June 19, 2013
Common ground possible?Sunday, June 17, 2012
Trench war in media
Find common ground in human rights
CHARLESTON, South Carolina — A colleague who worked with me at the Herald throughout the maelstrom of violence that marked the decade of the 1970s in Argentina wrote something in an e-mail to me a few days ago that set an alarm bell ringing in my mind.
Writing from the United Kingdom, where he had a distinguished career as an editor specializing in foreign affairs, he confided, “I feel sickened and depressed every time I read any of the Argentine papers online (which is pretty much every day). I still do, only because Argentina means so much to me. It is refreshing to read your column.” He went on to comment on the inquiry that is being conducted by Lord Justice Leveson into the News of the World phone hacking scandal that is focusing a blazing light on the media’s relations with politicians (http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/).Prime Minister David Cameron followed a procession of former prime ministers who have given evidence along with media owners, reporters, civil servants and police officers, who have hopped out of the Pandora’s Box opened by the Inquiry.
My friend notes that former prime minister John Major lamented the “blurring of the lines between reporting news and editorial comment in the British media.”
My friend continues: “I see it in both countries, but it is increasingly difficult for me, with some knowledge of Argentine affairs, to make out what is going on over there, such is the viciousness with which the pro-and anti-government press spout their views. What it is like for anyone who doesn’t know Argentina at all I can only guess. Very sad and worrying.”
Worrying indeed, particularly when we in Argentina do not have an inquiry into the press and politics that is an attempt to put things to rights. When Leveson opened the hearings six months ago, he said: “The press provides an essential check on all aspects of public life. That is why any failure within the media affects all of us. At the heart of this inquiry, therefore, may be one simple question: who guards the guardians?”
In Argentina, the issue is more complicated because the guardians (the press) must not only be guarded against but also protected from the government (and not just this government). There is certainly something rotten about the state of journalism in Britain but there is not such a black and white division between the pro- and anti-government press. And there is neither an official nor an officially sponsored press in Britain.
In Argentina the media have been polarized into two blocs. I picture them in my mind as two armies facing each other in trench warfare. In formation on the left of the battlefield are the components of the K media army. The centre of the line is held by the state-owned (more correctly, government-owned) Canal 7 television network, Radio Nacional and the Télam news agency. On the left flank is Página/12 and on the right a medley of television and radio outlets, newspapers and magazines, ostensibly privately owned but which support the government because they are supported by massive government advertising.
On the right of the battlefield are the media in the Clarín Group which, as well as the newspaper of the same name, includes the highly popular and successful Canal 13, an Internet access and cable company, radio stations and a clutch of provincial newspapers. In the front line, shoulder to shoulder with Clarín is the venerable La Nación. The two newspapers are jointly part owners with the government of the Papel Prensa newsprint company. The Perfil magazine and newspaper is also in the trenches with them. I think they should be called, collectively, the independent commercial press, a category that also takes in most of the traditional privately- owned newspapers in Argentina.
So far, it is a standoff between media which are independent of the government and media which are in one way or another dependent on the government. Or, as my friend put it, “the pro-and anti-government media.”
It is not a healthy state of affairs because newspapers, television companies and radio stations that are not independent of the government are simply not free.
The consequence is that there is no common ground in which differing opinions can be voiced openly and no place where ideological differences can be resolved in a civil manner. This lack of civilized comity is what sets alarm bells ringing in my mind. No one can be sure that the government’s claim to be democratic is to be trusted although, so far, the press has not been repressed as it has been in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
I take heart, however, in what happened at the Organization of American States General Assembly in Cochabamba earlier this month. Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador and the foreign ministers of Venezuela and Nicaragua, representing Presidents Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega, failed in an attempt to strip the iconic Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of its autonomy under the pretence of reforming it. It was feared before the meeting that Argentina might support the Chávez-Correa-Morales-Ortega axis of Latin American leaders who have not resisted the temptation of authoritarian power and are allied with the totalitarian Castro regime in Cuba.
Argentine Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman did not go along. He said that while “certain things should be formulated to adapt to what has happened under democracy, its (the OAS’s) functions should not be removed, merely modernized.”
Clearly, Timerman has not forgotten and will not overlook the role that that OAS human rights commission played in defying the military government and reporting the disappearances. The report of the commission marked the beginning of the turn of the tide in the struggle to return Argentina to democracy. Juan E. Méndez, a former president of the commission says the 1979 report is “the most significant report on disappearances ever published in international law.” He writes in his compelling book Taking a Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights (Palgrave Macmillan) that the report, which was smuggled into Argentina by Emilio Mignone, founding father of the human rights movement in Argentina was “was also one of the most stinging indictments of the junta ever published.”
Here, in honouring the enshrinement of human rights in Argentina, there is common ground for journalists to leave the trenches. Journalism, if you think about it, is essentially the defence of human rights and, of course, the embodiment of the most basic of those rights: freedom of expression.