Kirchner’s Assault on the Press

This week’s target: Argentina’s two most influential daily newspapers.

“This begins the very clear dictatorial phase because one of the pillars of the republic is freedom of expression and the right of the people to be informed.”  

Elisa Carrió,
Argentine opposition leader, Aug. 23

For almost a decade, loyalists to the Argentine republic have warned that the nation is headed for a return to authoritarian rule. Last week President Cristina Kirchner strengthened their case by moving to strip the two largest newspapers in the country of their ownership in the largest domestic supplier of newsprint.

Ms. Carrió, herself a center-left politician, echoed the fears of millions of Argentines when she warned that such steps are designed to silence government critics and, if left unchecked, will usher in a new era of repression.

Yet it is far too early to sound the death knell for Argentine liberty. Only a day after Mrs. Kirchner alleged that the newspapers Clarín and La Nación had secured their ownership in the newsprint company Papel Prensa by using torture and coercion—provided by the 1976 military government—a key witness surfaced to discredit the charges.

President Cristina Kirchner announces a government investigation Clarin and La Nación.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Mrs. Kirchner’s ambition or that of her husband, former president Néstor Kirchner. But civil society remains vibrant, and as Mrs. Kirchner found out when she tried to force a confiscatory tax increase on farmers in 2008, Argentines still understand that they have rights.

Press criticism for some time has been met with vengeful government responses. According to Clarín, Kirchner supporters have used physical intimidation in front of the company’s headquarters in Buenos Aires, and the government has harassed the company through its tax and regulatory agencies.

After Mrs. Kirchner lost control of Congress in the June 2009 elections, she used the lame duck session that followed to push through a media law that gives the government the power to deny licenses to long-established television stations. The law also expands the government’s share of the market. Clarín, which is in the television business, will be hurt by this. In recent weeks the government also revoked Clarín’s license to operate as an Internet service provider.

But print media, particularly Clarín and La Nación, remain a threat to Mrs. Kirchner. And this is why she is going after Papel Prensa. She aims to control the supply of newsprint and imprison principals of both companies.

Papel Prensa was owned by David Graiver in August 1976 when he died in a plane crash in Mexico. To pay the debts of two struggling banks that had to be liquidated upon his death, Papel Prensa was sold in November 1976. Mrs. Kirchner’s case against the two newspapers rests largely on her claim that Gravier’s widow was detained by the military government, pressured to sell the company to the newspapers, and then temporarily released in order to execute the transaction.

It may have seemed like an open-and-shut case to onlookers Tuesday at Casa Rosada, where Mrs. Kirchner had gathered politicians, ambassadors and members of the business community to watch her drop the human-rights bomb on the newspapers. The widow, Lidia Papaleo de Graiver, had already told a local newspaper that she has “expectations of a historic compensation after 34 years” and raved about how “a woman president will settle this debt with the whole of Argentine society.”

But the next day notarized testimony from Isidoro Graiver, David’s brother, appeared in La Nación contradicting her claims. Mr. Graiver, who handled the disposition of Papel Prensa for the family, detailed the events surrounding the sale in November 1976. He wrote that the family had been under pressure to sell the company for economic reasons and because David had been acting as the banker for the guerrilla group known as the “Montoneros.” The group was pressuring him with death threats against the family if their money—some $17 million from kidnapping—was not returned.

It was not until March of the following year—long after the sale supposedly forced by the military—that the family was arrested by the military government for links to the Montoneros, who had killed, maimed and kidnapped thousands of Argentines. This may explain why Graiver’s widow went before a federal judge on Thursday to say that she had never been released from prison to execute the sale as Mrs. Kirchner claims.

The president likes to cite transgressions by the long-gone military government to make herself a champion of human rights. Yet while she has locked up scores of members of the military, she hasn’t brought one Montonero to justice. On the contrary, a number of the former terrorists have held posts in her cabinet.

Now she is using the same game to try to crush press freedom. Or as Ms. Carrió says, to begin the “dictatorial phase.” La Nación’s publication of Isidoro Gravier’s memo shows that the press isn’t giving up without a fight.

Anastasia O’Grady, Wall Street Journal


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