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Argentina: A Public Ethics Law for Journalists?

Using the national broadcasts (“Cadena Nacional” in Spanish), President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner [es] speaks about new policies, investments, projects and new initiatives incumbent upon the state. In her last presidential address, the President proposed a law for public ethics for the practice of journalism, a proposal which caused numerous reactions from Argentine bloggers and journalists.

National broadcasts

National broadcasts [es] are the coordinated and simultaneous transmission between radio and television channels that broadcast official announcements. In Argentina, Law 26,522, enacted in October 2009, regulates the audiovisual media services.  Article 75 [of this law] says:

ARTICULO 75. — Cadena nacional o provincial. El Poder Ejecutivo nacional y los poderes ejecutivos provinciales podrán, en situaciones graves, excepcionales o de trascendencia institucional, disponer la integración de la cadena de radiodifusión nacional o provincial, según el caso, que será obligatoria para todos los licenciatarios.

ARTICLE 75. – National or provincial broadcasts. The national Executive branch and provincial executive powers may, in extreme or exceptional cases, or cases of institutional importance, provide for the integration of national or provincial network broadcasting, as appropriate, which will be mandatory for all licensees.

According to Fabián Bosoer in El Estadista [es], the president’s reason for using this method is to avoid misinformation:

Ante las críticas por el uso y abuso de la Cadena Nacional, Cristina se quejó de la existencia de una “cadena nacional del miedo y el desánimo” que sólo transmite malas noticias y propaga “mala onda”. Esta supuesta campaña negativa obligaría a la Presidenta a difundir los logros y actos de su Gobierno a través de estos discursos y teleconferencias transmitidas por cadena, en las que –según la interpretación oficial– ella se puede comunicar directamente y sin intermediarios con el pueblo televidente.

Faced with criticism of the use and abuse of the national broadcasts, Cristina complained of the existence of a “national broadcast of fear and discouragement” that only broadcasts bad news and spreads “bad vibes”. This alleged negative campaign would force the President to disseminate the acts and achievements of her government via these speeches and teleconferences broadcast natioanlly, in which—according to the official version—she can communicate directly to the viewing public without middlemen.

The newspaper La Voz del Interior [es] published a graph showing the effect that national broadcasts have on the rating of each channel:

El tema es que la aparición de la Presidenta en todos los medios en simultáneo cada vez tiene menos audiencia, según surge de los datos de Ibope, la consultora que mide los ratings de la televisión porteña.

Graphic by La Voz del Interior. Gray shows rating during normal programming; red shows rating during national boradcasts

The issue is that the appearance of the president in all media simultaneously indicates less of an audience each time, according to data from Ibope, the company that measures Buenos Aires television ratings.

In her last television broadcast, the president spoke of the opening of a hydrotreatment plant of YPF Diesel, and said [es]:

¿Y por qué por cadena nacional? Porque si no lo hiciéramos por cadena nacional nadie se enteraría de esas cosas.

And why through national broadcasts? Because if we didn’t do it through national boradcasts, nobody would find out about these things.

Legislating public ethics?

One issue that has been at the core of the recent controversy is the comment made by the President during the same speech, where she comments that there should be a law that requires journalists to “publish from which companies they receive money […] who pays them, so that when we read an article, we know.”:

Pero la verdad que nosotros necesitamos una ley de ética pública también para ese cuarto poder de una buena vez por todas en la República Argentina. No para no decir nada, al contrario, no, simplemente para manifestar si reciben dinero de alguna empresa o si tienen alguna inclinación política.

But the truth is we need a public ethics law also for that fourth power [the media] once and for all in Argentina. Not so they say nothing; on the contrary, simply to show if they get money from some company or if they have some political agenda.

A result of this was the “Announcement by FOPEA [Argentine Journalism Forum] on the ethics of journalism in Argentina”:

[...] manifestamos nuestro total desacuerdo con cualquier iniciativa que promueva la regulación de la profesión por medio de leyes o medidas gubernamentales y alertamos sobre los graves riesgos que implica para la libertad de expresión esta clase de planteos o propuestas.

