Media, Democracy and Conflict: the Case of Argentina
Tomas Garzon de la Rosa, IDCR Intern
© 2012 Tomas Garzon de la Rosa.
Mirrors and Windows
The old metaphors of the media as a mirror of or window to society have long been in decay. Although often times our behaviour follows what a newspaper states or what a TV network shows as nothing more than impartial reproductions of ‘the facts’, it is at least naive to believe this to be a scientific truth.
It can be argued – as many social scientists have– that while trying to ‘uncover the truth’ in public affairs, media organizations also behave themselves like political actors: they act strategically, either for ideological or economic reasons.
Acknowledging this, however, does not contradict the idea that a well-developed and independent media system is fundamental for democracy.
Media is accountable to its audience for much the same reasons that it can be regarded as biased, which is to say, readerships also have ideological preferences they want to see reflected in their media of choice. Thus self-interested media still have the ability or potential to capture public discussion and reproduce different voices with respect to public affairs – provided that it is not controlled fiercely by one particular group. In short, freedom of speech (which for the Inter American Press Association comprises 10 basic principles, as defined in the 1994 Declaration of Chapultepec) is indisputably a necessary condition for democracy.
Nonetheless, and much like democracy, it is one that comes in different doses.
Unfortunately, journalists are still personally harassed or threatened in many regions worldwide. According to Wan-Infra’s 2011 World Press Freedom review, 41 journalists were killed last year, with Pakistan (8), Iraq (6), Libya (5) and Mexico (4) at the top of the list.
Apart from these more egregious examples, a number of issues typically lead to tensions between public officials and the media:
- Does the right to freedom of speech justify any kind of media practices?
- Are individual media outlets supposed to be balanced in their views of the government?
- Should media organizations be limited by business regulations, just like any other industry?
Many governments around the world have been accused of giving the wrong answers to these questions. For example, in the UK, the Leveson Inquiry, which followed the News of the World phone-hacking scandals, is supposed to bring some answers by examining ‘the culture, practices and ethics of the press’. In Latin America governments are not performing well. For example, the Ecuadorian and Venezuelan governments have taken measures that are said to be endangering the right to freedom of speech by some observers and press associations. These measures include new legal frameworks to curb dissident media, refusal to renew broadcasting licences to unfriendly networks, and the prosecution of individual journalists.
These skirmishes are not new to the current hyper-mediated societies, and have in been around for centuries. Professor Fernando Ruiz from Austral University in Buenos Aires is currently studying what he calls ‘media wars’ in Argentinian history, and sheds some light over their definition and underlying characteristics. For a media war to occur there has to be manifest or at least latent ideological polarization in society. Media wars are attempts to manipulate public opinion through propaganda, and therefore, credibility and plausibility are more important than truthfulness. Since the media are embedded into different contending parties, their role is to draw the line between friends and enemies, to recruit new allies and to justify a faction’s standpoint.*
The case of Argentina
The incumbent Argentinean administration is engaged in what has been called an ‘all-out war’ with the press and with the Clarin group in particular. Clarin controls the most widely read newspaper in the country and the confrontation with the government began shortly after President Fernandez de Kirchner succeeded her late husband in the Casa Rosada.
In 2008, during a four-month stand-off between the government and the farming associations over grain export taxes (which included route barricades, massive demonstrations and some episodes of street violence) Mrs. Fernandez started the war on Clarin through making a parallel between the military generals that fomented the 1976 coup d’état and the ‘media generals’ who had promoted opposition to government policy. Prior to this conflict, according to a newspaper monitoring group, Clarin had held generally ‘neutral-to-positive’ views of the Kirchner’s governments, only to take a ‘u-turn’ from then onwards.
The government accuses Clarin of following monopolistic practices, as well as of deliberately (and excessively) opposing the government and all its policies without regard for the truth. A new media regulation act was passed in 2009, replacing the one sanctioned by the military dictatorship in 1980 and only amended once in 1983, following the return to democracy. Its aims are to democratize media, to foster fair competition, to avoid the concentration of ownership and to promote diversity. Even though this law was well-received by press associations like Reporters without Borders, it has remained quite controversial domestically. Doubts remain over the real intentions behind it: does it conform to the old saying ‘for my friends, anything – for my enemies, the law’? Is it specifically designed to hit at Clarin?
Further moves by the government have included declaring paperback production ‘of national interest’ in order to have a bigger say in how this basic input in newspaper production is managed, creating numerous new media outlets, and substantially changing its advertising expenditure allegedly to favour more congruent media. To this last respect, the Supreme Court recently ruled against the government after Perfil newspaper claimed to be indirectly censored by being stripped off from government advertising.
Incumbent Vice-president Amado Boudou staged yet another spectacular attack on Clarin by wearing a t-shirt with the inscription ‘Clarin lies’ while playing along with the rock band La Mancha de Rolando in a concert during the first week of February, 2012.
In spite of these episodes and discussions, Reporters without Borders place Argentina 47 out of 179 in their latest Press Freedom Index, and call the situation satisfactory. They do point out that tensions prevail between a section of the privately-owned press and President Fernandez. In all, in spite of a somewhat heightened sense of conflict, which in many ways conforms to the outlined features of a ‘media war’, the situation in Argentina substantially differs from that of totalitarian regimes in terms of freedom of speech.
The case of Argentina is not unique but does raise a series of important questions about the role of media in a democracy, the potential to become politicised, and the possible conflict between democratic governments and media organisations. In the UK, the current phone hacking scandal and Leveson Inquiry has revealed how close government, law enforcement and the media had become during the New Labour Government.
Freedom of speech is the hallmark of modern democracy, but the Argentine case shows how such freedom can easily become compromised.