Although it never quite reached 2002 levels, police violence against journalists assumed worrying proportions in 2003, especially in Buenos Aires. The officers responsible enjoyed total impunity.
Former president Carlos Menem pulled out of the presidential election after the first round because he was convinced he would lose the second, thwarting hopes of a straightforward democratic poll. Nestor Kirchner, like Menem a member of the Justicialist Party, therefore became president on 25 May 2003.
The media soon began to express concern about the new head of state’s frequent attempts to intimidate journalists who criticised the running of the country. Adepa, a media companies’ organisation, said Kirchner was putting more pressure on the media than his predecessors.
In October several newspapers, including the weekly Noticias, accused the government of phoning journalists to try to intimidate them. They also condemned the withdrawal of state advertising as a way of punishing over-critical media, and bias in the way journalists were picked to go on presidential visits. The government denied all the allegations. Presidential spokesman Miguel Nuñez’ refusal to give evidence to parliament’s press freedom committee in October added to the general feeling of unease.
A further blow to press freedom came on 13 November when the prison sentences passed against six of the killers of photographer José Luis Cabezas were cut. One of them could now be released in 2004. The decision was strongly criticized by the photographer’s parents and met with widespread incomprehension. The gangland-style killing of Cabezas in 1997 left all Argentina in a state of shock.
On the other hand, the new president’s campaign to get rid of several supreme court judges appointed by Menem may be a step forward for press freedom. The former president had secured a majority sympathetic to his policies by increasing the number of judges from five to nine. After that the court’s rulings on freedom of speech became highly conservative, and sometimes biased. In March 2003 it approved the reopening of a libel case brought by Menem against the weekly Noticias which had been closed under the statute of limitations.
The first hint of change came on 8 September, after three judges had been replaced. The court ruled that article 45 of law 22-285, which said only registered companies could apply for a broadcasting licence, was unconstitutional. The requirement placed an "unreasonable restriction" on freedom of speech and freedom of association, the court said.
Although many violations of press freedom come from local politicians who find it hard to handle criticism, one piece of good news is that MPs in Santa Fé province have approved a proposal to enshrine journalists’ right to protect their sources in local law. That means the law finally complies with article 45 of the Argentine constitution, which acknowledges confidentiality of sources as a cornerstone of press freedom.
In December, after a visit to Santiago del Estero province, the Argentine Press Freedom Association condemned the "climate of intimidation and impunity" in which reporters who criticised the local authorities or exposed humans rights violations there had to work.
New information on journalists killed before 2003
On 13 November 2003 the Buenos Aires provincial appeal court redefined the charge against six of the killers of photographer José Luis Cabezas and cut their jail sentences. The original conviction of "aggravated kidnapping followed by manslaughter" was changed to "illegal deprivation of freedom with violence followed by manslaughter". The sentence against Gregorio Ríos, businessman Alfredo Yabrán’s security guard, was reduced to 27 years, gangsters Horacio Braga and Gustavo González had theirs cut to 20 years, those against policemen Sergio Camaratta and Anibal Luna were cut to 25 and 24 years respectively and against gangster Jose Luis Auge to 18 years. Other reductions mean that Auge, who was arrested in 1997, could be free by the end of 2004.
Norma and José Cabezas, the photographer’s parents, strongly condemned the court’s decision. The charred body of Cabezas, who worked for the weekly Noticias, was found on 25 January 1997 in Pinamar, a coastal resort in Buenos Aires province. He had been shot twice in the head and his arms were handcuffed behind his back. The previous year he had taken pictures for a report on police corruption in the province, and shortly before his death he had been investigating Yabrán’s dealings.
National human rights official Eduardo Luis Duhalde said on 13 November that the government planned to ask the courts to reopen the inquiry into the death of reporter Mario Bonino. The government wants Adrián Montenegro, a former low-ranking police official in Buenos Aires province, to give evidence. In April 2001 he accused two other officers of involvement in the journalist’s death. Bonino was found dead on 15 November 1993, four days after being reported missing. As head of the press office of the UTPBA journalists’ union, he had just issued a press release about death threats against journalists in San Luis province. He also contributed to the dailies Sur and Diario Popular.
Seven journalists arrested
Photographer Nestor Juncos of the daily La Capital was arrested by a police officer in Rosario, Santa Fé province, on 12 January 2003 as he was taking pictures in the city centre. The officer claimed he was banned from taking photographs, handcuffed him and took him to the police station, where he was threatened he would be charged with assault. He was freed an hour later. The same police station has already been reported for making random and illegal arrests.
Julián Sequeira and Michael Carcachi, cameramen with the "Puntodoc/2" programme on America TV, were beaten up by federal police officers on 25 February as they were covering an operation to evict about 100 people from a Buenos Aires building which the authorities claimed was in danger of collapsing. Sequeira’s camera was seized and the two men were questioned along with the programme producer, Maximiliano García Sola, who had also been trying to film the operation. They were all released after being charged with "resisting authority".
