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Attacks on the Press in 1996 - Argentina

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1997
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1996 - Argentina, February 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c564f5c.html [accessed 24 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Argentine journalists in recent years have played a more active role in safeguarding their own freedoms, and the press now plays a vital role in setting the national agenda. Many Argentines decry what they see as corruption and social inequities under the 14-year-old democratic government. They say they consider the judiciary and legislature to be unable to redress grievances and expect the press to fill the vacuum by in effect playing the role of investigator, prosecutor, and judge.

The public's expectations have created an enormous responsibility for the press. Journalists fear that the continued failure of society at large to resolve its political problems could backfire and lead to frustration and disenchantment with the press itself. "Argentine journalists are aware that the press can investigate problems, set ethical standards, and suggest alternatives, but we can neither solve the issues at stake nor punish those responsible," said Horacio Verbitsky, a columnist with the daily newspaper Página 12.

Along with its new higher profile, the press experienced a proportionate rise in hostility and threats. President Carlos Menem fired a legislative offensive against the press, bringing lawsuit after lawsuit, although so far the targets have successfully fended off his assaults. Menem and other government officials have also launched poisonous verbal attacks. In May, for example, the president labeled as "traitors" journalists who had filmed slum dwellers grilling cats for food.

In an important victory, on Dec. 17 Menem lost a libel suit he had brought against Página 12 in 1994. Menem had sued after Página 12 published an article questioning the veracity of the president's claims that he had been tortured under Argentina's military dictatorship. In the suit, the president named Verbitsky, the columnist who wrote the article, and the newspaper's editors, Ernesto Tiffenberg and Fernando Sokolowicz. Journalists, writers, artists, rabbis, bishops, and union and political leaders were present in the courtroom during the hearing, a clear sign of the widespread support in Argentina for an independent press.

On Nov. 13, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, acquitted the political columnist and commentator Joaquín Morales Solá in a libel case brought by a former government official. Dante Giadone, a special secretary to former President Raúl Alfonsín, had sued Morales Solá for defamation for Morales Solá's description of an alleged conversation between Giadone and Alfonsín. The passage had originally appeared in the newspaper Clarín, but Giadone sued after it was reprinted in a 1990 book.

The Association for the Defense of Independent Journalism, an independent press freedom group, vigorously monitored press conditions during the year and acted on behalf of threatened or harassed journalists. The association, spearheaded by Verbitsky, one of Argentina's most distinguished journalists, reflects a trend in Latin America of journalists coming together to use their collective moral weight to promote freedom of the press. Formed in December 1995 to defend journalists under attack and to alert Argentine authorities and the international community to any pressures on the press, the organization has been an effective advocate. It played a pivotal role in a libel and defamation case against Jacobo Timerman, a founding member of the group. After pressure from the association, Menem in April dropped the charges he had brought in 1988.

And in December, an appeals court overturned the slander conviction of Eduardo Kimel, who had accused a judge of deliberately failing to investigate five slayings during Argentina's military dictatorship. Kimel's book, The St. Patrick's Massacre, describes the July 4, 1976, murder of three priests and two seminary students.

February 6
Hector Arroche, Free-lancer, ATTACKED, THREATENED

Unidentified men with machine guns fired several shots at the studio of free-lance photojournalist Arroche in the middle of the night. The studio was empty at the time, and no one was hurt. The attack came just hours after a judge assigned a police officer to guard Arroche in response to a complaint the journalist filed about receiving threatening phone calls. Prior to the attack, Arroche, who works for the daily Cronica and the official news agency Telam, had received several anonymous death threats after photographing a Jan. 22 police crackdown on a prison mutiny in Cordoba, which resulted in the death of three inmates. The callers warned Arroche to destroy all the negatives of the photos he took during the rebellion.

February 21
Hernan Ramos, Canal 13, ATTACKED
Julio Bazan, Canal 13, ATTACKED
Mariano Paccioco, Telefe, ATTACKED
Jorge Sagastume, Television Selectiva de La Plata, ATTACKED
Marcelo Clausel, Cronica TV, ATTACKED
Fernando Menendez, Telefe, ATTACKED

Six journalists were beaten by policemen and plainclothes officers while covering a student demonstration that turned violent in La Plata, the capital of the Buenos Aires province. Ramos, a cameraman for the television station Canal 13, was shot by police in an effort to prevent him from filming the police beating demonstrators and journalists. He was hospitalized and had to have five rubber bullets surgically removed from his leg. Four police officers were placed under criminal investigation for the shooting of Ramos, and eleven were suspended for their brutality and misconduct during the demonstration.

March 22
Jacobo Timerman, LEGAL ACTION

Police tried to arrest Timerman, one of Argentina's most respected journalists and former director of the now-defunct daily La Opinion, on charges of libel. Two police officers went to the offices of the newspaper El Buenos Aires Herald with an arrest warrant for Timerman, who now lives in Uruguay. The newspaper is the provisional address of the journalists' organization Asociacion para la Defensa del Periodismo Independiente, of which Timerman is a founding member. The warrant stemmed from charges of libel and defamation brought against him in 1988 by the then-presidential candidate Carlos Menem, charges of which Timerman was acquitted in two separate trials. However, about a year-and-a-half ago, the Supreme Court of Argentina, acting on President Menem's request, reopened the case. In a letter to President Menem, CPJ strongly protested the continued persecution of Timerman despite his acquittal in two trials and requested that the case be dropped. On April 10, a week after CPJ sent the letter, Menem announced that he would not pursue the charges against Timerman.

April 9
Cristian Dzwonick, La Nacion, ATTACKED, THREATENED

Dzwonick, Argentina's leading newspaper cartoonist, who, under the name "Nik" drew biting political cartoons for the daily La Nacion, was held at gunpoint for 30 minutes by two men who warned him to "quit all your rubbish." A week earlier, he had appeared on a television show about the 1976-83 rule of the military regime. The attack came during a wave of violence and threats against other journalists, schools and airlines coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the last military coup.

November 13
Joaquin Morales Sola, La Nacion and Telefe, LEGAL ACTION

The Supreme Court of Argentina, in a unanimous decision, acquitted Morales Sola on appeal of defamation charges. A criminal tribunal on Feb. 22, 1995, had given Morales Sola a three-month suspended sentence and a fine of US$30, 000 for his description of an alleged conversation between former Argentine President Raul Alfonsin and Dante Giadone, a special secretary to Alfonsin. Giadone had sued when the description appeared in a 1990 book, even though the passage had already been published in the daily Clarin.

December 17
Página 12, LEGAL ACTION
Horacio Verbitsky, Página 12, LEGAL ACTION
Fernando Sokolowicz, Página 12, LEGAL ACTION
Ernesto Tiffenberg, Página 12, LEGAL ACTION

President Carlos Menem lost a libel suit he initiated in 1994 against Página 12, columnist Verbitsky, and top editors Sokolowicz and Tiffenberg. Menem was ordered by Judge Maria Laura Garrigos de Rebori to pay all the legal costs of the trial. In issuing her ruling, the judge said that in a democracy the press has an obligation to keep the public informed. Menem had sued Página 12 over an Oct. 30, 1994, article by Verbitsky that questioned the veracity of the president's claims that he had been tortured under Argentina's military dictatorship. Menem accused the daily and local human rights groups of plotting together to undermine his leadership.

Copyright notice: © Committee to Protect Journalists. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced only with permission from CPJ.

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