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ARGENTINA | 27-04-2024 05:15

Jorge Lanata: ‘President Milei has the right to speak and criticise, but not to say just anything’

One of Argentina’s most important journalists on his court case against President Javier Milei, pro-government reporters, the challenges facing the media and the nation’s new political order.

Jorge Lanata is one of this country’s most important journalists. He founded and headed some of the most innovative and disruptive newspapers in Argentina’s media landscape. He confronted and criticised every government in the last 20 years.

Earlier this month, the 63-year-old joined the list of prestigious journalists attacked by President Javier Milei. On April 17, he took the decision to lodge a civil and criminal lawsuit against the head of state for having described him as “on the take,” a case that paradoxically has ended up in the courtroom of Ariel Lijo, the federal judge nominated by Milei for a Supreme Court vacancy. 

In an extensive interview, Lanata reflects on journalism, freedom of expression and social media in the era of post-truth, as well as the new political order created by Milei’s victory and the La Libertad Avanza leader’s political success.

 

You have recently figured across the media, apart from your daily three hours in Radio Mitre. Do you continue needing journalism as much as you did 40 years ago? 

My upcoming judicial battle is important so I need support and I don’t care if it comes from people with whom I have disagreed. If we’re on the same side, we’ll give battle. I’m not going to punch below the belt but everywhere else. You’ve known me for years, that’s the way I am. And that’s also why those guys mistrust me because I don’t care. If I have to drop everything I’m doing, I’ll do so now and turn to speaking at 15th birthday parties of teenage girls. So there is no way they can make me shut up and I really believe that the President was out of line. 

I was recently told that when somebody asked him who his lawyer was going to be, he said: “I’m not going to have a lawyer because I’ve done nothing wrong.” Somebody should explain to him that he must have a lawyer anyway because this is a lawsuit. 

 

He’s not even consistent in what he says. He will have a lawyer assigned to him but he will have to have a lawyer. 

He must have somebody.

 

I can say in your defence that you will not be silenced, nor are you “on the take.” In the case of [Carlos] Menem, the mass media had their honeymoon for four or more years and in the case of Néstor Kirchner almost the same until the start of the first term of Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner]. Do you think that Milei will quickly bring them all into line and that this will be different from the previous experiences?

It worries me that this is happening after only four months. Let us imagine, and I hope that I’m mistaken, that for some reason the economic plan goes wrong… what will a Milei in a bad mood be like? 

The Milei about whom we are talking about is like one of Time magazine’s persons of the year; he’s not a frustrated Milei but the Milei who’s just come back from seeing the creator of Tesla. So he’s not just anybody. He’s in a good mood, the world is smiling on him, etc. So if this is the normal Milei, what would an annoyed Milei be like? 

He has passed from being a panellist to President in a very short period of time and I believe that he is still not aware that he is President. It’s like when you’re in a class in school and the teacher yells, it’s because they have no authority. 

 

In several of your interviews you have said that journalists should unite. In his second term Menem united us all. Néstor Kirchner disunited us, you will remember how he exploited journalists. Do you think that Milei will manage to reunite all the journalists torn apart by the grieta chasm, another word which you installed? 

It strikes my attention that this time, unlike others, I’m seeing a lot of pro-Milei journalists. We’re accustomed, we’ve both seen it for so many years, to a pro-government press but this time it seems to me worse in some people. Just as Milei is more irrational, so the pro-Milei media are equally irrational. So I don’t know what could happen. I believe that if the recession continues and if the social situation becomes complicated, if the middle class finally disappears and Milei’s country becomes what I believe it might be, a country 80 percent poor and 20 percent not, then perhaps everybody might unite but otherwise, I don’t know.

 

Did the so-called PRO hawks, who previously were licking your boots all the time, call you up in solidarity?

No, nobody called.

 

Does that surprise you? 

I had a lot of press calls, from here, abroad or from everywhere but it went no further than that. 

It is curious that aside from the criticism, you were insulted for being a larretista [a follower of former Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta]. Why do you think that was used as an insult?

