The world was shocked by this month’s killing of Anna Politkovskaya, 48, a Russian journalist widely viewed as a beacon of freedom of speech.
However, her death came on the same day two German documentary makers were killed in Afghanistan, and Reporters Without Borders, a French-based worldwide press freedom organisation, says 60 journalists and 24 media assistants have been killed and over 130 reporters have been imprisoned so far this year, all because of what they have written or said.
So much for freedom of speech, eh?
Ah well, at least such things aren’t going on in Argentina, right? It’s the old Soviet bloc, the ‘Stans’, and Asia that have problems with journalists doing their jobs properly. Press freedom is unquestionable in Argentina, we can say smugly, whilst lamenting the fate of these courageous reporters who have fallen elsewhere in the line of duty.
Well, not quite right, actually.
In just the last month two Argentine journalists have been on the receiving end of insults and death threats after voicing opposition to Néstor Kirchner’s government.
Jorge Fontevecchia, chief executive of Perfil publishers and owner of Perfil newspaper, received death threats via email on 28th September after criticising the Kirchner administration in articles in both Perfil and Noticias magazine.
Fontevecchia had slated diatribes by the president against the media and also the withholding or awarding of official advertising as a means of pressure or reprisals against the ‘unruly’ press.
On the same day Joaquín Morales Solá, columnist for La Nación, received threats from an anonymous caller a day after the president publicly criticised the journalist. Kirchner accused Solá of publishing an article in 1978 in praise of then-dictator Jorge Videla.
Solá hit back saying the president erred in his citation, and denied he wrote the column. His reply, in La Nación on 1st October, also said the Kirchner administration only understood two kinds of journalism – the first being the kind that agreed unconditionally with everything the president said, and the second being the kind that disagreed, which must disappear.
All of this follows attacks in June on Carlos Elías Furman, of 2 de Octubre radio station in Santa Fé province. Furman had revealed corruption by local deputy governor Domingo Daniel Rossi, who has since been arrested and charged over the case.
After going public with the story, Furman was twice beaten up in the street, his house has been shot at, and pamphlets with the words ‘Jewish New Year. Death to Carlos Furman’ on top of an image of a swastika have been printed and circulated around the town. He has spent the last three months wearing a bullet-proof vest and living under police guard in a hotel in Santa Elena.
Furman recently decided to give up the profession and is looking to migrate to Israel with his family.
So that’s one-nil to the oppressors.
This victory seems to be a part of a pattern of Argentine officials growing increasingly intolerant of press freedom, and the press criticism that comes with this. Perhaps Solá is right – the current government does only want one kind of media and is working hard to eradicate the other kind.
Other, less subtle forms of coercion are also being seen throughout the nation – for example in January the province of Neuquén withdrew all advertising from the region’s largest paper soon after it uncovered a bribery scandal linked to the governor. This had a huge effect on the paper, as 80-90% of the budgets of newspapers outside of the capital are sustained by government ads.
Argentina’s press has long since had a rocky relationship with those in power – during the last dictatorship, some 100 journalists were disappeared, and since then things have not always run smoothly. Menem’s administration in the 1990s often sued journalists for defamation, and now Kirchner is flexing his muscles over the errant media in a different way.
But I believe journalists like Anna Politkovskaya do their job exactly as they should, and it makes me proud to share a profession with them. Journalists need to be able to research, to investigate, to ask questions courageously, without fear of repercussions. They are a check on the government and the conscience of the nation, and it is only with this that a true democracy can thrive.
Argentina is currently in the anniversary year of 30 years since the last dictatorship began, and many are proudly looking at how far the nation has come since the darks years of the 1970s. But without journalists being free to do their jobs without fear of repercussions, the restoration of democracy is only half done.