Miguel Bonasso of the daily Pagina 12 was arrested on 21 April as he was covering the expulsion by police of strikers occupying the Brukman textile factory in Buenos Aires. He was held for two hours. Edgardo Esteban of the Telemundo station to escape arrest when other journalists intervened.
Silvio Valenzuela of Radio Corrientes and Manuel Ibarra of the Canal 13 TV station were arrested by police in Corrientes, north-east Argentina, on 23 June as they were taking pictures outside the home of Juan Carlos Codello, the provincial supreme court president. They were investigating the personal use of official cars by civil servants. Shortly before the arrest, Codello had left his house and threatened to jail Valenzuela. The public prosecutor ordered the journalists’ immediate release.
Fourteen journalists physically attacked
Clara Britos, owner and editor of the monthly La Tapa in Guernica, Buenos Aires province, was attacked by three strangers as she left her home on 12 February 2003. They threatened to kill her. On 13 July someone tried to set fire to her home. On 5 October she was briefly kidnapped by three men who forced her to get into a car and threatened to kill her the next time she made allegations against Oscar Rodríguez, former mayor of Ponte Perón. Britos said the attacks were connected with reports she had written about alleged misconduct by Rodríguez and about police repression of a demonstration on 29 May 2002.
Norberto Ortiz of Crónica TV was seriously hurt on 26 February as he was covering police repression of a demonstration outside the courts in Comodoro Py, Buenos Aires province, where activists of the Quebracho organisation were being tried. Quebracho is known for inciting violence at demonstrations. The journalist was struck by a rubber bullet near his left eye.
Christian Frolich, a photographer with the daily Crónica, was punched and kicked by federal police on 6 March while covering the brutal arrest of street vendors in the capital. The vendors were protesting against new government measures restricting their access to the city centre.
Carlos Alberto Márquez and Arturo Núñez of the Canal 26 TV station, Javier Caudana and Guillermo Panizza of Telefe and a producer of the programme "Chaos in the City" on Canal 13 were beaten up by police with truncheons on 26 March, on the pretext that they were causing an obstruction. The journalists were covering a demonstration outside Congress in Buenos Aires. Demonstrators they were interviewing were also assaulted. Márquez said the police, who were using paralysing gas, did not give them time to move on.
Police fired rubber bullets at Martin Ciccioli and Alfredo Guirlanda, presenter and cameraman with the "Main Report" programme on America Televisión, on 21 April as they were filming strikers being thrown out of the Brukman textile factory.
Reporter Marcelo López Masía and a cameraman from the Canal 9 TV station were set upon by supporters of presidential election candidate Nestor Kirchner on 10 May. López Masía was trying to ask Kirchner about payment of public funds from Santa Cruz province, of which he is governor, into a foreign bank account, but Kirchner refused to answer. Shortly afterwards, the men with Kirchner beat up the journalists and smashed some of their equipment.
Marcelo López of the America 2 TV station and a cameraman were attacked by supporters of presidential candidate Carlos Menem in La Rioja on 14 May. The assault took place outside the house of Angel Mazza, governor of La Rioja province (north-west Argentina). Menem was staying in the house between the two rounds of voting. The two journalists, whose equipment was damaged, were then moved on by the police.
On 27 May Daniel Malnatti of the "Come What May" programme on Canal 13 was punched in the face and thrown to the ground by supporters of Fidel Castro, who was on an official visit to Buenos Aires. The reporter was trying to question the Cuban leader about his dictatorship.
Alejandro Goldín, a photographer with Indymedia Argentina, an international organisation of alternative media, was beaten up by federal police outside the Brukman textile plant on 9 June while he was covering a strikers’ demonstration. One policeman hit him on the head with a truncheon even after he showed his press card. The journalist was thrown to the ground where the officers continued to hit him.
Six journalists threatened
Alberto Lotuf, of the radio station AM LT2, broadcasting in Rosario, found insulting remarks about him scrawled on several houses in his street on 24 July 2003. They included "drug trafficker" and "Lotuf, rapist". He thought they had been made because of his revelations of alleged malpractice in the Rosário Central football club management. He said he had received two anonymous phone calls the week before telling him to stop reporting on the subject.
Marcelo Sisso, of Canal 9, received several threatening phone calls between 30 July and 1 August. In the "Opinion" TV programme, he had condemned corruption in a private company responsible for a public works building site in Mendoza, west-central Argentina. The callers told him to stop mentioning the subject "or you know what will happen to you".
On 9 August Ulises Caballero, editor of the newspaper Articulo 14 and presenter of a programme on FM La Porteña in Berazategui (Buenos Aires province), found death threats on his answering machine. He was not sure why. He told Periodistas, a journalists’ organisation, that he had condemned malpractice in building work done at a public hospital in a neighbouring city, and had frequently criticised local politicians.
Gustavo Corvalán of the daily El Liberal in Santiago del Estero (north-western Argentina) was threatened by policeman Nicomedes Marcos on 14 October after he revealed that the officer had posed as a journalist at a medical conference so he could record the speeches.