Because to him Rodríguez Larreta is a Communist. I cannot understand why nobody told him: Javier, you can’t say something so stupid. Because you really have to be way to the right to call Rodríguez Larreta a Communist, I cannot think who could have called him a Communist.

 

I have a conjecture. Might it be that from Milei’s ontological reality he perceives polarisation as not right/left but extremism moderation since he despises moderation? 

I don’t think it’s a problem of right or left, I don’t believe that exists any more. I think that, as defined by [journalist] Jorge Fernández [Díaz]... 

 

Right-wing populism. 

That’s right, right-wing
populism. 

 

Now if we had to define populism, we could present it as an extreme, as an extreme form of political discourse, or how would you define populism? 

You’d have to call it neo-populism because there was populism in the 1950s. 

 

Fascists, specifically.

Of course, in Latin America, etc. and here too. And this would be neo-populism where the communication with the public is different, this business of ‘I speak directly to the people’ confuses the people with the social networks. 

Milei believes that Twitter is society. He is very much mistaken there, Twitter is only a part of society with many characteristics of a microclimate and while it stays anonymous, it will continue that way.

 

I heard you say that now you are accused of being a Kirchnerite. 

That’s very funny. On the one hand, it makes me laugh but on the other, it annoys me greatly because it seems to me a lack of respect. Political disputes are OK but not when they become ridiculous. 

 

And you should be annoyed or at least their ignorance does that to me because they’re not checking up past records, those who tweet are young people with no experience of 20 years ago and no idea of what happened previously.

You don’t have to experience things to know about them, otherwise nobody could talk about the Romans. 

 

That’s why I say a lack of training not to go and check up the past records.

They’re uncouth.

 

One of your two lawsuits has ended up in Ariel Lijo’s courtroom. 

That’s very funny. Today a guy wrote to me asking: ‘What’s gotten into Lijo?’ And my reply was to laugh.

 

Apart from the laughter, what are you expecting from a government nominee for the Supreme Court who is under universal scrutiny?

In my view he’d have to excuse himself from the case if he’s at all serious and they’ll have to draw lots again. Such is life.

 

Do you think he will? 

This is Argentina so who knows? 

 

Well, I don’t know or at least I have my doubts. 

Perhaps they won’t.

 

Jorge Lanata

 

You said that there is more pro-government journalism today than previously, to what do you attribute that? 

Perhaps that has to do with cutting state advertising so that they have to obtain benefits elsewhere. They’re very scared... 

 

So there are envelopes with money on the other side, so to speak.

Envelopes, of course. I’ve found that they’re scared of Milei, his own people are scared of him. Why more pro-government now than before? I believe it could be that fear or interests of some kind. 

It’s very difficult for me now but in these last four months I’ve been going over the complete panorama of what’s going on because there are many contradictions. They took office without having the people they should have had so they took them from anywhere. They spoke against the caste and then they appealed to the caste. 

 

Let’s try and conjecture together. Is there a cultural triumph of what was [Argentine television programme] 6, 7, 8, with journalists of a different ideology but also pro-government? 

I think that the vote for Milei was completely irrational, that people voted for him saying: “You know what, we’re all going to shit on everything anyway.”

 

‘Begone with them all,’ so that anybody can come along? 

That’s a good summary, ‘Begone with them all so that anybody can come along.’ And now they’re all starting to worry a bit. A guy spoke to me on the radio this morning saying that his electricity bill went up from 70,000 to 300,000 pesos. A baker who had to close because his gas went up I don’t know how much, these people are starting to worry. Middle-class people whose school fees now cost 600,000 pesos, those people are beginning to think: ‘Hey, did I get it right?’ That’s what I think is today’s experience …

 

You’re the son of a lower middle-class home who at the age of 14 was cutting cables and writing in your school and the local Sarandí newspapers. You have criticised the lack of solidarity of some journalists with their colleagues attacked by Milei. To what do you attribute that, fear, conviction, convenience or opportunism? 

Opportunism or fear while these attitudes of Milei also generate self-censorship.

 

Mirtha Legrand said that she was afraid of speaking in a government which...

Just imagine that, Mirtha Legrand. If Argentina’s most important actress is scared, imagine an apprentice kid, how are they going to have no fear? That’s logical. How do we teach those kids not to be scared? 

