Press freedom suffered serious setbacks in 2002 after steadily improving since the killing of photographer José Luis Cabezas in 1997. Around 50 journalists were threatened or physically attacked during the year. Some were targeted while covering protests of a social or economic nature, thus paying a price for the economic crisis that began in late 2001. Above all, journalists were victims of the complete impunity enjoyed by police, who often used excessive force.
Other journalists paid a price for exposing corruption cases or criticizing political figures whose credibility had been called into question. Former president Carlos Menem, named in several cases of tax fraud and corruption, was particularly sensitive about the press. According to Periodistas, the Argentine press freedom organisation, journalists were targeted by Menem’s bodyguards or supporters on seven occasions during the year for simply doing their job.
The situation was not much better as regards legislation. A law before parliament provided for up to two years’ imprisonment for unauthorised radio or television broadcasting while providing no procedures for getting authorisation, thereby putting 5,000 community radio stations at risk. Several provincial governments tried to have regressive laws adopted. In Entre Ríos province, local authorities proposed forcing journalists to become members of a journalists’ association, a measure contrary to the federal constitution. In Argentina each province has its own constitution and local politicians - under attack because of the crisis - did not hesitate to draft laws that might serve to rein in the press.
The year ended with some good news. Alberto Gómez, a former police chief in Pinamar, was sentenced to life imprisonment at the end of December for complicity in the 1997 murder of Cabezas. He was found guilty of clearing an area of police so that policemen allied with gangsters would have a free hand to kidnap and kill Cabezas. The verdict confirmed the involvement of senior Buenos Aires police in this gangland-style killing.
New information on journalists killed before 2002
On 12 September 2002, a criminal court in the southern province of Chubut acquitted Osvaldo Viti, Gustavo Fabián Smith and Alejandro Fabián Zabala of killing Ricardo Gangeme, editor of the weekly El Informador Chubutense, on 13 May 1999. The judges said ballistics experts could not confirm that the bullet that killed Gangeme came from the weapon presented to the court as evidence. The victim’s son, Pablo Gangeme, said there were irregularities in the police and judicial investigations. He said that businessman Hector Fernández, who threatened to kill Gangeme just before his death, did not testify at the trial. Gangeme had named Fernández in a case of overbilling. On 26 September, the prosecutor appealed against the court’s decision. The case went before the Chubut high court on 30 October.
On 23 December Alberto Gómez, former police chief in the resort town of Pinamar, was sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in Dolores, in Buenos Aires province, for his role in the 25 January 1997 killing of photographer José Luis Cabezas. The three judges found that Gómez "made an essential contribution to this criminal endeavour" and that "his actions were an attempt to ensure the group’s impunity and cover up responsibility [for the murder]". Gómez, who had been Pinamar police chief for seven years at the time of the killing, was accused of clearing the area of police officers to facilitate the murder. The victim’s parents, Norma and José Cabezas, were satisfied with the verdict but said that "others are guilty". Eight people had been sentenced to life imprisonment for the killing in February 2000. They included four police officers, four gang members and Gregorio Ríos, a security guard for businessman Alfredo Yabrán. The charred corpse of Cabezas, who worked for the weekly Noticias, was found on 25 January 1997 in Pinamar. There were two bullet wounds to the head and his hands were handcuffed behind his back. The previous year, Cabezas had illustrated a report on police corruption in Buenos Aires province. Shortly before his death he was the first to take pictures of Yabrán, the businessman, whose activities he was researching. Yabrán committed suicide in May 1998 while under investigation by the police.
One journalist arrested
Juan Arias of the daily Crónica was arrested on 25 January 2002 while covering the dispersal of a protest march by police in Buenos Aires. The journalist was freed several hours later after newspaper staff intervened. No explanation was given for the arrest.
Journalists physically attacked
On 11 January 2002, Martín Oeschger of FM Paraná Radio San Javier was physically attacked by suspected members of the municipal workers’ union from the northern town of Capitán Bermúdez. They followed Oeschger in a car, then opened fire as they came alongside him. Oeschger said he recognized five union members in the car, including the general secretary, Jesús Monzón. The journalist had repeatedly accused the union and its leader of involvement in corruption cases.
Claudio Andrès De Luca of radio Aire Libre was attacked for no apparent reason on 11 January by a group of demonstrators while covering a march by members of the municipal workers’ union in Rosario, 300 km. northwest of Buenos Aires.
On 25 January, Fabián Rubino of Radio Mitre, Hernán España of the daily Diario Popular and Juan Arias of the daily Crónica were attacked while covering police brutality during a protest march in the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires. The three journalists were hit by police while interviewing demonstrators or taking photos.
Alejandro Villar and Flavio Raina of the daily El Litoral, published in Santa Fe, northwest of Buenos Aires, were covering a protest demonstration in front of the Santa Fe town hall on 15 February, when they were wounded by police who fired buckshot.
Carla Minetti of the Cablevisión TV station in Rosario, Santa Fe province, was injured by a rubber bullet fired by police while she was covering an illegal occupation of public housing by poor families on 14 March.
