More than 2,400 journalists have lost their jobs since President Mauricio Macri came to power, with many more media outlets facing an uncertain future. Experts warn freedom of expression could be under threat.
por Federico Poore
Buenos Aires Times, 01-09-2018
Over the last few years, a perfect storm has resulted in the deterioration of the media landscape in Argentina. New technologies, a dramatic shift in government advertising and the weakening of anti-trust laws have produced a grim scenario, one that is affecting reporters and audiences alike.
The virtual paralysis of the state-run Télam news agency, whose journalists went on strike after the Mauricio Macri government laid off almost 40 percent of its total staff in June, added to the widespread closure of newsrooms and print publications across the country, has placed a question mark over the future of freedom of expression in the country.
“The media ecosystem is going through a crisis caused by two main factors: digitalisation, a phenomenon that is breaking established business models, and the regulatory intervention by [President] Macri, who has increased concentration of media ownership mostly by way of decree,” said Martín Becerra, a respected media expert and researcher with the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet).
The crisis goes beyond ideology. Between 2016 and 2018, dozens of media outlets closed their doors, ranging from those aligned with the previous government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (which were heavily dependent on government advertising) to others that apparently had a more private-based model, such as the news agency DyN.
The bad news keeps on coming. On Wednesday, journalists at Noticias Argentinas said the cable news agency had announced the firm had filed for a “crisis prevention procedure,” which means the company has decided to start dismissals motivated by issues of “force majeure.”
According to the Sipreba press workers’ union, more than 2,400 journalists have lost their jobs since President Macri took office in December 2015.
Becerra said that the Macri administration’s sloth in dealing with the closure of media outlets “has affected the diversity of news in the market and disciplined the editorial line of most of them, [most of] which are now pro-government.”
A global trend?
Adriana Amado, a media specialist and the author of Periodismos argentinos, said the problems facing Argentine media should not be separated from the global crisis affecting journalism.
“The declining trend in the number of jobs began in 2008, about the same time the worldwide trend began,” she said.
Amado was the coordinator of the Argentine chapter of the Worlds of Journalism Study, a comprehensive report that, among other things, illustrated the severe disparity of salaries among workers in the media sector that existed even before the current government took power. As of 2014, the study said, one out of three journalists in the country earned less than US$1,500 a year. Amado insists the wave of lay-offs actually started 10 years ago, in line with what happened in newsrooms in the United States and other nations.
Santiago Marino, a doctor in Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires (UBA), stressed another aspect of this global trend: the social media monopoly. With Google now raking in 95 percent of all search-engine market share in Latin America, and Facebook taking increasingly bigger shares of the advertising cake, the general landscape has become an excuse for media moguls to call on media workers to adapt to the new landscape by introducing more “flexible” working conditions, he said.
However, the Argentine media market has some very specific characteristics that are shaping up into much-bigger problems, casting a shadow over freedom of expression.
“We have an extremely concentrated media market, with a high incidence of foreign capital, greatly centralised in Buenos Aires – and with private media outlets hungry for government money,” Marino described. “This explains how, once the State withdraws or reallocates government advertising cash [as happened after the ruling Cambiemos administration reached power], some media outlets are left without a solid financing model.”
As soon as his government took office, Macri signed off on a number of DNU emergency decrees that dramatically reshaped the media landscape, cutting down aspects of the 2009 Broadcast Media Law and relaxing some of the safeguards put in place by anti-trust regulations.
Some of the country’s biggest media empires benefitted from the sweeping changes – including the powerful Grupo Clarín, which continued with its expansion (two months ago, the government approved the muchcontested merger of Cablevisión, Clarín’s cable TV company, and the telecommunications giants Telecom).
Meanwhile, hundreds of journalists were being laid off from Radio del Plata (a popular radio station), the newspaper Crónica and Grupo Atlántida, one of the country’s main magazine publishers. The company that owned Radio Rivadavia and Radio Uno filed for bankruptcy.
Employees at Grupo Indalo, formerly owned by casino mogul Cristóbal López and his partner Fabián de Sousa, saw their wages paid late or in installments. The Buenos Aires Herald, Argentina’s only English-language newspaper, ceased to exist after 140 years of publishing, with severance cheques for its laid-off employees bouncing. The list goes on.
“The truth is probably that both local and global factors play a role – but the situation is worse because the regressive policies implemented by the Macri administration are deepening the inequality gap,” argues Becerra.
