Last Updated: Friday, 19 December 2014, 09:55 GMT

Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Argentina

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Argentina, February 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c565251c.html [accessed 19 December 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.

The brutal murder of photographer José Luis Cabezas at the beginning of the year rekindled traumatic memories of the persecution of journalists during Argentina's so-called "dirty war" in the 1970s and early '80s. At the same time, it galvanized journalists and the public, who expressed their anger and desire for justice in public demonstrations throughout the year.

After Cabezas' charred, handcuffed corpse was discovered by a fisherman in the town of Pinamar on January 25, journalists and ordinary Argentines took to the streets demanding that the government of President Carlos Menem vigorously investigate the murder and swiftly prosecute those responsible. Over the next few months, they managed to keep the pressure up with horn-honking demonstrations that clogged the streets of Buenos Aires, low-speed caravans to the site of the murder, and vigils that produced moments of eerie silence before soccer matches.

The protests reflect the extraordinary level of cooperation among Argentine journalists and the broad public support for their work. In a country where the congress and the judiciary have been unable to curtail widespread corruption and abuse of power on the part of government officials, the press has taken on the role of public watchdog. In a poll published by the newsweekly Noticias in July, the press emerged as the institution enjoying the greatest public support, ahead of the Catholic Church, the military, the congress, and political parties.

This perception may help explain the success of the Association for the Defense of Independent Journalists (Periodistas), a press freedom organization founded in 1995, which not only investigates and denounces attacks on individual journalists, but serves as a public voice for a press that, precisely because of its growing power, is the target of both legal and extra-legal attacks.

President Menem and his advisors have responded to stories about government corruption and malfeasance not with promises to investigate the accusations but with a flurry of litigation. While the lawsuits have been costly for the journalists involved and may have deterred others from publishing investigative stories, the plaintiffs have not prospered in the courts.

Meanwhile, journalists covering the investigation into the Cabezas murder have confronted intimidation of a more violent nature. Many journalists have received physical threats, and the hand of one reporter's sister was slashed. While the inquiry has been slow, the investigating judge in the Cabezas case has made steady progress. With each piece of emerging evidence the explosive nature of the murder has become more apparent.

In 1996, Cabezas' photograph of Alfredo Yabrán, a reclusive businessman with alleged ties to the mafia, was published on the cover of Noticias. Yabrán – who, like President Menem, is an Argentine of Syrian descent – had amassed a fortune estimated to be as much as $500 million largely through government contracts and sweetheart deals on state privatizations. His firms are alleged to control half of Argentina's private mail delivery and a large portion of government printing. While Menem initially denied that he knew Yabrán personally, investigators soon found that the elusive tycoon had made dozens of phone calls to Justice Minister Elias Jassan immediately after Cabezas' killing. The revelation led to Jassan's resignation.

On April 9, ex-policeman Gustavo Prellezo was arrested and charged with carrying out the murder. At the time of his arrest, Prellezo was carrying Yabrán's business card, with Yabrán's private phone number scribbled on it in his own handwriting. Nearly a dozen suspects, including Gregorio Rios, Yabrán's head of security, and several ex-police officers have been arrested and charged with carrying out the murder.

Facing intense criticism over the Cabezas investigation and alleged corruption scandals, Menem has lashed out at the press. On June 17, during a press briefing for foreign correspondents, Menem described Horacio Verbitsky, the prominent columnist for the Buenos Aires-based daily Página/12, as "one of the biggest terrorists in Argentina." And on September 8, President Menem was quoted as proposing that the Ley de Palos ("The Law of the Stick") be used against journalists (he later said he was joking). In the midst of this climate of open hostility between the media and the government, four men who identified themselves as police officers abducted a former marine named Adolfo Scilingo, who had spoken to the press about his role as an executioner in the dirty war. The assailants carved the letters V, M, and G into Scilingo's face. "For Grondona, Magdalena, and Verbitsky, who are your associates," said the men, naming three prominent journalists with whom Scilingo had spoken. "We're going to kill them; they must be stopped."

By the time U.S. President Bill Clinton visited Argentina in October as part of a trip to three countries in South America, relations between Menem and the press had reached an all-time low. In private meetings with Menem, Clinton expressed his concern. "What I told President Menem is that Argentina is constructing a civil society brick by brick and that freedom of expression is something positive," Clinton explained. During the visit, White House aides also met privately with a group of Argentine journalists and reiterated Clinton's commitment to promoting press freedom. At a briefing with reporters in Buenos Aires, White House spokesman Michael McCurry specifically credited CPJ with bringing the issue of freedom of the press in Argentina to Clinton's attention.

Later that month, Menem's Peronist party lost control of the congress in mid-term elections. Along with unemployment and corruption, Menem's open antagonism toward a press that is both popular and respected may have played a role in the electoral defeat.

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