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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 09-11-2019 11:44

Journalists fear a new inquisition

Independent media companies are becoming increasingly vulnerable to political pressures because they lack the resources they would need in order to resist them.

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 corporation.

James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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