 

What do you think of the thesis of journalists backing Milei, for example, [Alejandro] Fantino, who maintains that the President’s right to behave like other journalists who make aggressive and insulting abuse of the microphone should be defended?

I think that Alejandro has got that wrong although it seems to me that the President has the right to speak and to criticise but not to say just anything.

 

Nobody has the right to say just anything.

Nobody has the right to say just anything. We must all respect each other.

 

Let’s talk about corruption in journalism, which seems to me an important issue. Is there more corruption in journalism today than 40 years ago when perhaps journalists were not so well-known because there was only print media? 

What happened is like a snowball, state funding was increasingly on the rise and since the courts weren’t doing their job, the state handled things in an increasingly discretionary way with slush money so that the corruption increased. It’s interesting to see the sums, when you look at corruption in the United States, there is a scandal when somebody robs US$100,000. Here, that’s what a municipal press chief steals.

 

I think we can add another element, that [continuous] democracy began only 40 years ago, before there was no need to pay off journalists or the media, you just killed them directly and that was that.

Around 100 of us went missing [in the dictatorship era].

 

Jorge Lanata

 

Apart from the envelopes, another term repeated by Milei is [press] ‘operations,’ something which is not solely journalism but propaganda and psychological action. How much do these have to do with corruption in journalism? How could we explain to people what Milei means when he says ‘operations,’ and how much is he right about them? 

What might an ‘operation’ be? I have a mining company so I invent pollution in some [other] inland town because it suits me. So I talk to a journalist to publish that in a newspaper, the radio picks it up from the newspaper, television from the radio and all hell breaks loose with the issue.

 

I pay a journalist or the media to convert something into news which isn’t news. In the best of cases it’s propaganda and in the worst of cases a lie. 

Exactly.

 

Does that have to do with the proliferation of the media, the weakness of the media, the atomisation of the audiences or the reduced pay of journalists?

I don’t believe that corruption has to do with low pay because with that criterion a teacher would sell marks or a doctor in a public hospital would operate worse on you and it’s not like that. Everybody does what they can. But that does not mean that it seems fine to me that the pay is bad. In our profession the low salaries are bastardising it because it has lost its exclusivity, which was the idea in the 1960s. 

 

Extending into the 1980s. 

So I’m working in the morning on the radio, while in the afternoon I’m a panellist on television. It’s delirious because when you finally have a scoop, to which of the four places does it suit you to hand it over, who’s going to pay for your research? 

 

Investigative journalism does not exist when it’s like that. 

And on the other hand, if I want to meet a journalist because I like how they work, where do we meet up? Everybody’s image also gets eroded, you shouldn’t have to be everywhere.

 

Another hypothesis, let’s see if it makes sense to you. We live in an age when the truth does not have the importance it did in the past and, indeed, it’s described as the post-truth era. Does the devaluation of truth contribute to the increased corruption in journalism since it is more or less the same whether something is true or not?

Yes, in many cases the media deserve their loss of prestige. The truth issue also has to do with that in the digital era, all this conversation could be faked.

 

Via artificial intelligence, for example.

Today you never know, even photos could be fake.

 

Another term installed by Milei, whom I believe to be a great communicator with a real capacity for constructing agenda, and also used by him in a pejorative sense to belittle journalism, has to do with the distribution of ‘pauta’ [guidelines for official state advertising].

He does not know what pauta is. I explained it on the air, would you like me to explain? 

 

Go ahead, let’s explain it.

The state has the obligation to communicate its actions. 

 

So says the Constitution. 

Of course. Well, you know the issue of the guidelines better than I do because you won a Supreme Court case on that point.

 

What Perfil won in the Supreme Court, which set jurisprudence, was that no government is allowed to discriminate with state advertising. But I’ve heard you propose that it would be interesting to draft legislation imposing such an obligation.

The guidelines should be legislated. Excuse me but I interrupted myself…

 

...when explaining pauta

Yes, as I was saying, the government has the obligation to communicate its actions. And what are those actions? The campaign against dengue, getting rid of stagnant water, etc. That is assumed to be communicated, I believe, according to the number of copies of the print media sold. 

