A blow to the freedom of speech
Between last weekend’s surprisingly successful pro-government rally and yesterday’s general strike with ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner being sent to trial in between on rather more serious charges than her previous dollar futures indictment, few people are likely to pay much attention to a minor slander case but the implications of the court ruling are potentially alarming for the freedom of expression. Two members of the Civil Law Appeals Court recently upheld a ruling of judge Patricia Barbieri to fine the satirical magazine Barcelona 70,000 pesos for impugning the honour of Cecilia Pando, that tireless defender of state terrorism. That sum (not much more than the eight minimum wages needed to qualify for the government’s latest housing loan plan) might sound almost trifling but in today’s precarious media universe could be fatal for the publication.
In this case there is a huge temptation to pin the blame on the plaintiff Pando, the source of countless politically incorrect opinions so deeply offensive to the vast majority of Argentine society, yet denying her the right to express herself or even to sue would merely challenge the freedom of speech from a different angle — perversely enough, this would vindicate her critique of the democratic order like nothing else and negate the advances of the last three decades. Yet if Pando has a right to her opinions (for which she has paid a price in the form of public discomfort and the ruin of her husband’s military career), then surely Barcelona should have no less freedom of expression to reject her and everything she represents in their own style — which might be obnoxious to many but then so is Pando’s defence of crimes against humanity in the eyes of far more. Yet the problem is not Pando but the judges who entirely failed to understand that their ruling effectively bans any sarcastic reaction to a defence of dictatorship (which surely cannot be considered as any different to an “apology of crime”). Indeed some lines in the ruling such as “headlines exceeding the limits appropriate to the press” could easily have come from a dictatorship — is it not rather Pando who “exceeds the limits” and crosses the line all the time in offending human rights?
The court ruling explicitly repudiates prior censorship but if its result is to silence Barcelona, in no way can the ensuing pressure for self-censorship be seen as upholding the freedom of opinion in Argentina.