Maria Mercedes Vásquez of LT7 Radio Corrientes in the northeastern town of Corrientes was attacked on 1 April by two thugs. They overpowered her and punched her, referring to her reports on the opposition Partido Nuevo (PANU). The previous week Vásquez had accused PANU members of smuggling weapons into Argentina.
Ariel Brizuela of the daily El Ancasti and Carlos López Véliz of Radio Ancasti in the northwestern province of Catamarca were attacked by police on 18 April while covering a demonstration by unemployed workers. Brizuela’s camera was briefly seized and a plain-clothes policeman took a cassette recorder from López. A police car then followed them.
Eight journalists were attacked between 27 and 30 April while covering protest demonstrations in the western province of San Juan. Carlos Chirino of Canal 8 TV was injured in the leg by a rubber bullet. Police fired tear gas at the La Voz radio station vehicle. Atahualpa Acosta and Marcos Urisa of the daily Diario de Cuyo were injured by rubber bullets fired by police despite being clearly identified as journalists.
On 3 May, bodyguards working for Carlos Menem attacked and threatened to kill Daniel Malnatti of the Canal 13 TV programme "Caiga quien caiga" when they found him on the floor of the hotel on which Menem was staying in the northwestern town of San Miguel deTucumán. One of them ordered Malnatti to leave. They then pushed him into the lift, punched him in the stomach and threatened him with a revolver.
On 26 May, Hugo Viano of Radio San Javier in the northeastern province of Misiones was stabbed eight times by two unidentified assailants as he arrived at the radio station. He had received threats during the days before the stabbing. He was previously attacked in October 2001 when researching a story on child trafficking in the region.
Fabián Urquiza of the daily Clarín and a TV crew from the TV station Todo Noticias were attacked while covering a demonstration against Carlos Menem in Buenos Aires on 23 June in front of the Azul TV station, where Menem was giving an interview. Journalists and demonstrators were punched by hooded men who appeared to be Menem supporters.
Three gunmen shot at the home of Alejandro Colussi, a reporter for the radio and TV stations LT9 Brigadier López and Cablevisión in Santa Fe, northwest of Buenos Aires, on 26 July. As Colussi came out of his house, the attackers fired at a policeman who was guarding it. Colussi, who covers politics and society, had been receiving anonymous threats for a month before the attack. Three suspects were arrested the same day.
Journalist Zaida Pedrozo of Radio Ciudad in Buenos Aires was attacked by Menem supporters on 26 September during a meeting at a trade union headquarters. Although she had press accreditation, Pedrozo was grabbed and hit by four men. They tried to prevent her returning to the building which she had left to make a phone call. She was eventually allowed in but the men continued to insult and intimidate her.
On 30 September, Marcelo Álvarez and Rolando Bazan of Crónica TV, Fernando Massobrio of the daily La Nación, José Romero of the daily Crónica, Daniel Vides of the Noticias Argentinas press agency and freelance photographer Enrique García Medina were attacked and punched by Menem supporters, who tried to prevent them from covering Menem’s arrival at a provincial court in Buenos Aires, where he was giving a statement in a tax fraud case.
Catherina Gibilaro of Uno, a daily published in the western province of Mendoza, was attacked by a policeman on 3 October as she was investigating the killing of a gang member by police. The policeman attacked her when she asked permission for her photographer to take pictures.
On 6 October, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the home of María Mercedes Vázquez, a journalist with LT7 Radio Corrientes in the northeastern province of Corrientes. Vázquez attributed the attack to the fact that the radio station had broadcast recordings of phone conversations which implicated elected officials in a plot against the provincial governor.
Alberto Recanatini Méndez and Thomás Eliaschev of the Indymedia news agency were hit by nine rubber bullets fired by police when violence was used to disperse a Greenpeace demonstration outside the Buenos Aires congress building on 26 October. Although they had press accreditation, police ordered them to stop filming.
José Luis Pierroni of the daily Río Negro and Gustavo Reguera and Luis Leiva of the daily La Mañana del Sur were attacked by supporters of the Río Negro provincial governor on 23 November. The journalists were covering incidents that took place when the governor gave a speech in the town of General Roca. Their assailants tried to grab their equipment and prevent them from taking photos.
On 26 November, two armed men attacked a policeman guarding the home of Miguel Bonasso, a journalist with the Pagina 12 newspaper. They threw him to the ground and took his weapon and bulletproof vest. They fled when a neighbour with a gun intervened. According to Bonasso, the attack was an act of intimidation, to prevent him publishing a report on the violent demonstrations of 19 and 20 December 2001 in which 30 people died and which resulted in the fall of President Fernando de la Rúa.
Pablo García of the daily El Territorio in the northeastern province of Misiones was physically attacked by the local mayor while covering a visit by Carlos Menem to the town of Oberá on 5 December. Mayor Rodolfo Damau became angry when Garcia questioned Menem on his involvement in various corruption cases and his candidacy for the 2003 presidential elections.
