When a Peronist Took On the Free Press
AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan, File
When a Peronist Took On the Free Press
AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan, File
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A decade before U.S. President Donald Trump weaponized “fake news” as a smear against critical press coverage, another democratically elected president deployed similar tactics against journalists. The resulting showdown pitted a populist leader of Argentina against that country’s largest media company. The clash has been largely forgotten since a new president in Buenos Aires declared a truce with the Argentine press. But the ferocity of the dispute and the speed of its escalation are worth revisiting in light of the tensions between the U.S. president and the American press.

In 2008, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a leftist firebrand elected in the preceding year, saw her relationship with the media conglomerate Grupo Clarín sharply deteriorate. Fernández and her husband, Néstor Kirchner, who was president previous to Fernandez, got along swimmingly with Clarín, whose holdings include the country’s top-selling newspaper. But that changed during Fernández’s pitched battle against striking farmers, whose protests over soybean taxes had emptied Buenos Aires supermarket shelves and paralyzed foreign trade.

The president’s conflict with farmers ended after the Argentine Senate voted down her tax plan, with her own vice president casting the deciding vote. The legislative loss was the first major defeat for the president’s political movement since her husband won the presidency in 2003. In response, Fernández did not merely blame political opponents, but pointedly faulted Clarín for what she regarded as biased coverage of the tax fight.

Their falling-out was sudden and brutal.

Fernández, a member of the Peronist Party, launched a no-holds-barred campaign against Clarín, beginning by redirecting extensive public advertising away from Clarín and its rival, mainstream broadsheet,  La Nación – a common technique in Latin America for governments hoping to tame independent media.

Next, Fernández launched a legal assault disguised as a push for greater competitiveness in the Argentine news media. Her ambitious 2009 media law did not mention Clarín, but it appeared designed to topple a disfavored media empire that owned radio stations, broadcast TV channels, and cable TV assets. No one was fooled. In 2010, Freedom House warned that the law appeared to have “unfairly targeted critics of the government.” The U.S. State Department raised fears that Argentina’s government “sought to silence dissenting opinions.”

Clarín relentlessly challenged the reforms. But in 2013, Argentina’s Supreme Court upheld the legislation, recognizing a public interest in limiting market concentration.

The loss of public advertising had stung Clarín, and the Supreme Court ruling threatened a corporate breakup. But as it turned out, those assaults were relatively polite. The Argentine president also sought to besmirch Clarín’s reputation, deploying tactics that might sound familiar to today’s White House press corps.

Under the slogan Clarín Miente, or “Clarín Lies,” Fernández and her allies tried to discredit Clarín journalists. The trade minister, Guillermo Moreno, slapped the catchphrase on pastries he handed out to lawmakers. Moreno traveled abroad with anti-Clarín placards, which he gripped proudly in official photographs on a long-distance trip that included stops in Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates. In Angola, an aide caused an uproar at home after distributing “Clarín Lies” socks to needy children.

Though Clarín could ignore the schoolyard taunting, the Argentine president found other ways to harass the company. In 2008, she nationalized $30 billion in private pension funds, which included substantial holdings in Clarín. After her falling-out with the company, government ministers began disrupting shareholder meetings.

Nor did Fernández’s criticisms of Clarín stop with its reporting and editorial line. In 2010, she accused one of its owners, Ernestina Herrera de Noble, of adopting babies born to political prisoners who were later murdered by the pitiless military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.

That practice was common during Argentina’s Dirty War, when the security services routinely kidnapped children of political prisoners and transferred them to pro-government families. But there was no evidence that Herrera’s two children were born in detention, and a 2016 DNA test disproved the smear.

Fernández also alleged that Clarín sought business favors from the Argentine dictatorship. In a stunning televised address, she accused Clarín and La Nación of acquiring ownership of the Papel Prensa newsprint business after the dictatorship had tortured its owners to force a sale. Later, she sought to increase government control over the newsprint company.

Through stubborn legal challenges, Clarín waited out Fernández; the company survived largely intact. Her successor -- a pro-business former Buenos Aires mayor, Mauricio Macri, elected in late 2015 -- declared a détente and reformed the 2009 media law. In 2016, Freedom House awarded Clarín’s chief executive officer, Héctor Horacio Magnetto, its Freedom of Expression award.

However, while the dispute in Argentina sputtered, it remains instructive for anyone anxious about the strained relationship between President Trump and the U.S. news media.

Undoubtedly, U.S. democratic institutions are stronger than their Argentine counterparts. U.S. federal courts have repeatedly blocked Trump Administration policies, and would presumably do the same should the president restrict press freedoms. So far, Trump seems largely satisfied to wage war against reporters on Twitter. He has not acted on threats to reform libel laws that shield journalists, nor disrupted Amazon’s business, despite his repeated criticism of its owner, Jeff Bezos, who also controls The Washington Post.

But Trump’s flamboyant attacks – from the “Fake News Awards” to his condemnation of journalists as the “enemy of the American people” – could easily transition into more meaningful assaults on media companies. After all, in Argentina, a president’s war against the news media severely damaged the country’s reputation as an open, democratic society, and revealed the vulnerability of journalists to an elected leader intent on silencing critical coverage.

Benjamin N. Gedan is a former South American director on the National Security Council and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Council on Foreign Relations. Sarah White is a research assistant at the Wilson Center. The views expressed are the authors' own.