The press freedom situation was generally good in 2001, but once again police attacks on journalists went unpunished. Nearly a dozen media workers were injured or arrested by police at the end of December while covering demonstrations against government economic measures. Political instability, which saw three presidents in office in less than two weeks, did not however lead to widespread violations of press freedom. The decision of one of the presidents, Adolfo Rodríguez Saá, to approve a bill to decriminalise press law violations has raised hopes that Argentina might become the first country in the hemisphere to abolish prison terms for such offences.
During the rest of the year, courts were sometimes strict and sometimes lenient towards the media. They finally recognised, in a case involving Marcelo Bonelli, of the daily Clarín, that a journalist had a right to publish material about the private life of a civil servant when it was in the public interest. But the weekly Noticias was not as fortunate after revealing that former President Carlos Menem had used his office to give his former mistress a start in politics. The supreme court ordered the paper on 25 September to pay Menem $60,000 (66,800 euros) in damages for "invasion of privacy."
In the provinces, the press sometimes had problems with local authorities. Legal harassment of the daily El Liberal, in the northern province of Santiago del Estero, continued in 2001. The paper has been targeted since 2000 by aides of the provincial governor. Three other provincial media came under pressure after criticising local politicians.
New information on a journalist killed before 2001
On 19 April 2001, a former Buenos Aires policeman, Adrián Montenegro, accused two former colleagues, named simply as Vargas and Carmona, as being the killers in 1993 of journalist Mario Bonino. He made the charge on the "Puntodoc/2" programme broadcast by the station Azul Televisión and soon afterwards, Bonino’s family got the authorities to reopen the case and summon the two men accused. Bonino, press officer of the UTPBA journalists’ union, was found dead on 15 November 1993, four days after disappearing. He had just issued a statement about deaths threats made to journalists in San Luis province. He was also a journalist with the daily papers Sur and Diario Popular.
New information on a journalist who disappeared before 2001
Patricia Walsh, daughter of the disappeared journalist and writer Rodolfo Walsh, asked on 7 March 2001 for a court to summon two ex-naval officers, Pablo García Velazco and Miguel Angel Velazco, suspected of being involved in the 1977 disappearance of her father. The day before, a Buenos Aires judge had struck down the 1986 and 1987 laws amnestying crimes committed under the 1976-83 military dictatorships. Walsh, who worked for the newspapers Mayoría, La Opinión and Noticias, was kidnapped on 25 March 1977 by a navy commando. The day before, he had published an open letter to the military rulers describing the repression in the year since they had seized power.
Three journalists arrested
Héctor Actis, of the Crónica TV station, was arrested on 28 January 2001 while reporting on a blaze being fought by firemen in Buenos Aires. Two policemen knocked him to the ground and handcuffed him, claiming he was "going towards an area where his life could be in danger and had refused to say who he was." Crónica TV said Actis had done nothing wrong and that he was the only media person detained. Several witnesses said he was arrested because he photographed the leaky hoses the firemen were using. He was freed after two hours.
Ignacio González Lowy, co-manager of Radio Méjico and managing editor of Voces magazine, and Marcelo Faure, of Radio Méjico, were arrested on 20 December by police in Paraná, in Entre Ríos province, while covering the siege of a supermarket by local inhabitants. They were released a few hours later. For two days, the country had been in the grip of widespread protests against government measures to solve the country’s debt crisis.
Thirteen journalists attacked
Rolando Andrade, a photographer on the daily La Nación, was attacked on 6 April 2001 by two bodyguards of Miguel Etchecolatz, police chief of Buenos Aires during the 1976-83 military dictatorship. Andrade, whose equipment was damaged, was covering the trial of Etchecolatz for having threatened his critics with a gun. Other journalists were also beaten by the former police chief’s supporters. Police who were present did not protect the journalists.
Fabián Rubino, of Radio Mitre, was attacked in Buenos Aires on 22 June by a federal police sergeant while reporting on a demonstration. After insulting and spitting on the journalist, the officer handcuffed him and tried to arrest him for "resisting authority." The station, told by a witness to the scene, immediately broadcast news of the incident. Realising the event was now public knowledge, the sergeant let Rubino go.
It was learned on 13 August that Ayelén Britos, of the daily paper El Popular, in the central Argentine town of San Luis, was violently attacked on 13 August by Fermín "Toto" Garcés, an official of the Justicialista (Peronist) Party, who had just threatened with a gun 30 people who were demanding to be paid for having helped organise the party’s primary elections. Britos lodged an official complaint.
Hugo Viano, of Radio San Javier, in the northeastern province of Misiones, was stabbed by a stranger as he was on his way to work early on 19 October. Viano, who is investigating the trafficking of babies in the region, had been threatened regularly since early October.
The editor of the online paper El Cronista de Funes, Patricia Luján, and Julio Fernández, its managing editor, were attacked on 5 December while trying to interview officials of the eastern city of Rosario after they had announced the dismissal of 120 city employees. Luján was grabbed by the wrist by Antonio González, secretary of the town council chairman, before Fernández was also hit by the secretary while trying to rescue his colleague.
Claudia Farina, correspondent of the Canal 26 TV station in the western province of Mendoza, was attacked on 13 December while reporting on a general strike. She was trying to talk to trade unionists and demonstrators illegally occupying a bank, but they insulted and criticised her. She was led away under police protection.