Seven journalists threatened
An anonymous telephone caller threatened to kill Julio Rodríguez and target his son on 25 February 2002. A journalist with the daily El Liberal in the northern town of Santiago del Estero and a correspondent for Clarín, Rodríguez was researching possible irregular dealings between private companies and the provincial government. He reported the threats to the authorities and was given protection.
Sergio Kowaleswski, a photographer for the newspaper of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, was threatened as a result of taking photos of police brutality during a demonstration in Avellenada in the central province of Córdoba on 26 June. The photos were used in an inquiry into the violence. His family also received threats. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo is an organization working to establish the fate and whereabouts of people who disappeared during the 1976-83 military dictatorship.
Clara Britos, owner and editor of the newspaper La Tapa, published in Guernica, Buenos Aires province, reported being harassed and threatened at the end of July. She said a car stopped outside her home, then followed her. The driver repeatedly threatened to kill her if she continued to criticize the activities of Oscar Rodríguez, the former mayor of Guernica.
Luis Majul, Marcelo Zlotowiazda and Ernesto Tenenbaum of the programme "La información" carried by América TV received an e-mail death threat on 12 September. The message referred to sequences in the programme showing prison guards beating detainees in La Plata prison.
Damián Löffler, provincial parliamentarian for the southern Tierra del Fuego region for the Movimiento Popular de Fuegino party, burst into the FM Isla de Río Grande ratio station on 23 November, interrupted the "La Raya" programme, and insulted and threatened its presenter Armando Cabral for questioning his competence.
Pressure and obstruction
On 10 February 2002, Senator Manuel Sussino of the Partido Autonomista brought a complaint against María Mercedes Vásquez and her husband Silvio Valenzuela, both journalists at LT7 Radio Corrientes in the northeastern province of Corrientes. Sussini demanded that the two be jailed for 30 days under article 81 of the provincial constitution for defaming a senator. Vásquez and Valenzuela had implicated Sussini in several corruption cases. They subsequently received death threats on 20 February.
A bill proposing a code of ethics for journalists, and the creation of tribunals to oversee adherence to the code, was put before the legislative assembly of the western province of Mendoza on 20 March. The bill would make it obligatory for journalists to join the "Mendoza Ethical Association of journalists," and included expulsion as a possible penalty. The bill had not been passed by the end of the year.
Police in Santiago del Estero, capital of the northern province of Santiago del Estero, seized copies of the human rights newsletter La Verdad from newspaper stands on 22 June, detained a street vendor and summoned several newspaper sellers for questioning about its distribution. The home of Jorge Vidal Marcos, the newsletter’s publisher, was searched and several documents were seized the same day. Published by a human rights group, La Verdad had implicated the police in human rights violations.
José Manuel de la Sota, governor of the central province of Córdoba, and his wife Olga Riutort, insulted Sergio Carreras of the Córdoba daily Voz del Interior during a TV programme on 30 July. Carreras had criticized the allegedly irregular conduct of the governor and his wife in an article published on 24 July.
Intruders broke into the FM Pocahullo radio station in San Martín de los Andes, in the eastern province of Neuquén, on the night of 14 August, stealing a computer containing evidence of a local official’s involvement in the sabotaging of equipment belonging to FM Pocahullo. Two weeks later, station manager Roberto Arias claimed that mobile phone calls to the station were being intercepted. FM Pocahullo had been very critical of the municipal authorities.
Thomas Catán, the Buenos Aires correspondent for the London-based Financial Times, was questioned by Judge Claudio Bonadio on 17 September about a report on 30 August alleging that senators had demanded bribes from bank employees. When Catán refused to reveal his sources, the judge said he would order him to produce a list of phone calls. The federal court annulled the judge’s decision on 29 October on the grounds that it violated press freedom.
Miguel Ángel Armaleo, editor of the daily Lo Nuestro, published in Vicente López, Buenos Aires province, was given a year’s suspended sentence for libel on 20 September. The complaint was brought by Vicente López mayor Ricardo Ortiz after the newspaper published photos on 3 November 2001 showing Ortiz and others wanted for corruption with a caption that read "The usual suspects."
On 17 October, the senate legislative committee in the northeastern province of Entre Ríos examined a bill that would require journalists to belong to a journalists’ association to be created by the same law. The bill’s stated aim was to "put an end to the illegal exercise of the profession." Article 15 said all those hiring journalists, whether privately-owned or publicly-owned news media, would have to give priority to members of the association. The bill would create a disciplinary tribunal with the power to expel members from the association. It also said that such journalistic rights as the confidentiality of sources would only apply to members. The clause making membership obligatory was later withdrawn. The law had still not been adopted at the end of 2002.
A proposed amendment to the criminal code on the illegal use of radio frequencies passed its first reading by the senate on 23 October, and was pending approval article by article. The bill would introduce three new articles into the criminal code, including one providing for up to two years’ imprisonment for unlicenced radio or TV broadcasting. The press freedom organisation Periodistas said the bill would penalize broadcast media that were operating illegally while failing to establish procedures that would allow them to become legalized. If the senate were to make any changes on the second reading, the bill would have to go back to the lower house, where it could undergo further changes.