Magazine article American Journalism Review

Learning to Live with a Free Press

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Learning to Live with a Free Press

Article excerpt

Guillermo Ignacio, a newspaper editor from a coastal city 300 miles southeast of Buenos Aires, worries that press freedom can be fleeting.

His newspaper, Ecos Diarios in Necochea, was founded by his grandfather in 1921. Ecos Diarios operated under authoritarian governments for many years until 1983, when democracy and press freedom were restored.

"We shouldn't fall in love with this very broad freedom of the press and become blind about it. We should be permanently on the alert," he told fellow Argentine journalists and Freedom Forum trustees at a roundtable in Buenos Aires.

Argentina was one of five countries visited in November by a Freedom Forum delegation organized to study the media in Latin America.

In three of the countries -- Argentina, Brazil and Chile -- the memory of military rule is still fresh. In Venezuela, democracy took hold in 1959, but two military coup attempts in 1992 have made the press nervous. Only in Costa Rica, which abolished its military in 1949, have democracy and a free press been institutionalized.

The movement toward democracy in Latin America has not been as dramatic as has been the emergence of democracies in the former Soviet Union and the East Bloc after the fall of communism. But in all of Latin America, 34 of the 35 countries are functional democracies with elected presidents and congresses. Only Cuba remains a dictatorship.

To learn about the media and their mostly thriving markets, Freedom Forum trustees met with journalists, government officials and U.S. embassy personnel. An overview of the findings appears in the reports that follow.

Argentina

While free and financially strong, the media must contend with some legacies from authoritarian rule, mainly the threat of restrictive press laws and continued intimidation of journalists.

Among laws under consideration is one that would double the prison time to six years for a libel conviction.

"This is something that directly targets journalism and tries to intimidate journalists," said Roberto Guareschi, editor of Clarin, a 600,000-circulation Buenos Aires daily and the world's biggest Spanish-language newspaper.

Among other legal threats are:

* A "right of reply" amendment to the constitution. The right of reply would require a newspaper to publish a response from anyone who felt aggrieved by the newspaper.

* Proposed Senate rules that would allow a congressman to arrest and hold for 10 days a journalist who writes or broadcasts something the congressman deems offensive.

* A Senate-imposed code of ethics for journalists.

Argentina is an authoritarian society, said Andrew Graham-Yooll, editor of Argentina's only English-language newspaper, the Buenos Aires Herald. "We are still threatened as journalists by the arrogance of power."

Combative relationship

Despite what seems like a hostile environment, the media have a cordial, if combative, relationship with the government. Access to information, for instance, is open.

But sometimes the combat is physical. Intimidation of journalists, even violence against them, is a vivid part of Argentina's journalism history. Argentine President Carlos Saul Menem questioned whether intimidation continues, but said it is almost certainly not as frequent as it may have been.

The Buenos Aires Herald reported that two journalists were attacked and injured, and other journalists detained by police, late in 1994 while covering a privatization story. "Clearly press liberties in Argentina are not what the government led The Freedom Forum visitors to believe a few days ago," the Herald editorialized.

Television is going through a greater transition to freedom than other media because it was owned by the state before Menem took office in 1989, Argentina's best-known newswoman, Monica Cahen-D'Anvers, said. Under state ownership, an occasional phone call kept television in line, she said. …

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