Press Freedom Rainbow at the Bottom of the Falls

JUSTICE

THE contrast is stark. In one place is the vast wastelands of a jungle community several hundred miles north of Buenos Aires. A short distance away is the magnificence of a giant waterfall surrounded by luxury hotels and tourist services. Overlooking three nations - Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay - Iguaz'u is the widest waterfall in the world, extending over four miles, claiming 275 cataracts. It was here in a modest complex just beyond the rumble of the falls that 50 Argentine journalists met recently to discuss press freedoms.

In the United States, this type of conclave is almost commonplace. Media organizations, state and national, sponsor them regularly. The issues are sophisticated. Many surround the new technology of the newsroom. Constitutional guarantees for a free press are almost a given. The struggle to overcome government attempts to restrict the news media continues but it is not usually framed in terms of a national crisis.

Not so in Argentina. Here human rights, and related press freedoms, are relatively new phenomena. This nation emerged from the oppression of a military dictatorship with the election of President Raul Alfonsin in 1983. Now under Carlos Menem, there is guarded hope that human-rights advances, including greater latitude for the news media, will flourish.

The issue on the one hand is government control. How much of it, if any, is permissible in a free society? And under what circumstances should the government regulate the press? On the other side is media responsibility. This is what the Argentine journalists here were most interested in discussing in their first symposium on the subject.

Corruption, scandal, and judicial restraint still surround an Argentine press. Reporters generally command low salaries and many are forced to supplement their incomes through public relations or industrial work. The latter gives rise to possible conflict of interest, with reporters sometimes catering to certain commercial groups and having little regard for media ethics.

The flow of drugs here has an important effect on the Argentine press. ``The journalist who doesn't understand the phenomena of the drug traffic doesn't have much to write about,'' says veteran newsman Ted Cordova-Claure of the Newsletter Orbita. He insists that some media people are being bribed by drug traffickers, but he admits that this is ``hard to prove.''

The payment of journalists by commercial interests is raising key ethical issues among the Argentine press. ``This is a [continuing] temptation,'' says Susana Grassi of Radio Continental. ``There is no freedom of the press if we are the prisoners of our own sources,'' she point out. Ricardo Pipino of Radio Am'erica raises the philosophical question: ``When a company pays [thousands of] australs [Argentine currency] for a story, is it the company or the journalist who is corrupt?'' He suggests it is both.

Edgardo Silberkasten of Generati'on magazinetold his colleagues that good journalism is inextricably tied to the quest for democratic freedom. ``Beyond being journalists, we are citizens,'' he said. ``The only way to affirm democracy is with more democracy.''

Members of the group suggested the adoption of a media ``Declaration of Independence'' to assert the need to be free from government and commercial interests. Basic to this idea would be an attack on the ``roots of economic dependency'' that tie underpaid news people to other jobs. Some say the formation of a trade union would assist in the struggle for higher pay and editorial independence. It was suggested that a national publication be launched to discuss the problems of the press in Argentina.

This unique conference was sponsored by the Arturo Illia Foundation for Peace and Democracy, a liberal human-rights group. This columnist was the only North American invited to present a paper.

At the base of one of the falls at Iguaz'u, one can glimpse a rainbow. Perhaps this is a promise for emerging press freedom in Argentina.

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