The final stretch of the campaign has left Argentina’s politicos and media talking heads dumbstruck, trapped into a divide that becomes ever more blatantly exposed when a crisis hits home. Campaign managers and media leaders subliminally agreed to declare a truce over these last few days, one which meant no more rallies or noisy motorcades, but many of them still could not refrain from adding to the confusion around a complex picture.
The first thing the Maldonado family did when facing the press pack at a chaotic conference in Esquel on Wednesday evening was to criticise the media, which is the most visible party in a crowd that has created a state of helplessness in which the they reside. They did not lack cause: since the young man went missing amid Gendarmie (Border Guard) action against a Mapuche community in Chubut on August 1, they have read and heard an avalanche of groundless speculations, many even bordering on fabrication and clearly planted to divert attention. “We have been and are still being harassed,” said Sergio Maldonado.
But the tree should not hide the entire forest of information insecurity that exists. The one the Maldonados and the Argentine public at large are swallowed up by every day. The media is a reflection of the state of the political system: it is opinionated and reluctant to seek and rely on – sometimes to even consider – facts.
Be it in private conversation or via public statements, many of the country’s leaders are not sending the public a clear message that they care about the facts – and most of the journalists follow suit. Why would journalists, for instance, react moderately if they hear Elisa Carrió – who is heading for a landslide victory in race for Buenos Aires City tomorrow – saying that according to her “investigation” there was a “20-percent chance” that Santiago Maldonado was alive in Chile? Or, when after the body now thought to be Santiago’s was found, she compared the corpse’s condition in the frozen Patagonian river waters to that of Walt Disney?
“We want to please ask you all that, before you publish information, you think [about the fact] that there is a family here and that we are suffering. We are just asking for respect.” At the press conference, Santiago Maldonado’s sister-in-law, Andrea Antico, used an imploring tone as she addressed the press. Before facing the cameras and the microphones, they had waited for seven hours next to what may be the body of their loved one – it was a materialisation of the fact that they “do not trust anybody.” That list includes not only the media but also the government officials following the case, the security agents enforcing the investigative orders of the courts and the judicial officials leading the probe.
It all comes down to sources. Journalists, for example, rely on sources to inform, to be informed and to opine and the sourcejournalist relationship is one of the most complex in modern democracies. They are never as transparent as the public would like to imagine. Sources are never naïve and are strongly interest-driven, and so are journalists and media companies. But there is a limit to spin. Post-truth might be a concept en vogue, but reality always tends to find its way through, and often in the most awful way.
Argentina’s Constitution includes an explicit protection for the secrecy of journalistic sources (Article 43). The provision has made the use of anonymous, unnamed sources very common and virtually riskfree. Their use is useful when power needs to be held accountable and sources would only speak up if their identity is preserved, but they should be handled with care in daily affairs. When there are cases like Maldonado – and that of the violent death of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman in early 2015 – sources from all sides are keen to plant their own version of events.
A Supreme Court ruling early this month might have placed a cap on anonymous sources. In a unanimous decision, the justices ruled that a journalist, Chiche Gelblung, was responsible for damage caused by information he attributed to “undetermined or generic” sources. The ruling changed a previous doctrine, based on the concept of “real malice,” which the court had adopted from its US counterpart year back, on the grounds that the alleged damage caused did not affect a public official but a private citizen. By the time justice is done, however, damage can be irrevocable. The Supreme Court ruling came 17 years after the information in question had been published. The Maldonados – or anybody for that matter – cannot wait that long for justice in such cases. All they can do in the meantime is to issue some desperate plea, like Sergio Maldonado had to this week: “If you don’t have anything to say, just play music instead.”