Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).
Donald Trump is not the only politician who thinks most
journalists are out to get him and are all too willing to
invent “fake news” if it helps make him look bad. A large
number of Argentines, most of whom profess to dislike
the US president intensely, are equally convinced that
journalists are a malicious and mendacious lot who
in a better world would be brought to book and made to pay dearly for their sins.
In the run-up to the recent elections, when it was
widely assumed that the Kirchnerites, with Alberto
Fernández formally leading the pack, would sweep
all before them, some said the country could do
with a new “CONADEP” which would investigate
the crimes that in their view were committed by
scribblers and television personalities under the
Macri tyranny. As the original CONADEP (Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas)
had been formed in late 1983 to investigate the
“disappearance” of thousands of people during the
military dictatorship, the implication was that the
journalists targeted were akin to the individuals
who had tortured and murdered so many people
when the “Dirty War” was raging. Many who apparently believe the media shape reality, found the idea appealing.
Not surprisingly, the proposal has caused unease in the journalistic community. Though it would seem that many who have been
railing against it rather like the idea of seeing themselves playing the
role of a brave defender of press freedom against a gang of fanatical
ideologues, they have good reason to fear that members of the
incoming government could
use their considerable influence
to force newspapers, magazines and television outfits to fire
them, as indeed had happened
on occasion when Néstor Kirchner and then his spouse ran the
country. Most journalists appreciate that putting up with
harsh criticism is part of the job,
but, quite rightly, they draw the
line when it comes to persecution, whether direct or indirect,
of the kind far too many politicians are prone to encourage.
Like other mortals (with the
exception of former presidents who have been plausibly accused
of looting huge amounts of public funds), journalists are subject
to the laws of the land, including the ones regarding libel and the
like, and cannot expect to get away with flouting them. However,
while most would agree with the principle expressed almost a
hundred years ago by the Manchester Guardian’s long-serving
editor, C. P. Scott, that “comment is free but facts are sacred,”
those attacking them can point out that things are not that straightforward. As many journalists are well aware, paying an obsessive
attention to some carefully selected facts while overlooking others
can be just as misleading as any forcefully expressed opinion. This
is what Trump and his supporters accuse The New York Times,
The Washington Post and other “mainstream” dailies of doing.
In a similar fashion, rancourous Kirchnerites, accompanied by the
lorry-drivers’ union boss Hugo Moyano – who has been accused of a
number of crimes and once said he would love to head a future “Vengeance Ministry” and get his own back on people who take a dim
view of his dealings – insist that the country’s biggest
newspapers and some, but not all, television outlets,
regularly suppressed information about the wrongdoing of Mauricio Macri, his friends, relatives and
members of his government, while giving far too
much space to the accusations levelled against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her cronies.
Some even go so far as to argue that all the charges
against her were concocted by hostile media in what,
if they are taken seriously, would surely have been
one of the most successful propaganda operations
the world has ever seen. Do they really believe this?
Perhaps not, but to judge by the results of the recent
elections, roughly half the country’s population
either thinks large-scale corruption is a minor matter
or that Cristina really is as innocent as Alberto Fernández says she is.
Unpleasant as the political climate may become for
those journalists who suspect that the incoming Peronist government
will prove to be even worse than the previous ones, the possibility,
which thankfully is not very great, that they will soon find themselves
facing a ferociously Kirchnerite inquisition determined to silence
them is the least of their worries. Far more dangerous is the country’s
dire economic situation; it is bound to deprive media companies,
which have already been weakened by changes in their business
model, of much of the cash they desperately need.
Not only here but in the rest of the world, newspapers and magazines, which a couple of decades ago were doing very nicely, are
struggling to adjust to circumstances few had foreseen by dispensing
with the services of a growing proportion of their employees, paying
those that remain far less than in the past, closing bureaux in foreign
or provincial cities, or, in many cases, scrapping their print editions
and going entirely online in a forlorn attempt to stay afloat. For a
couple of years, the technological revolution that spawned the Internet made their life far easier, but it then proceeded to squeeze then
mercilessly, leaving them without much of their lifeblood.
For those interested in freedom of expression, all this is bad news.
The media landscape which took shape in the 19th century and
lasted until the beginning of the 21st certainly had many faults, but
it did provide an environment in which upholders of different
viewpoints could thrive and reach a wide audience without attaching
themselves to any particular political master or plutocrat. This on
the whole happy state of affairs could be fast approaching its end.
Independent media companies are becoming increasingly vulnerable to political pressures because they lack the resources they would
need in order to resist them, as they were accustomed to doing not
that long ago. Activists of one kind or another know this very well.
If they can oblige an entity as fabulously rich as Google to sack a
computer engineer for making what were anodyne and not very
controversial comments that offended militant feminists, they, and
others determined to make everyone march in lockstep whether
they like it or not, can easily do the same to a struggling media