Earlier this month, the president of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, and the president of Argentina, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, took part in a video conference to celebrate a new television partnership. Under the terms of the deal, the Russian-owned channel RT (formerly known as Russia Today) will soon begin broadcasting Spanish-language news in Argentina. Mrs. Kirchner hailed the development as a means for Argentines “to understand the real Russia,” as well as to help Russians learn about “the real Argentina, unlike the way the international media and the so-called national media portray us.”
Buenos Aires currently enjoys warm relations with Moscow for a variety of reasons. Argentina is looking to Russia for help in upgrading its energy sector, including a possible partnership with the Russian giant Gazprom to develop oil and shale gas production in Argentina.
The cooperation extends to diplomatic relations, too. Argentina has backed Russia’s position on Ukraine, while Mr. Putin has offered political support in Argentina’s international legal dispute with so-called vulture funds over the value of defaulted government bonds.
Evident in the TV deal, though, was a more disturbing convergence between the two states: a shared vision of the role that the mass media should play in the government and public life of the nation. “We are achieving a communication without intermediaries,” said Mrs. Kirchner, “in order to transmit our own values.” This approach was echoed by Mr. Putin, who spoke of an expanding electronic media environment as “a formidable weapon that enables public opinion manipulations.”
The Spanish version of RT is intended as an antidote to the toxic influence of foreign media channels “that transmit news based on their interests,” as Mrs. Kirchner put it. The Spanish-language RT deal mirrors the Venezuelan-Argentine venture in the public news channel Telesur, in which Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and Uruguay also have minority stakes. Like Telesur, RT is presented not merely as an option in a pluralistic media landscape, but as the channel representing the true national cultures of each country in which it broadcasts.
From Ecuador to Venezuela, the conflation of state media, private media ownership by politicians and their cronies and party propaganda has been a prominent aspect of Latin American populism during its first decade of ascendancy. As the recent re-election of President Evo Morales in Bolivia shows, these populist leaders continue to enjoy broad support. But in Bolivia, as elsewhere in Latin America, these leaders have also manufactured their support by co-opting the power of state media and by marginalizing more critical elements of the independent media.
In Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador, the typical strategy is to use antitrust laws to force commercial media groups to break up and sell off assets, which are then acquired by pro-government investors. For example, just days before Argentina’s deal with RT became public, the government agency assigned to enforce the country’s new media law announced that it would seek to dismember the audiovisual arm of the Clarín media group (which also publishes Argentina’s principal newspaper of the same name, where one of us works as a journalist).
In Venezuela, the influential opposition newspaper Tal Cual, edited by the veteran left-wing politician Teodoro Petkoff, has announced its imminent closure — a situation described by the Inter-American Press Association as symptomatic of “the siege on the critical or independent press in Venezuela,” where almost all TV channels and radio stations have come under government control. In Ecuador, after the newspaper Hoy was forced into partial closure when the government imposed an advertising boycott, its director attacked the country’s new media law for “criminalizing journalistic work.”
The populist rhetoric against critical newspapers and journalists is that they must be penalized as part of a struggle against the “economic interests” of private owners that are opposed to the common good. The roots of such populism can be traced to widespread grievances about the failures of the “Washington consensus,” which made the continent a laboratory for neoliberal economics and imposed considerable hardships. With charismatic leadership, populism has proved remarkably successful in electoral terms. But there is a difference between winning elections and a truly democratic culture, and Latin America’s populist leaders have amassed enormous power even as they expanded social rights.
The increasingly harsh media policy does not alone explain populism’s success, but it certainly helps promote its case. Among Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador, there are important distinctions in the style and character of state interference with press freedom, but all of these populist administrations have harassed independent journalists. And in all of these countries, there has been a consolidation of what is, in effect, state propaganda.
To be sure, the anti-populist opposition used similar authoritarian tactics in the past — and might still do so, if permitted. But the populists have made this merger of state media and party messaging an essential condition for their rule of these democratic societies.
In its first decade, Latin American populism stressed the value of the state as the protector of the most excluded sectors of society and as the promoter of their interests. There have been major progressive achievements, reversing a legacy of social inequality. But as it moves into its second decade in power, populism seems engaged in a campaign to degrade independent journalism. Does Latin America really wish to emulate Mr. Putin’s approach to media freedom?
Fabián Bosoer is an opinion editor at the Argentine newspaper Clarín.Federico Finchelstein is the chairman of the history department at the New School for Social Research.