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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 04-05-2019 08:45

What is left of a free Press ?

The last and really big incident was the murder in Pinamar on January 25, 1997, of Noticias reporter and photographer José Luis Cabezas, aged 36, trapped when enquiring into the proceedings of mafia groups closely linked to the government of Carlos Saúl Menem.

We have just left behind the serious side (the side where all say how important it is and all that) of Freedom of the Press week. It was only for yesterday. You don’t have to believe that anybody cares about Freedom of the Press most of the time. Journalists worry about their jobs and their pensions, not about the politics, unless they fall into serious trouble. Media owners here like to pay lip service to the greater cause and use “FotP” as a reminder to the government that it ought to pay for official advertising ordered in the good times and ignored when political circumstances or financial management change.

May 3 is a date which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate the respect for freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession (that is according to Wikipedia). If you haven’t been made aware already, it is a United Nations thing. It was especially brought in to remind “governments of their duty to respect and uphold the right to freedom of expression enshrined under Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The date marks the anniversary of the Windhoek Declaration, a statement of free press principles put together by African newspaper journalists in Windhoek in 1991, which was a follow-up to the independence of Namibia. The date, 1991, coincided in part with the end of Apartheid, the freedom of Nelson Mandela and the start of change in South Africa.

These anniversaries are useful to remind us of a set of good intentions that are being rapidly overtaken by events. The free press declaration is an interesting, necessary even, statement about tragedies in the working days of ordinary journalists, not only the risk-takers who try to cover dangerous drug-dealers in Mexico or the likes of Saudi sadists in the Middle East. The “ordinary” are just like Lyra Catherine McKee, the late 29-year-old journalist from Northern Ireland who wrote for several publications about the consequences of the Troubles, which stopped in a way with the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1989, after nearly a century of a religious civil war. McKee also served as an editor for Mediagazer. Well, on April 18, 2019, McKee was fatally shot during rioting in an area of Derry. The gangsters of the so-called “New IRA” tried to explain and justify the shooting. That is when sympathetic statements come in handy as a reminder of the perils in the news business. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, over 50 reporters were killed in 2018.

Here, at home, the Freedom of the Press concern is related more to conflict between government and publishers in the provinces and the interests there have more to do with local business. The last and really big incident was the murder in Pinamar on January 25, 1997, of Noticias reporter and photographer José Luis Cabezas, aged 36, trapped when enquiring into the proceedings of mafia groups closely linked to the government of Carlos Saúl Menem.

Before that, it should not be forgotten, the dictatorship of the 1970s murdered over 100 journalists, many of whom were branded by the military as “mere” barricade propagandists, simply because they ran political publications aligned with left-wing groups.

But in those days, before the Windhoek declaration, there was very little protest in Argentina. You can’t really hope to find much that could be critical of the regime in La Nación, for example. Later, that paper’s coverage of the 1982 South Atlantic conflict might best be studied as an example of responsibility evaded. Nowadays the daily is best described as our newspaper of record. But not then, when criticism was considered inconvenient.

There is a need for noise about such things as World Press Freedom Day. The industry needs to wave some kind of flag. The big papers nowadays are shrinking. News coverage is shrinking everywhere, FM radio has probably stepped into the gap left by the smaller papers that used to cover local news and town council affairs. And people don’t seem to be very worried by the fact that they no longer have somebody to go out and ask why, for example, a city legislature is demolishing ancient buildings or cutting down grand old trees, or building a noisy disco in a residential area because the construction is closely linked to a mayor who is on the make.

Local papers used to cover that sort of information and, from time-to-time, they fell out with the local authorities and the conflict grew into a wider controversy, with professional organisations or civil entities joining the fray. In the mid-1980s people perhaps expected more from a television channel called TodoNoticias, but they might be best identified now as “Todo - Nothing,” if measured by the limited variety of information it conveys. In many cases and places, the so-called social networks, the private blogs, the private and institutional webs and personal stations such as Wordpress, in addition to the mentioned local radio, have taken over from the local and medium press. This is quite apart from Facebook or Linkedin, the Google offspring and so many more. What newsrooms are left do not include the local reporter calling at a hospital or a fire brigade. The style now, for financial reasons, is to cluster reporters in certain areas, usually very far from their local beats where things happen. Reporters communicate by email.

So, what exactly does World Press Freedom Day represent and how much or how far can it really refer to the strange concoction of the press today? Rachael Jolley, editor of the London-based campaigning quarterly Index on Censorship, wrote: “Many of those who fight for freedom of expression feel that declining numbers of local reporters just make it easier for governments to cover up scandals, leave the public ill-informed, and make sure only the information they want is out there.”

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Andrew Graham-Yooll

Andrew Graham-Yooll

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1994-2007).

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