Argentina’s Shaky Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the press is an essential component of a genuine democracy. That is why Thomas Jefferson expressed that, “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Indeed, one of the most powerful development messages is written in the U.S. constitution: “Congress shall make no law (…) prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”

Freedom of the press’ key contribution to democracy is its unique ability to restrain government power by increasing transparency, advancing accountability, and circulating diverse opinions. Autocratic governments understand this very well and try to constantly control the press. Where there are no unambiguous laws protecting freedom of the press, politicians of all stripes utilize ingenious schemes to control the media.

Argentina is a case in point, where freedom of the press is under constant threat by the state as a result of flimsy legal protections. In fact, the current government recently passed a new law that gives government the power to decide when a media company is too big and makes newspapers more dependent on government advertising. Moreover, Argentina’s weak freedom of the press is plainly displayed in a recent U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research paper (subscription needed in the U.S.) by Rafael Di Tella and Ignacio Franceschelli.

The paper presents strong evidence that there is a negative correlation between reporting government corruption in newspapers and receiving government advertising in Argentina. In other words, if you are an Argentine newspaper that receives money from government advertising it is most probable that you will not report on government corruption scandals. For example, Di Tella and Franceschelli shed light on the behavior of the newspaper “Página 12”, which used to be a key source of corruption reporting during the Carlos Menem administration but now it has become virtually a government mouthpiece.