Good night, and good luck.

Photographer: Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty Images

Free Press Flees Argentina

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
Read More.
a | A

When Damian Pachter left the newsroom of the Buenos Aires Herald last Friday, he might have headed to a taberna for a glass of Malbec and a round of kudos. Instead, the reporter who broke the news about the strange death of Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman was on the run and jumping at shadows.

Earlier that week, Pachter had fielded a call from a "trusted source" that Nisman, the chief investigator into the deadly 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center, had been found in a pool of blood the night before in his bathroom. Since Nisman had just accused Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of stonewalling his case -- and was set to tell Congress the details the next morning -- Pachter immediately tweeted the news and watched the mysterious death blow up into an international intrigue. Convinced his might be the next body on the floor, he fled to Tel Aviv.

If that sounds melodramatic, consider the parlous state of journalism in Latin America. The lot of reporters has suffered "a marked deterioration," the Inter-American Press Association concluded last October. In 2014, Latin America was the deadliest region for journalists after the Middle East, with 29 reporters killed. This alone was hardly news. Through the 1970s and 1980s, after all, the Latin American military kept a lid on news, shuttering independent media and jailing or "disappearing" anyone who demurred.

The menace to journalists, however, is no longer just the guy in Ray-Bans shadowing Damian Pachter through the streets of Buenos Aires. Editors might no longer print cake recipes, as they once did, to flag readers that a generalissimo was at the door. But even as democratic elections have become the rule across the hemisphere, and freedom of the press has been etched in every constitution but Cuba's, today's caudillos have new weapons. The tax inspector's fines have replaced the censor's inkpot, and lawyers are the new shock troops, slinging slander suits and copyright claims. "In this new world," says Thor Halvorssen, founder of the Human Rights Foundation. "regimes censor by saturating the airwaves with half-truths and distractions. In Venezuela we hear a new coup plot every week."

If once autocrats stopped the presses, now they starve their critics with advertising boycotts or newsprint droughts, as Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has done -- two among many tactics that last year earned Venezuela a lowly 116th place among 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders's ranking of press freedom. And if a publisher buckles under the pressure, no worries: mysterious angel investors stand ready to rescue failing brands. So it was with Ultimas Noticias, a troubled 70-year-old daily, handed over late last year to a brand-new shell company, based in Curacao and controlled by the scion of a British industrialist. Never mind that the new owners had no track record in media or that Venezuela has a constitutional ban on foreign ownership of media.

Not surprisingly, the life support came with a new mission more congenial to Bolivarian sensibilities. Some 50 of Ultimas Noticias's staffers have since resigned. Philip Bennett and Moises Naim, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, called this stealth censorship

For a time, media champions saw the Internet as a way around the censors, but the government soon caught on, taking down Twitter, Facebook and YouTube pages and posts they found offensive. "I'm afraid the Internet will be no exception when it comes to intolerant leaders," says director of Human Rights Watch's Latin American division, Jose Miguel Vivanco.

Fernandez has pursued her own counteroffensive, defying court rulings that the government can't divert advertising away from critical media outlets, designating newsprint as a commodity of public interest and giving the government the right to take control of its production. She's also mastered another genre: repression through reform. In 2009, she marshaled her Peronist majority to pass the tendentious Law on Audiovisual Communication Services, designed to break up media "monopolies," namely her archenemy, Clarin. The Supreme Court backed the law in 2013, forcing Clarin to divest several of its holdings. Argentina is also one of the few countries in the region that still has no Freedom of Information law. Another Fernandez pearl: the rule by the Financial Investigations authority that holds news outlets criminally liable if they "terrorize" the public.

That may be one reason why Damian Pachter isn't going back to Argentina anytime soon. That, and the guy in the Ray-Bans.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net