Violent attack to press freedom in Argentina

The cooperative weekly newspaper Tiempo Argentino, was attacked in the early hours of Monday. July 4. Links between the paper's previous owners and the Argentine secret services paint a dark picture. Español

Sebastián De Toma
5 July 2016
Tiempo Special Edition after the attack_1.jpg

Tiempo Argentino front page. Some rights reserved.In the early hours of Monday a mob of at least twenty people broke into the editorial offices of Tiempo Argentino in the neighbourhood of Palermo, Buenos Aires, attacking three employees and destroying equipment and documents, reported the workers of the Argentine newspaper. One of the attackers identified himself as Mariano Martínez Rojas, a businessman who claims to have purchased the newspaper, once owned by Sergio Szpolski and Matías Garfunkel. Tiempo Argentino became a cooperative initiative in April, when the workers decided to take over the title after five months without receiving their salaries.

There were several hours of tension for the workers who turned up in the offices, to defend their workplace under the rain. Several hours of listening to the mob destroy computers, servers, cables, the administrative area and even the workers' personal belongings. Meanwhile, outside, the police watched the events unfold without intervening. After several comings and goings, with the workers managing to break into their own offices using a side door and people running over the neighbouring roofs, the attackers left the place protected — ironically — by the police.

Later in the morning the workers managed to regain control of the offices, to find a harrowing scene: documents and cables scattered all over the place, broken masonry, and the powder from fire extinguishers poisoning an already rarefied air.

Some time ago

The aforementioned Sergio Szpolski is one of the main characters in this story: a businessman linked to the fraudulent bankruptcy of the financial institution Banco Patricios, in 1998. After several failed attempts, he succeeded in kickstarting his meteoric ascent in the media sector in 2004, after buying Veintitrés, a magazine after which he would name his media holding. With the support of public money towards official publicity he continued to buy or create media platforms.

When directed by Szpolski Tiempo Argentino was openly aligned with the Kirchnerist administration as was the rest of his media holding (which included several magazines, free newspapers and even a cable channel). This is how he became a key ally of the government, then involved in a struggle against the immense power of another media holding, the Grupo Clarín, owners of the majority of the media platforms of Argentina. An inconvenient and incapable ally, that was and is still accused of having links with the Argentine secret services. Aside from Szpolski and Garfunkel, other people suspected of being connected with the holding were Darío Richarte — ex second in command of the Argentine secret services during the presidency of Fernando de la Rúa, and lawyer of the president of football club Boca Juniors, Daniel Angelici — and Javier Fernández — national auditor since 1999, and suspected judicial operator of the past government.

After the defeat of the Kirchnerist presidential candidate Daniel Scioli in November 2015, and the arrival of the conservative Mauricio Macri, the relationship between the government and the media took at 180 degrees turn, and the Veintitrés holding was left without governmental funds. Szpolski and his partners disappeared from the scene after selling a large part of the holding to a businessman from the province of Corrientes, a man with no experience in the sector: the violent main character at the beginnig of this story, Martínez Rojas.

According to official documents, the holding received almost ARG$ 815 millions between 2009 and 2015. What happened to that money? Why, even after several complaints, hasn't it been properly investigated? From the names above a possible answer is born: Szpolski has highly influential and powerful friends.

Tiempo wrecked_0.jpg

Attack on Tiempo Argentino. Some rights reserved.

A sector in shock

As it is frequent with these cases the worse off are the workers, who stopped receiving their salaries in November 2015. As mentioned above, this was the reason why the cooperative was formed, with the support of the justice and the national government. This support, nevertheless, had no influence over Szpolski, who still hasn't paid the workers' salaries. "Those who say we deserve this because we worked for Szpolski don't understand that press workers don't always choose where to carry out their work, and that generally the interests of businessmen and workers are conflicting," says the union representative and journalist Randy Stagnaro.

The repercussions of the attack, nationally and internationally, forced the Macri administration to call for an emergency meeting with the workers in the Ministry for Employment. "If this hadn't been given coverage, and we hadn't come — 100s of us — at 2 in the morning, under the rain, and hadn't tried to get in the offices, the police would have left this people inside, while from outside it could be heard how they were smashing up the place," summed up over the phone Javier Borrelli, president of the cooperative Por más tiempo, the association in charge of Tiempo Argentino.

The attack was condemned officially, at national and city level. Yet, Yamil Santoro — assistant director of Communications for the government of the city of Buenos Aires — declared via Twitter that the conflict between employees and employer was "a private matter".

To this Stagnaro answered that what is at risk with events like this attack is press freedom. "Those who take this sort of threat lightly are frivolous," he said. They may be waiting, said Borrelli, "that the state intervenes more actively and answers the complains of the workers, to protect the right to work, and to defend the right to free speech."

Such an intervention, should it happen, would mark a drastic change in the relationship the government has with the cooperative daily. What's more, after an investigation published in Tiempo Argentino on the Macri-owned society Fled Trading S.A., located in Bahamas, and thrown into light with the Panama Papers scandal, Chief of Staff Marcos Peña, doubted the sources of the investigation. "It isn't the source that I trust the most," he declared on May 9.

The director of the programme of Social Communications of the University of Buenos Aires, Diego De Charrás, describes the attack as "something extremely serious, further aggravated by the fact that this is a self-managed initiative, born after the former owner ransacked the company."

Meanwhile, the day after the attack, the cooperative Por más tiempo edited a special edition of the paper and — assured Borrelli — will continue to come out on Sundays, business as usual. "If they try to stop Tiempo from coming out they will only get more of it," he says. They will remain, to quote Rodolfo Walsh — the renowned journalist disappeared on March 25 1977 after a powerful open letter to the military junta — faithful to the commitment to speak out in difficult times.

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