Committee to Protect Journalists
Country Report: Argentina
As of December 31, 1998

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There has been a notable decline in violent attacks against the Argentine press, attributable to the changes wrought by public furor over the murder of photojournalist José Luis Cabezas in January 1997. Nevertheless, threats, harassment, and an explosion in punitive lawsuits continued to pose challenges for journalists, particularly those in the provinces.

In Argentina, as elsewhere in Latin America, the press has gained widespread public support for its role in exposing the military regime's murderous record and investigating corruption in the current government. But pursuing such stories has also created dangers for journalists: Those subjected to new levels of scrutiny have frequently lashed out.

For example, during an explosive interview in January with Gabriela Cerruti, editor of the newsmagazine trespuntos, Navy Capt. Alfredo Astiz was not only unrepentant about his role as a member of the notorious death squads in the 1970s, but warned Cerruti that he was "technically the best-trained man in this country to kill a politician or a journalist." The ensuing outcry over the published report forced Adm. Carlos Marrón to sentence Astiz to 60 days' confinement. He was released from custody after 12 days, but stripped of rank, uniform, and his pension. The same day that Astiz was released, Cerruti received two threatening phone calls.

While the widespread revulsion over the Cabezas murder seemed to create an atmosphere of greater security for journalists in the capital, Buenos Aires, reporters working for provincial news outlets have been threatened and harassed by local authorities. The Association for the Defense of Independent Journalists (Periodistas), the Argentine press group founded in 1996 by 24 leading Argentine journalists, documented more than 100 such cases in 1998.

A flurry of lawsuits filed mostly by public officials has made life difficult for many of the country's top reporters. In March, President Carlos Saúl Menem, Latin America's most litigious leader, won a US$150,000 judgment against the weekly magazine Noticias . The National Court of Appeals ruled that the magazine and its editors Jorge Fontevecchia and Héctor D'Amico, had violated the president's privacy when it published an article describing the flight of Menem's illegitimate son and the boy's mother to Paraguay because of fears for their safety. The president never disputed the accuracy of the report. While Noticias has appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, there is little hope for an impartial hearing since six of the nine justices were appointed by Menem after he expanded the number of presiding judges in a blatant effort to gain political control of the court.

After protracted and costly litigation, journalists have been hit with enormous damage awards in defamation cases. In March, a judge ordered television news reporter Bernardo Neustadt to pay US$80,000 to another judge who claimed that she was defamed by a guest on his television show in 1993. In August, a former civil servant won a US$50,000 judgment against Eduardo Aliverti, a radio news reporter and columnist for the Buenos Aires daily Página/12, stemming from a story Aliverti broadcast in 1991. Both cases are on appeal. In another troubling decision in April, Página/12 was ordered to publish a statement from a presidential aid who was angered that the paper reported that he had been recruiting Argentine mercenaries to fight in Croatia. While Argentine law does not specifically recognize the "Right to Reply," justices have the authority to compel news outlets to publish statements from individuals who feel they have been maligned, even in instances where the accuracy of the news reports has not been called into question (as was the case with Página/12).

Argentine journalists also expressed concern that the government is using legislation to control the press; pending bills would raise sales taxes on newspapers and make the use of hidden cameras illegal (Argentine investigative television programs have used hidden cameras to expose police corruption). There was also a widespread public debate--in forums, on radio talk shows, and in the press itself--about the fact that media ownership is becoming increasingly concentrated in the hands of large conglomerates with no public accountability. Journalists who have criticized the government have seen their radio and television shows canceled. Periodistas alleged that government pressure led to the firing of Olga Wormat, host of a popular radio show on FM Horizonte. Wormat was dismissed after she aired a controversial interview with Labor Minister Ermán González. In another incident, television journalist Joaquín Morales Solá accused Constancio Vigil, a major shareholder in Channel 9 and a close friend of Menem, of forcing the cancellation of his news talk show in September.
Attacks on the Press in Argentina in 1998
Date Journalist Incident
12/29/98 Carlos Alberto Vila Ortiz, Rosario/12 Attacked
11/23/98 Clarín Threatened
04/18/98 Andrés Klipphan, Página/12 Threatened
03/11/98 Héctor D'Amico, Noticias Legal Action
03/11/98 Jorge Fontevecchia, Noticias Legal Action
03/11/98 Noticias Legal Action
03/09/98 Manuel Romani, Canal 4 Video Sur Attacked
02/01/98 David Leiva, Nueva Argentina & La Opinión Harassed
01/27/98 Gabriela Cerruti, trespuntos Threatened
01/26/98 Esteban Mac Allister, Free-lance photographer Threatened

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