This was very much a discussion point but in my book the state has to want to reach as much of the public as possible. So what is the point of placing an ad in a neighbourhood newspaper? None. In any event if they want to subsidise that neighbourhood newspaper or radio, let them do so.

 

The guideline is to place and distribute X number of ads in this channel or that radio. 

Well, ever since I’ve been a journalist, which is both before and since 1983, I’ve never seen any honesty with those guidelines, never in any government, including that of [Raúl] Alfonsín. The guidelines were always a messy scandal with kickbacks or a percentage requested. And why did that happen? For lack of legislation. 

So, at [state news agency] Télam or via state companies, etc. the ad distribution was used as an element of power. 

 

What is certain is that today they could not do what Néstor Kirchner did, leaving some media with zero advertising and piling it up in others. We won that little [court]  battle. So what did Milei do? A priori he scrapped that advertising for everybody. Do you think that beyond the logical motivation of saving money and reducing the fiscal deficit, there was also behind this, as [presidential adviser Federico] Sturzenegger said at a lecture, a desire to smother the media financially? 

Firstly, any media which depend on that ad distribution are failures. The dependence has to be on product advertising, which accounts for 95 percent of my advertising at Radio Mitre.

 

Jorge Lanata

 

Imagine [government advertising] to be 10 percent, for a restaurant or a supermarket losing 10 percent of their sales would be a significant amount. They could live without it but they would have to adjust. Do you think that there is an intention.?

To smother us financially? No, I don’t think so. I believe that it is something symbolic for them. There is plenty of marketing in this government. Now that we’re talking about ad distribution guidelines, the other day I was talking about that issue with somebody from our team and it seems that it still very much persists.

 

There is advertising by decentralised state companies like YPF or Aerolíneas [Argentinas]. 

So they have not taken away the ad distribution guidelines.

 

Well, if they took it away from the Presidency,  then they are discriminating again.

OK, the government is now announcing things.

 

After announcing the closure of Télam, they have to continue paying... 

Télam is not closed down and nor is [anti-discrimination institute] INADI. Milei himself boasted: “I threw out 70,000 people” and then it turned out to be 15,000. They are announcing things which have not happened.

 

Is the objective to spread fear? Instead of that famous phrase of the medium being the message, is fear the message?

For now I believe that when they confront a sector, fear is the message. They are also encountering practical realities of government which they did not expect. The same people who took office speaking of the invisible hand [of the market] have just blundered into the mess of the prepaid [health plans], where’s that invisible hand now? They’ve started to face up to things which are more difficult to manage. This is not economic theory but crude reality. 

 

Is Milei the end of an era, the annoyance of the present with the past, or is he the start of something new which might even transcend him and of which he himself is a consequence? 

Let’s start with the negative… what’s happening with everybody else. I believe that the PRO-Radical alliance is a thing of the past and that Kirchnerism is in a period of decline and nor do I see either Cristina [Fernández de Kirchner] nor La Cámpora running it. I believe that the most probable outcome is historic Peronism trying to regain power.

 

In other words, the inland governors. 

Yes, the governors. It depends, everything is very much linked of course, to how Milei fares with the economy, with the recession, with everything. But I don’t see Milei having a free ride and that will influence political discourse.

 

It would be like a big bang, turning everything upside down.

Yes, because today some things are being taken naturally which nobody would have thought of saying before. Things which were impossible to discuss in society are now in the mouths of everybody. And that has to do with Milei’s influence.

 

Are you surprised by the support of captains of industry and even Paolo Rocca coming from Argentina’s most important industry, when everything seems to indicate that his economic plan is not industrially oriented but quite the contrary?

I have to say I’m not surprised because I’ve seen Argentine businessmen supporting anything ... they would support any winner.

 

Capital is always pro-government.

That is so and they support him because they imagine things being adjudicated to them. 

 

What is worse, capital is cowardly so that it would be worse not to support him.

That’s right, of course. 

