina, and for much of this time he edited the respected English-language daily newspaper The Buenos Aires Herald. He says: "Journalists who are not working for the pro-government media are menaced all the time. Fortunately nothing terrible has happened yet, and we've been through that — people have short memories here."
Cox is referring to Argentina's "dirty war", the brutal 1976 to 1983 military dictatorship that claimed about 30,000 lives. Journalists and intellectuals who didn't toe the official line were among those who routinely disappeared. As editor of The Herald during this period he bravely reported on the regime's excesses, a decision that saved lives but also saw him arrested, intimidated and ultimately forced to leave the country after his then-11-year-old son received a death threat. In 2010, Buenos Aires made him an honorary "Illustrious Citizen" in formal recognition of his valour and journalistic integrity during the dictatorship.
He's been coming back to Argentina regularly since the return to democracy in 1983, when Raúl Alfonsín was elected as president in a poll permitted by the military regime smarting from its defeat in the Falklands War. Now, Cox says he's never seen the media so free, or so polarised. "The press is very open and very free but not good. Each side is so partial that you have to read about four or five newspapers and even then you won't get it because each one will have a twisted headline that in some way suits its particular interests."
Argentina, he says, would never "become Venezuela" but he warns of signs that Fernández de Kirchner is moving towards a kind of "popular dictatorship". Particularly concerning are the attempts by pro-government activists, like La Campora, to deepen the cult of personality surrounding the president."We know that they are going into the schools and even to kindergartens to indoctrinate the children in what is now called Kirchnerism. But at least it is being reported, so that is something."
As the Kirchnerist juggernaut rumbles on, the opposition is scattered and ineffective. And in the absence of a genuine alternative leader to rally behind, the closest thing many of the disenchanted have is the media. In Cox's opinion, one journalist in particular — Jorge Lanata — has become a de facto mouthpiece for those who don't feel represented by the government. "When the opposition fades away and doesn't know what to say, the press takes its place, and now we have a leading journalist called Jorge Lanata who has really become the voice of the opposition."
A decorated journalist, Lanata, 52, this year launched the weekly television show Periodismo Para Todos(Journalism for Everyone). The title is a play on "Football for Everyone," the federal government program that supplies live free-to-air broadcasts of first- and second-division Argentine football matches. In this football-mad country, these transmissions provide an enormous captive audience and the government takes advantage by saturating them with political advertising.
On PPT, Lanata and his colleagues routinely call the government to account, criticising and poking fun at the president and other officials. Reacting to the president's televised speech on September 13, delivered while so many thousands of citizens were in the streets protesting against her, he urged her to listen to the demonstrators' demands. "It is no good to be the Queen of half a country, it's better to be President of a whole country." And the best way to engage the entire community, he says, is by engaging the media.
When you consider that Fernández de Kirchner and many of her top officials seem to have completely eschewed traditional press conferences as a means of communicating — the last time the president faced the media was on August 15, 2011 and that was limited to a handful of foreign journalists — there is an alarming lack of dialogue between the government and large sections of the media. On one episode of PPT, Lanata invited more than 50 journalists onto the set to demand that the government engage the media. The placard-holding scribes chanted "Queremos preguntar!" (We want to ask questions!).
But this administration makes no secret of its distrust of the country's leading media outlets, overtly discrediting them and even using the federal tax agency AFIP for targeted investigations of media companies, journalists and others. AFIP is now conducting a "media preference" survey. With no prior announcement the eight-page questionnaires appeared in AFIP offices, but the agency insists it will only use the information to "determine the most appropriate channels for dissemination".
The government is especially derisive of the country's largest media conglomerate, Grupo Clarín, and the two are locked in a very public war. The conflict dates back to a corruption investigation into a government minister published by the Clarín daily tabloid in July 2007, during Néstor Kirchner's mandate.
The dispute intensified the following year during the major "farm crisis" caused by the government's attempt to raise agricultural export taxes. It was around this time that pro-government activists coined the catchphrase "Clarín Miente" ("Clarín lies") that can now be seen and heard throughout the country every day. Here the distinctive slogan, written in Clarín's font, can be seen on a giant flag unravelled by one of Argentina's barra brava football mafias, and here on a T-shirt worn by Vice President Amado Boudou.
Ironically, Néstor Kirchner relied on Clarín's support during his successful presidential campaign in 2003 and rewarded the group by approving a cable television merger that handed it a near-monopoly.
It was against the backdrop of the Grupo Clarín dispute that Fernández de Kirchner's government passed the Media Law. In many ways it was necessary and overdue, especially considering that it replaced legislation dating back to the last dictatorship that allowed for the concentration of media power in the hands of few. In the words of FOPEA's D'Alessandro:"The proposal itself, to push ahead the reform of the broadcasting law that has been in place since the dictatorship and to democratise communication and access to information, we see this as positive."
The law requires an equal division of broadcast licenses between private media, state broadcasters and nongovernmental organisations, thus obliging Grupo Clarín to sell off much of its estimated 73 per cent share. This was to have happened within a year, but a court ruling suspended the requirement. A subsequent ruling, earlier this year, held that the suspension will be lifted on December 7, 2012. On September 22, the government broadcast a four-minute television spot during Fútbol Para Todos (Football for Everyone) denouncing Grupo Clarín as the only media organisation not to have complied with the Media Law. The same day, Grupo Clarín responded with its own one-minute video refuting the claims.
While there is surely some truth in claims that the Media Law was a thinly veiled attack on Grupo Clarín, the government's pro-plurality argument stands up against the organisation's dominant market position. Harder to defend, though, is the fact that the president can appoint a majority of the members of the regulatory body created to implement the law, AFSCA. As such, the body, while independent, is stacked with government sympathisers at any given time and therefore, critics say, susceptible to undue influence in the granting of broadcast licences. Indeed, complementing the state media is an ever-increasing number of government-aligned media groups. In general, these groups are private but rely on government advertising.
The journalist who Fernández de Kirchner attacked in the August 9 cadena nacional from the YPF refinery was Clarín's Marcelo Bonelli. Accusing him of involvement in a smear campaign against the re-nationalised company, she went on to reprove him for receiving, through his wife, 240,000 pesos (about AUD50,000) annually for unknown services "that we cannot be sure were journalistic". This public announcement, she said, exposed the sort of shady media practices that the public ought to know about, that warranted a public ethics law for the media. Bonelli explained the following day that the reason the president's money trail ended at his wife was that she'd worked at YPF as an English professor.
But what of this call for an ethics law? Nobody inside or outside the profession would deny there is significant corruption in Argentine journalism. But could wayward journalists really be kept in check by an ethics law? Is it even possible to enforce ethics?
The whole idea is a nonsense, according to Pablo Mendelevich, who authored FOPEA's Code of Ethics.
"Firstly, she doesn't have authority to speak about ethics, and secondly she doesn't have moral authority to speak about journalism. When you regulate the activity of journalists what you inevitably do is control them. This is what the president wants."
But most serious of all, Mendelevich says, is the president's suggestion that journalists use public information the same way as government officials do and as such should be subject to the same public ethics. "This is false because officials put the information together and support it, while we journalists take the information and publish it.
"We don't come up with the information, we don't have information other than what we publish. For this reason we are ruled by very different systems. It doesn't make sense that the public ethics guiding a government official should be the same as that guiding a journalist.
"In the meantime this idea floats about that the corruption of journalists is the same as government corruption. There is corruption in journalism in Argentina, of course there is, but it is not the same as government corruption. They have to answer to the population, journalists have to answer to professional forums and [in the case of corruption] they are rejected by their audience and lose credibility."