A petrol bomb was thrown at Adriana Rivero’s car on 28 November. The producer of the "First Contact" programme on RLV1 Radio Regional in Las Varillas (Córdoba province), was nearby with her children, but the fire was put out in time to avoid an explosion. Rivero had been receiving anonymous threatening phone calls for several weeks. She thought they were connected with her investigation of an accountant recently hired by the city council even though charges had been brought against him. The day before the attack, Rivero had reported a case of alleged overbilling by the same council.
Claudio Chiuchquievich, producer of the programme "Too Late For Anything" on Radio Noticias in Santa Fé, received threatening phone calls at his home on 29 November. The broadcast had dealt with human rights, kidnappings, disappearances and killings committed under the 1976-83 military dictatorship.
Harassment and obstruction
The official Neuquén lottery board wrote to the daily Río Negro in January 2003 saying it was withdrawing its advertising "for financial reasons". The newspaper said all the provincial institutions had done the same since the daily reported corruption allegations made by a member of parliament against the provincial government on 7 December 2002. Río Negro, published in the city of General Roca, is the largest-circulation daily in Neuquén province.
Windows were broken at Radio Universidad, the university station in Comahue, Neuquén province, on 6 February and slogans scrawled on walls attacking Carlos Marcel, presenter of the programme "La Palangana." He had criticised governor Jorge Sobisch’s running of the province on several occasions. In 2001 Sobisch’s party, the Neuquén People’s Movement, had persuaded LU5 Radio Neuquén to stop putting out the programme, which was then rebroadcast on Radio Universidad.
Jorge Martínez was sacked from his job as presenter of the "Crónica 10" news programme on Canal 10 at the University of Córdoba, in central Córdoba province, on 18 February. The daily Página 12 reported that provincial governor José Manuel de la Sota had asked the station management to get rid of the journalist, whom he regarded as over-critical of his administration. At the end of 2002 the governor had told the station that state advertising would be withdrawn if it did not change its attitude towards him, the daily said. Jorge Martínez was reinstated on 19 February after his colleagues went on strike and the station’s head of news, Gerardo López, resigned in protest at the sacking.
Silvia Correge of the daily Tiempo Sur in Rio Gallegos, Patagonia, was summoned by an examining magistrate on 26 February for questioning about his sources for a report published in December 2002 about the conviction of a trade union leader in Comodoro Rivadavia for over-claiming family benefit. The journalist pleaded his right to keep his sources confidential.
The daily La Nación was searched on 28 May and its accounts seized. Allegations of financial corruption had been made in November 2002 by the sensationalist weekly El Guardián. The La Nación management said it had never been informed of proceedings against it, and the search was illegal. Shortly after El Guardián’s report, charges had been brought at a police station, and not at a court as required by law. The media companies’ organisation Adepa said the operation could have been staged to bring down the newspaper’s share price and make a takeover easier.
Sergio Poma, head of the FM Noticias radio station in the northwestern city of Salta, was given a six-month suspended jail sentence on 19 June for libelling provincial governor Juan Carlos Romero. He was also ordered to pay 20,000 pesos (5,800 euros) in damages and the cost of publishing the sentence in the local press. The governor said Poma had criticised his running of the province and accused him of drug trafficking, which the journalist denies.
Eduardo Delbono, owner of Radio FM Ciudad in Merlo (west-central Argentina) was followed home from work by a man in a car on 22 July. The next day four men in a different car took photographs outside his house, but made off when Delbono came out to question them. He thought the harassment was connected with his investigation of a murder case and coverage of the 14 September general election.
The weekly Noticias reported that Jorge Lanata, head of the "D-Day" programme on the TV station America 2 had had a visit from presidential spokesman Miguel Nuñez on 9 October. Nuñez tried to dissuade him from making further revelations in his next broadcast. On 4 October "D-Day" had accused a high-ranking official appointed by President Kirchner of nepotism. The government later took the matter up with station manager Carlos Ávila, the weekly added. "D-Day" was eventually broadcast, but trailers for the programme were taken off the air for several days.
It was learned on 11 November that the city council in San Pedro (Santiago del Estero province) had banned all publications "which had not been approved by the council and/or which failed to comply with mass news media standards". The degree contravenes both the national and provincial constitutions, under which provincial and municipal authorities are banned from issuing any kind of decree that directly or indirectly restricts freedom of speech.
A judicial police officer impounded the printing press at the daily Castellanos, published in Rafaela (Santa Fé province), on 14 November. The newspaper, which was charged with "damaging the reputation" of the city mayor, Ricardo Peirone, was allowed to use the press but not sell it. The legal authorities were trying to ensure that if Castellanos was convicted, it could not pay the 45,000 pesos (13,200 euros) claimed in damages by selling its machinery. In 2001 the daily reported that Peirone had been given a car by one of the city council’s suppliers. It said the mayor’s attitude was contrary to the law on public ethics, even though Santa Fé province had not ratified the law. The mayor claimed the car was a gift for his work as an accountant with a company rather than his mayoral duties.