When Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner visited Harvard last Thursday, she had to do something she rarely does: Openly answer questions from the public and media. One student even thanked her for the “unique” opportunity. But Kirchner just dodged the tough questions about her failed leadership.
Recently, tens of thousands of protestors turned out in Buenos Aires and several other cities in traditional pot-banging protests to speak out against the Kirchner administration’s increasing authoritarian rule. In the biggest rally since Kirchner took office in 2007, protestors declared, “We will not let this government keep advancing, march for liberty and for the defense of the national constitution.”
President Kirchner has launched a campaign of harassment against the media and journalists, executing a strategy of information control we believe is designed to perpetuate her power. This trend is deeply troubling, not just for the journalists who are under threat, but also for the rights of a democracy to know what its government is doing.
The Kirchner administration employs numerous tools to restrict and pressure the press, including directing government advertising towards friendly media outlets and controlling distribution networks for newsprint in the name of “national security.” Physical attacks against journalists are increasing. The government has pushed through a variety of laws that restrict media rights, including the creation of a politically appointed media regulatory body, and two 2011 laws that dramatically increase government control of the press. One gave effective government control over Papel Prensa, the country’s only newsprint manufacturer, by declaring that the production, sale, and distribution of newsprint were of “public interest.” The other law expanded the definition of terrorism to include any news or commentary seen as threatening to the government.
Argentine opposition leaders also criticize her use of the “national broadcast” rule under the Media Law to inundate radio and television with her political speeches. For example, a video recently launched by the Industry Ministry blatantly promotes President Kirchner as a genius. Kirchner has invoked a federal rule on carrying presidential broadcasts 16 times in 2012 alone, speaking for over 15 hours in total, and a total of 50 times since the law was passed in October 2009. La Nacion’s lead editorial on September 5 criticized the practice, saying the government has turned “an exceptional instrument of communication into a channel for propaganda, mocking rights and reviling those who think differently.”
Kirchner is effectively at war with the two main media outlets, Clarín and La Nacion. Her ongoing attempts to dismantle the Clarín Group, the country’s largest media conglomerate, began after negative coverage of her government started in 2008. As part of the Media Law passed in 2009, Clarín will lose its cable network on December 7th. Last year, a group of 50 armed military police raided the Buenos Aires headquarters of Cablevisión, which belongs to the Clarín Group.
These tactics hearken back to the days of the Argentine dictatorships, not the democracy Argentina claims to be. When asked at Harvard about the encroaching censorship, President Kirchner made the extraordinary claim that there “has never been so much freedom of expression as now.” She then sought to divert the issue by bringing up the Bush Administration’s jailing of a New York Times journalist for refusing to reveal her source. But there is no denying the facts about her crackdown. Freedom House’s annual Freedom of the Press index notes that during successive Kirchner administrations, Argentina has experienced a significant deterioration in media freedom conditions—one of the most sustained declines worldwide.
Her attitude and policies towards the media are part of a larger pattern of irresponsible policies. The Argentine Government has consistently refused to honor court judgments around the world regarding this debt, including 114 in New York alone. It also refused to allow the International Monetary Fund to perform a standard audit, the only country in the world to do so, while reporting blatantly false inflation figures. And the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering is investigating Argentina for failing to meet its obligations under international anti-money laundering agreements.
President Kirchner may think she can hide these policies from the Argentine people in her bid to remain in power. As she learned in Boston, she must answer to her actions in an honest and direct manner…and without the state media behind her.
Ambassador Nancy Soderberg is a former Ambassador to the United Nations. Dr. Karin Karlekar is the project director of Freedom of the Press at Freedom House.