 

With a lower country risk [rating] doubling the value of some Argentine debt bonds, could somebody be making a whole pile of money out of this, somehow repeating or resembling the first two years of [Mauricio] Macri?

Some people could be doing business, the financial fatherland is at a stage for that. With a lower country risk [rating] these things go up and the alignment of Argentina with the United States and Israel has a lot to do with that. I’m sure that the aircraft bought from Denmark has to do with the Yankees requesting that purchase. No money is arriving from the United States but indirect business deals may be on the cards, which Wall Street can support because of US support, it seems to me.

 

Jorge Lanata

 

Just as a conjecture to later go investigating and corroborating, Macri was criticised for placing people in charge of state areas which were previously controlling them, described as “placing a fox to guard the chicken coop.” Doesn’t making a financial trader who made an enormous fortune buying and selling bonds [Economy Minister Luis Caputo] generate a certain conflict of interest or at least suspicion?

There have to be state control mechanisms which work and if so, I’d tell you no, because I can trust in this situation being controlled. If no state control mechanism works, that would be
worrying.

 

Brutal Kirchnerite corruption, [graft scandals involving] empty hotels or ‘La Rosadita,’ makes this evident. Let us imagine just as a conjecture that somebody knowing that they were instrumenting an economic policy, which in the long term would not be useful for the country but would make bonds rise and country risk fall for a year or two, previously buying bonds for US$30 and then selling them for US$70 and, knowing the world’s major investment funds, somebody asks one of them to buy US$2 billion and earn US$1 billion without the need to leave any traces of corruption which we journalists might find… is that just my paranoid thinking or typical of journalism?

You have a fevered imagination.

 

Because corruption in a more economically sophisticated government is trickier, the same thing happened with Macri.

But this government is not all that sophisticated either. This government has sectors which it has decided not to confront, Tucumán sugar, Tierra del Fuego [Province], the fisheries, the tobacco king, etc. And what are the interests? It depends, they’re different. But they’ve started to have caste interests. 

 

I was referring to the sophistication of Caputo, not the government as a whole. I ask you: Kirchnerism has always thought all this to be a master plan of Macri who is behind Caputo, while at the same time Caputo and [Security Minister Patricia] Bullrich are said to have cut themselves loose. Do you think that Macri is behind all this with an evil plan? 

No, not at all. I think that Macri must be more worried about becoming the president of [football governing body] FIFA or something than with Argentine politics. I don’t see it.

 

Do you think that Macri, rather than becoming president again, wants more than anything that nobody from PRO be president, least of all its CEO, Rodríguez Larreta? 

Macri got it wrong because he reacted late and badly. And everybody in Juntos por el Cambio also got it wrong, they lost through their own fault from becoming bogged down in ridiculous infighting during so much time, they started their campaign late and badly. 

There were a whole bunch of things which they got wrong with Macri joining in.

 

How could a party which had won nationwide, with its then-leader Rodríguez Larreta governing the district with the country’s second-biggest budget, finish third two years later, and that leader fourth in the PASO primaries? 

Incredible. But apart from all that, all the opinion polls said that he was going to win and he went into the election thinking that he was going to win.

 

You have maintained that to be president, a person needs something more than ideas, which could be aesthetics or representing something special which commands attention. Milei, with his unkempt hair, his black anorak and his frenetic attitude, had it.  

Sure, image is important in a leader .. Milei undoubtedly has personality. The leather jacket is in his favour, he’s saying something there. In principle he’s saying: ‘I couldn’t care less what they think of me, I’m going to use the leather jacket when I feel like it.’ And that is something very good for a leader. 

 

And a sign of youth.

Milei had those things, yelling: “Viva la libertad, carajo!” He’s completely extemporaneous. Nobody would think of that … Milei is a political leader, beyond any doubt.

 

Would you place Milei in the same league as Néstor Kirchner and Menem?

Yes, without a doubt.

 

So he could have a lengthy run.

He might well have a long [political] life, and also his sister, and whoever comes along next… 

 

Production: Melody Acosta Rizza & Sol Bacigalupo.

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Jorge Fontevecchia

Jorge Fontevecchia

Cofundador de Editorial Perfil - CEO de Perfil Network.

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