Several journalists were attacked or threatened between 19 and 26 December while covering demonstrations sparked by the country’s economic and social crisis. In Santa Fé province, freelance photographer Luis Cetraro, along with reporter Gustavo Aguirre and cameraman Roberto Sánchez of the TV station Canal 13, were injured by rubber bullets fired by police, as was Fabián Rubinacci, a cameraman of América TV, in La Plata (Buenos Aires province). Claudio Berón, of the Rosario daily La Capital, was injured on 20 December in similar circumstances and Pablo Piovano, a photographer with the daily Página 12, was beaten on 23 December by police in Buenos Aires who smashed his camera.
Carlos Abrehu, a sub-editor on the daily La Gaceta de Tucumán, in the northwestern town of San Miguel de Tucumán, received a parcel on 28 March 2001 containing a grenade and a message that "Cirnigliaro is no hero." The paper had reported the revelations of a provincial deputy, Osvaldo Cirnigliaro, about political corruption.
On 15 November, Norma Godóy, a Justicialista (Peronist) federal deputy, threatened Daniel Otero, producer of Azul Televisión’s "Puntodoc/2" programme, and a cameraman from the station, who wanted to ask her about her alleged involvement in the trafficking of babies. The threats, filmed by a hidden camera, were shown later that day on "Puntodoc/2."
The managers of the Buenos Aires station Radio La Tribu received an anonymous phone call on 15 November warning them a bomb was about to explode in their offices. It turned out to be a false alarm. For a week, while the station was broadcasting a series about people who disappeared during the military dictatorship, the station got e-mail and telephone threats.
It was learned on 20 November that Veronica Cesari, of the newspaper Los Andes, published in the western province of Mendoza, had received death threats and that an unmarked car had been parked outside her home for several days. The threats came after an article by her in the paper on 2 November linking Roberto Lucas, a member of the town council of Las Heras, with a scandal involving forged identity documents, armed robbery and writing dud cheques. Lucas was forced to resign from the council.
Pressure and obstruction
Marcelo Bonelli, of the daily newspaper Clarín and a contributor to Radio Mitre, was indicted by federal Judge Claudio Bonadio on 28 March 2001 for publishing in the paper on 5 June information deemed confidential about the tax return of former civil servant Victor Alderete, who was accused of association with criminals. The judge, who did not challenge the article’s accuracy, cited a clause of the taxation law that says tax returns are private. On 17 July, a federal court ordered the charges against Bonelli dropped because of the "public relevance and significance of the information disclosed." The journalist could have been jailed for between a month and two years.
Two unidentified men were disturbed on 29 March at the newsprint warehouse of the daily Rio Negro, in Rio Negro province, as they were about to set fire to it. Both escaped. Two days earlier, the paper had published an investigation into the reported irregular award of government contracts to a local businessman.
A man entered the premises of the radio station FM Inolvidable, in Caleta Olivia, in the southern province of Santa Cruz, on 8 May and set fire to broadcasting equipment. The fire, discovered the next morning, destroyed part of the premises. The station’s owner, Antonio Barra, said it was the fourth attack on the radio since it had aired its investigation into drug and car smuggling in the town’s port.
A court in the northern town of Santiago del Estero on 6 June ordered confiscation of more money from the daily El Liberal. It was the third such seizure from the paper and a total of 600,000 pesos (680,000 euros before devaluation) is now frozen. The paper is being sued by the local women’s section of the Justicialista (Peronist) Party which it criticised in July 2000 and which is now claiming several million euros in damages. The women’s section is run by Marina Aragones de Juárez, wife of the provincial governor. Since the criticism, the paper has been legally harassed, has received less government advertising and several of its journalists have been physically attacked.
The supreme court rejected on 25 September an appeal by the weekly Noticias and ordered it to pay $60,000 (66,800 euros) in damages to former President Carlos Menem for "invasion of privacy." In two articles in 1994 and 1995, Noticias discussed the romance between Menem and Martha Meza, a party supporter, who became his mistress. It said she gave birth to his son in 1981 and that the president has used his time in office to get her into politics in 1995. The court based its decision not on the truth or otherwise of the articles, but on the principle of respect for a person’s private life. Horacio Verbitsky, of the Argentine press defence body Periodistas, lodged an appeal against the decision with the Organisation of American States (OAS) on 15 November.
President Adolfo Rodríguez Saá signed a bill on December 27, proposed by the Argentine press defence body Periodistas, that would make violations of the press law no longer a criminal offence but only a civil one. The measure, which was sent to parliament for approval, also introduces the notion of "actual malice" (as defined by the US Supreme Court in the case of "New York Times v. Sullivan," 1964), requiring the plaintiff to prove that the published material was false and had been knowingly published as such. The US court decision also recognised that press freedom was more important than a civil servant’s reputation. In addition, the bill proposes incorporation into Argentine law of the so-called Campillay Doctrine - that accurate reporting of news accompanied by its source means the journalist cannot be held responsible for it and so cannot be prosecuted for it. In October 1999, the government promised the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Argentine press freedom body Periodistas that it would decriminalise press law violations. It was put on the senate’s agenda in 1999, but was not taken up in the two-year limit for a bill to be dealt with.