[…] We express our complete disagreement with any initiative that calls for the regulation of the profession through laws or governmental action, and we forewarn the serious risks involved for freedom of expression from these types of demands or proposals.

Christian Sanz, director of the independent newspaper Tribuna, [es] questions the president and writes:

Es bien cierto lo que dice la Presidenta respecto a que existen colegas que cobran dinero bajo mesa, pero alguien debería decirle que si conoce algún caso en particular tendría que denunciarlo como corresponde, en el lugar adecuado, no a través de la ostentosa cadena pública nacional.

It is certainly true what the president says that there are colleagues who charge money under the table, but someone should tell her that if she knows of a concrete case, she should report it through the proper channels, not ostentatiously through  a national broadcast.

For his part, Gustavo Marcelo Sala in his blog Las Balas del Campanario [es] analyzes the “public ethic”:

No estoy tan de acuerdo en formalizar una ley de ética pública. La historia de la humanidad nos demuestra cómo ha variado dicho concepto con el correr de los años. ¿Quién determinaría sus incisos? ¿Los dueños de los medios, los editores, los periodistas, los patrocinadores, el Estado, todos juntos? ¿Bajo qué parámetros profesionales y conceptuales? ¿Cuál sería la batería de penalizaciones? ¿Cómo hacemos para deslindar a la subjetividad del asunto?

I don’t agree so much with formalizing a public ethics law. The history of humanity shows us how that concept has changed over the years. Who will decide its contents? The media owners, the editors, journalists, readers, the State, everybody all together? Under what professional and conceptual parameters? What will the range of penalties be? How will we demarcate the subjectivity of this issue?

Gustavo continues:

Aceptaría, pero con reparos, que el propio periodismo establezca una suerte de ética profesional en el marco de su actividad aunque la realidad marca que en la coyuntura sería imposible constituir un cuerpo colegiado de carácter democrático para debatir abiertamente la cuestión. ¿Se puede calificar desde lo ético una determinada interpretación de la realidad? No me parece.

I would accept, with reservations, that journalism itself establish a sort of professional ethics in the context of its profession, although the reality of the situation is that it would be impossible to establish a democratically run collective body to openly discuss the question. Can you qualify, ethically, one interpretation of reality? I don’t think so.

In his article for Perfil, Roberto Garcia [es] suggests the president’s role as virtual managing editor, because of the national broadcasts:

En verdad, esa actividad de virtual jefa de redacción que practica en sus discursos les ha aliviado la faena a los periodistas, ya que les ahorra imaginación y búsqueda informativa: ella sola genera noticias que en otras partes no aparecen, provoca titulares, también editoriales, sus opiniones reemplazan el aburrimiento diario de la anodina información local y hasta de la complicada del orden internacional. Si no fuera por Cristina, los diarios venderían menos ejemplares y los periodistas deberían trabajar más. Merece del gremio un agradecimiento.

Indeed, the work of the virtual managing editor that she takes on in her speeches alleviates the drudgery for the journalists, saving them imagination and searching for information: she only generates news that don’t appear elsewhere, generating headlines, as well as editorials, her opinions replace the daily bore of the bland local news and even the complex international order. If it weren’t for Cristina, the dailies would sell fewer papers, and the journalists would have to work harder. She deserves the thanks of the [journalists] union.

In the post “Cristina and National Broadcasts as a sovereign expression“, [es] Cristian Adalberto Sayes in the blog Goliardo [es] analyzes the use of national broadcasts, and ends with a phrase by Juan Donoso Cortés:

La soberanía política se expresa en la palabra presidencial sin medición corporativa. La cadena nacional llega sin medicación. Es una especie de comunicación de democracia directa. Porque, parafraseando al célebre español,

Cuando la noticia basta para informar, la noticia; cuando no basta la cadena nacional.

Political sovereignty is expressed by the presidential word without corporate mediation. National broadcasts arrive unvarnished. It is a kind of direct democracy. Because, paraphrasing the famous Spaniard,

When the news is enough to inform, then the news; when it’s not, then a nationwide address.

Thumbnail of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner at inauguration of YPF plant. Photo by La Casa Rosada, under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA.

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