“In other countries, such as France, Canada, Germany or Uruguay, the State intervenes to mitigate the adverse effects from the worldwide crisis of the traditional media.”
The focus of resistance
On June 26, as Argentines were preparing to watch the country’s crucial World Cup clash against Nigeria in Russia, the head of the Public Media Department Hernán Lombardi announced that 354 workers at the Télam state-run news agency were being laid off.
The government initially described the massive firings as the “necessary restructuring” of an agency that had “grown disproportionately” during the Kirchnerite era (2003-2015), suggesting that those it had selected to be laid off had been hired solely because of their political orientation. However, as soon become evident, many of those sacked were be experienced journalists and photographers that had started working at the agency long before the Kirchners had taken office.
Workers decided to take action. As soon as the controversial measure was announced, Télam employees called an indefinite strike and began a nonviolent occupation of the agencies’ two offices in the nation’s capital. No more dispatches had been published since. A visit to the agency’s website draws up a red page, with a simple alert: “Por medidas gremiales el servicio se encuentra temporalmente limitado.”
The impact of the agency’s shutdown, however, goes way beyond Buenos Aires.
“A lot of media outlets in Argentina, especially newspapers, rely on Télam to cover news from the provinces,” revealed Marino. “Now they’ve lost one of their main sources of information, because one of the great things about Télam is that it is present throughout the country.”
For Becerra, the closing down of DyN, another onceinfluential agency, and the lack of journalistic production at Télam is hurting not only smalland medium-sized publications that depended on their coverage of daily and breaking news, but also society’s right to information.
Last month, on August 22, an appeals court ordered the reinstatement of five of the sacked workers at Télam, confirming an earlier lower court ruling which stated that Lombardi’s decision had “clearly exceeded limits of reasonableness” and was at odds with work regulations.
The crisis lingers on. And for now, that red notice on the website’s homepage remains.
A future tied to suscribers?
The story of Tiempo Argentino is emblematic of the difficult times facing the media landscape in Argentina.
The newspaper was a staunch supporter of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration and days before the change of government, in late 2015, its workers stopped receiving their salaries. Owners Sergio Szpolski and Matías Garfunkel disappeared from the scene after selling their holding in the company to a man with no experience in the industry. His name is Mariano Martínez Rojas, and shortly after the sale, he stopped publishing the newspaper.
In April 2016, journalists at Tiempo Argentino decided to take a bold step: they would become a cooperative and run the paper by themselves.
Three months later, in the early hours of July 4, a mob of more than 20 people broke into its newsroom in the Buenos Aires City neighbourhood of Palermo, attacking three employees, while destroying equipment and documents. They were led by Martínez Rojas, a man whose alleged ties with judicial middlemen and the murky underworld of the intelligence services have never been denied. Even more surprisingly, the fleeing attackers were escorted and protected by the Buenos Aires City police.
Many would have walked out, but the workers stood their ground, and until this day they continue publishing Tiempo.
“It’s a very rewarding experience, but it comes with a great effort,” said Tiempo sports journalist Alejandro Wall. “This cooperative has almost 100 workers – not all journalists – who run a website and publish two magazines (a Sunday edition and a quarterly magazine).”
What was born out of a necessity to save their jobs has now turned into a fascinating challenge – putting a newspaper on the streets with a business model based on its readers. Today, seven out of 10 pesos that the cooperative makes comes from newspaper sales and subscriptions. “The goal is to keep growing along that line and [to] stop depending on advertising, both state and private,” Wall said.
Some big challenges remain. Access to newsprint paper, for instance, is becoming increasingly difficult to afford. “So far this year, Papel Prensa has raised its prices by 79 percent,” said the journalist, in reference to the company (owned by Clarín) which produces newsprint and supplies the vast majority of Argentina’s newspapers.
Wall also says that the allocation of government advertising, used heavily arbitrary during the Kirchnerite administration, is still used as a weapon, as indirect censorship under the Macri administration. “Opposition and smaller media are being discriminated against,” he argues.
Some, it seems, are beginning to follow in Tiempo Argentino’s footsteps. Since 2016, several media companies have been turned into cooperatives, including local newspapers La Nueva Mañana, in Córdoba, El Ciudadano (Rosario) and La Portada (Esquel), and news portal Infonews, based in Buenos Aires.
However, the combination of the global threat from changing business models and the government’s indifference to the disappearance of traditional news outlets is sketching out a future scenario with more noise and less voices.
As the economic crisis in the country deepens, one thing is clear: the perfect storm affecting Argentine media outlets is yet to pass.