Late in the evening of Friday, December 30, 2005, Pepe Eliaschev, a man renowned for his 20-year run as the sharp-tongued host of Argentina’s daily radio news show “Esto Que Pasa” — in rough translation, “This Is What’s Happening” — received what appeared to be a standard holiday-time phone call.
On the other end of the line was Mona Moncalvillo, an acquaintance of many years and the director of Radio Nacional, the state-owned frequency that had hosted his show for the previous two years; however, after a quick overture, her tone turned decidedly un-celebratory: “Well, buddy,” Moncalvillo said, in what has since become urban legend in Buenos Aires’s media bubble, “c’est fini.”
Eliaschev was fired — from a job he performed at no pay, his income coming from advertising. With no time to engineer a transfer to another station by the new year, he found himself, for the first time since the onset of Argentine democracy in 1983, “voiceless.”
Since then, Eliaschev, a self-described “tedious journalist,” has written a polemical book, “Blacklist — The Return of the 1970s,” and has become a columnist at the Sunday paper Perfil. He has also become the poster boy for the issue of censorship in Argentina — literally. His intense, gray-bearded visage glowers from posters displayed ubiquitously around Buenos Aires, either above or below the words “Perfil: Where you can read those censored from TV.”
Eliaschev, 61, the grandson of Russian Jewish immigrants, has been a fixture of Argentine media since his 20s, with the exception of a 10-year period of exile during the military dictatorship of 1976-1983.
He has long been known for staking out unpopular stances. Having repudiated the Peronism of his youth, Eliaschev turned himself into Argentina’s uncompromising upholder of “Western values”: transparency, good governance, proper procedure. In addition, this year Eliaschev vigorously championed Israel as the war with Hezbollah eroded Argentine support for the Jewish state to something close to zero.
In Argentina, censorship, like so much else, is close to impossible to define. No one is willing to say the case of his notorious dismissal was anything other than censorship; Moncalvillo, when she called, underscored the fact that instructions had been “issued from above”; however, while there is widespread acknowledgement here that press freedoms have been severely curtailed, there exists a similarly ubiquitous feeling that what is going on may not actually be “censorship,” per se.
So what is it?
Many journalists and observers describe decadence and disorder in newsrooms. “It’s not just here,” said Santiago O’Donnell, foreign news editor at the daily Página 12 and editor of Surcos, a political journal. “Globally corporate discourse is crushing the public space for debate. But in Argentina, the case is made much worse, because we have no intermediaries. There is simply no filter between journalists and pressure from political or commercial powers. In the U.S., these phenomena face a sturdy system of checks and balances that prevent corporate views from entirely overtaking a newsroom.”
The government of President Néstor Kirchner has embarked on a widespread (and often mocked) campaign of publicity under the logo “Argentina, a country for real,” but as Eliaschev points out, “a real country wouldn’t put out those kinds of ads,” supposedly touting the government’s achievements “while refusing all proper, formal contact with the media. They seem to think these ads replace normal journalistic coverage. These people recoil from contact with actual journalists, but they’re obsessed with the press.”
Unchallenged reports of censorship in Argentina include late-night phone calls from Cabinet ministers to newsrooms, and direct confrontations on the part of senior government officials. “They have the right to their opinions,” Eliaschev said, “but you cannot have a minister of a government, in which the president has yet to give a single press conference, call journalists up to intimidate them — and justify his actions by claiming he is merely a private citizen expressing his position. Either you have a public face or you don’t.”
And then, you’ve got the journalists.
“Freedom of the press in Argentina is limited by tremendous moral and material corruption among journalists,” said Uki Goñi, the Argentine historian and journalist who was part of a major rebellion in the Journalists Association earlier this year, on the subject of press freedoms, which ended with the organization’s disbanding. “There is a whole generation of journalists who have lost their jobs upholding their moral standards against the prodding of their editors to underreport, misreport and propagandize.”
“It is a difficult situation in which there is not only direct manipulation from above but also an eager desire to provide a service to the powers that be by editors and media owners. Also, the objectivity of editors and media is compromised by the discretional use of government advertising, which is employed to reward editors who will bend with the wind, which, in Argentina, is a blatant majority of the press.”
Argentines have voted for their leaders since 1983, but the infrastructure of democracy remains frail, with members of the fifth estate — journalists, editors — particularly exposed to pressures. In this respect, Jorge Fontevecchia is in a unique position: A former journalist, the son of Italian immigrants, he is the entirely self-made, independent owner of Editorial Perfil, a mammoth of Latin American publishing that supports its Sunday newspaper and Web site (www.perfil.com) with dozens of popular magazines. If anything, more of an irritant for the government than his ever-primed columnist.
If a minister calls, Fontevecchia refuses to take the call — even if the official calls, as in October, to sympathize with death threats that the publisher received by e-mail. Fontevecchia, a cheery 51-year-old who looks 37, is Argentina’s most outspoken voice denouncing censorship, and he seems, for now, unruffled. “Argentina is not Russia,” he said. “No one is getting killed. But the grade of danger is rising. When the division of powers is weakened, journalism becomes a more dangerous occupation. When the legislative and judiciary branches are questioned, the executive begins to bear down. The media’s role becomes disproportionate; it fulfills a sort of auxiliary role for the government. This is real underdevelopment.”
A well-connected businessman who wished to remain anonymous said, borrowing from the title of Eliaschev’s new book, “It’s the worst it’s been since the military regime, which does not mean it’s as bad as the military regime was, but it means it’s not where we were 10 years ago, when you could say anything.”
Noga Tarnopolsky is a cultural correspondent living in Israel.