Security Minister Aníbal Fernández has apologised to the newspaper humorist Cristian Dzwonik, better known as ‘Nik’, after the cartoonist denounced him for threats during a heated exchange on social media.
Press associations condemned the minister on Tuesday, with Fernández also facing criticism from his own party colleagues regarding his initial comments. Opposition leaders in the Juntos por el Cambio coalition went even further, demanding the official’s resignation over the episode.
The controversy erupted after Dzwonik, the creator of the famous Gatturo comic-strip character, posted a tweet in which he slammed the government for ‘giveaways’ to voters in the middle of an election campaign, citing “[state-funded] graduation trips, [social] plans and handouts."
Angered by the comments, Fernández responded that “many schools in the City of Buenos Aires receive state subsidies and that’s OK.” He went on to controversially cite the example of ORT college – the school the cartoonist’s daughters attend.
“Security Minister Aníbal Fernández has dedicated a tweet persecuting me with a veiled threat by letting me know that he’s aware which college my younger daughters go to,” Dzwonik responded on Twitter. “The minister who should be offering ‘SECURITY’ to every Argentine harasses those who think differently. I’m scared.”
Fernández, who rejoined the Cabinet only on September 17 in a Cabinet reshuffle, sought to explain himself while responding to a user who had criticised his remarks.
"I didn’t threaten anybody. I told Nik that if he felt threatened, I would apologise. No sweat, I did no harm," he said.
Despite the explanation, the ADEPA newspaper association harshly condemned the minister’s intimidatory expressions and reference to the cartoonist’s family.
"The message, which includes information about the cartoonist’s family circle, is especially serious, above all coming from somebody entrusted with looking after the safety of the citizenry,” said the press group.
Fernández, however, assured that his controversial tweet against Nik was part of "a debate," complaining that the cartoonist "attacks [the government] non-stop."
"One of the many things I think I do well is write, my writing is crisp and clear. It was a debate we were having over subsidies," maintained the official.
By Wednesday morning, however, Fernández was complaining to journalists about the “phenomenal attacks” against him, which he described as “merciless.”
The origin of the conflict
The clash between the security minister and the cartoonist began when Nik criticised Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof’s plan to grant “free graduation trips” to 220,000 provincial school students.
On October 8, he tweeted: “Giving away refrigerators, gas canisters, graduation trips, [social] plans, cash handouts, whatever. How sad never to hear the words WORK, EFFORT, FUTURE. The DIGNITY of the people will defeat them once again.”
Without being directly addressed, Fernández picked up the gauntlet, responding: "Many schools in the City of Buenos Aires receive state subsidies and that’s OK. For example, ORT college. Do you know it? Sure you do… Or would you like me to draw it for you? Excellent school, I guarantee you. I repeat … Do you know it?"
Naming the school attended by the cartoonist’s daughters was what made the message sound like a threat. It was understood as such by the cartoonist.
"The headmaster of ORT college has confirmed that he receives zero subsidies from the state. The minister is giving fake news. Hours afterwards @FernandezAnibal, who mentions me on his Twitter but blocks me off, deleted his tweet," complained Nik.
"National Security Minister Aníbal Fernández, with our kids, NO," were the words the humorist attached to a cartoon drawn in reaction.
In response to this the minister explained: “For those who have been following Nik’s argument with my person, I wrote to his WhatsApp saying that if he understood anything in my expressions as a threat, I apologise. I’ve spoken about it with the President of DAIA [Jewish umbrella grouping]. Didn’t he understand when I said I would draw it for him? Here goes,” adding a drawing of Gaturro (Nik’s feline cartoon protagonist) visiting the school, giving it to understand that he used it as an example for that reason.
“It’s very clearly written. Nothing more than a running debate I was having with him about subsidies and the debate ended there,” argued Fernández later in dialogue with the TN television news channel.
Along those lines, the minister declared: “I’d never mess around with anybody’s children and if he took it that way, I honestly apologise,” adding that saying sorry would be no problem for him.
According to Fernández, “explaining these things is an obligation,” asserting: “Children, homes and women are temples with which one does not meddle.”
On Tuesday, the first legal complaints arrived, with one lawyer denouncing Security Minister Fernández for “abuse of authority and threats.”
Santiago Dupuy de Lome, a familiar presence at Comodoro Py federal courthouse, mailed his denunciation, which has been registered under the number 6580/2021 and falls to federal judge Julián Ercolini.
The comments by Fernández, 64, were criticised on both sides of the aisle, including by Cabinet Chief Juan Manzur, who described them as “very unfortunate.”
The security minister, who has held a number of key government posts over the past two decades during the Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner presidencies, is also facing calls for his resignation from opposition leaders from Juntos por el Cambio.
Maximiliano Ferraro, who chairs the lower house caucus of the Civic Coalition, warned: "The country is upside-down when Security Minister Aníbal Fernández, instead of safeguarding citizens, scares them with threats in his public declarations on social networks. What’s happened is grave and inadmissible and we demand a retraction, declaring our solidarity with the satirical cartoonist Nick (sic)."
Hinting at additional legal action, fellow Civic Coalition leader Elisa Carrió asked the courts to investigate the threats of Aníbal Fernández against Nik, considering them to “express racist and Nazi thinking,” as well as “a very clear kind of anti-Semitic attack.”
On the campaign trail in Mar del Plata, the ex-deputy spoke to TN about the Twitter clash between Fernández and the creator of Gaturro.
“ORT college is Jewish. He’s not only threatening Nik’s children drawing the college but he is transforming the name of the Jewish college in Buenos Aires into a very clear kind of anti-Semitic attack,” he highlighted.
Via his Twitter account, former president Mauricio Macri also referred to the controversy, while expressing surprise that the threats could originate from Governor Kicillof’s "free graduation trips" for 220,000 schoolchildren in BA Province.
"WE ARE ALL NIK. I cannot get over my amazement. Security Minister Aníbal Fernández threatened Nik over a tweet criticising the delivery of refrigerators, gas canisters and graduation trips for electoral ends," said Macri.
Along the same lines, he added: "In response to that tweet, minister Fernández publicly identified the school attended by Nik’s daughters, seeking not only to intimidate the author and his daughters but at the same time any other citizen who dares to criticise the government."
Nevertheless, he explained that "this time fear did not win out," given that citizens and organisations "immediately repudiated the minister.”
“We’re tired of the aggressions and the arrogance. We’ve already told him we’ve had enough, we’re no longer scared of him, millions of us are fed up," affirmed the ex-president, adding: "The end of this dark period is near."
The ruling coalition’s top lower house candidate in the City of Buenos Aires, Leandro Santoro, also entered the controversy.
"Yesterday I called Aníbal over this issue and could not get through to him," said Santoro, considering any reference to family or children in the framework of a political discussion to be "unacceptable," whether direct or indirect.
"The truth is that I don’t know what Aníbal meant to say, it’s unacceptable," he said in an interview, questioning the minister and adding: "When arguments become personal, it does not help politics."