, June 25, 2024

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When Your Country’s Leaders Are Hostile to the Press

  •   7 min reads
When Your Country’s Leaders Are Hostile to the Press
Santiago Sito via Flickr
by Laura Dixon

Hugo Alconada Mon is used to being unpopular in Buenos Aires’ halls of power. The investigations editor of La Nación, a leading Argentine daily, he has spent more than a decade investigating how corruption infiltrates politics.

As a result, over the years Alconada Mon has been “almost” accused of treason on national TV, learned of an attempt to have his telephones tapped, and, he says, had his wife, children, and parents followed by agents of the government. Such are the push-backs from those he has investigated that he claims he was “the most insulted Argentine journalist on Twitter for a couple of years.”

“[Argentina] President Milei, he is going much further than his predecessors when it comes to virtually harassing journalists." -- La Nación investigative editor Hugo Alconada Mon

“I would say — joking about that — that I’m the Roger Federer of insults on Twitter. The number one,” he said in a recent seminar with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “From the right and the left wing, missiles were thrown over my head.”

Attempts to dig into the past of Argentina’s controversial new president, Javier Milei, an “anarcho-capitalist” who toted a chainsaw on the campaign trail as a symbol of the economic policies he would slash, have not been much more successful.

Milei came to office promising to be tough on the press: Among his pledges, a plan for the privatization of Argentina’s state-owned media outlets. True to his word, his government shuttered Télam, the country’s largest press agency, in March.

Reporters Without Borders has warned that Milei’s “violent verbal attacks against any critical journalist pose a threat to respect for media freedom in Argentina.” The organization’s latest World Press Freedom Index ranked the country 66th, an alarming 26-point drop from a year ago. The press climate, Alconada Mon puts it bluntly, is hostile.

Javier Milei, an “anarcho-capitalist” who toted a chainsaw on the campaign trail as a symbol of the economic policies he would slash

“President Milei, he is going much further than his predecessors when it comes to virtually harassing journalists,” Alconanda Mon explained. “He is celebrating attacks [on the press] by trolls on social media, liking or retweeting their attacks. He is also avoiding journalists and blocking journalists on his own Twitter.”

Alconada Mon was likewise blocked by the president last July, and despite making requests for an interview with someone from the president's camp — before the election, and since Milei took office last December — he is still waiting.

Targeting public media in a country like Argentina, he said, risks leaving large swaths of the country in a media desert, starving for accountability reporting on local officials. “If he is able to shut the public media down there will be millions of Argentinians without any kind of access to information,” Alconada Mon warned, together with the loss of “great journalists, reporters, working in public media all over the country.”

Cuts to state advertising in private media outlets could also create an existential issue for some, he warned.

“Argentina is under a very long recession that has been here for the last decade, at least," he added. "It's been a period in which private advertisers are decreasing, media subscribers are not increasing as much as is needed. In that situation, if Milei is also cutting public advertising in private media outlets… It’s a real problem.”

Milei’s government has outright accused public media platforms of being “propaganda” outlets, and critiqued a system that uses public money for journalism. Critics have characterized his moves against the public media as a "step backward" for democracy and freedom of expression.

But having weathered two decades of the highs and lows that come with investigating the powerful, Alconada Mon has some suggestions for reporters on dealing with government hostility to the investigative reporting corps, staying safe, and making sure your stories are heard. 

Give Your Peers a Heads-up Before a Big Story Drops

After months, and even sometimes years, spent on an investigation, Alconada Mon makes sure during the final reporting stages that he connects with colleagues in rival newspapers, the radio, and television, to give them a heads up on a story. That serves two purposes: if there is any sort of credibility attack against him once the investigation is published, reporters know they can ring him to talk about it. It also strengthens the pick-up of the story. “Any time we are about to publish a sensitive investigation I call some colleagues to anticipate what we were doing," he explained. "Giving them the preview with a particular topic and revelations of our investigation, offering to appear on their TV or radio shows, asking them to call me if someone tries to deny everything, or accuses me of whatever — you have my phone, call me.”

Javier Milei, after being declared the winner of the runoff election.

Create a Network to Build Your Own Safety Net

While investigative reporters are competing in some senses, it is also important to remember what unites you. While it takes effort, networking means you have a greater safety net, Alconada Mon said, speaking of the creation of a national alliance of investigative journalists that formed recently. “The idea is to help each other,” he explained. “Yes, we are competing one against the other, but we are also trying to be not alone in our roles — lone wolves. But say: If you are facing a problem, call us. If you have something you cannot compete on your own, call us. If you are being threatened, call us.”

He said connecting with people in the national press forum, FOPEA, the Gabo Foundation in Colombia, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, also helped when he came under attack for a story. “What I’m trying to say is I’m trying to build my own safety net and a sense of community. So when a storm hits I have plenty of telephones to call to ask for help,” he added.

Build Connections — Even Across Borders — Wherever You Can

In countries experiencing worsening press freedom, it can also help to work with colleagues and partners abroad. “Try to circumvent the borders or the limitations that you face,” said Alconada Mon, advising reporters to work on alliances with local or international media outlets. “What is your goal? Your goal is to spread the news, if you cannot do it on your own try and get help from other outlets, other colleagues. In our case sometimes we, a group of colleagues, publish stories that friends of ours were not able to publish in their own outlets or their own countries. In other situations, we publish stories simultaneously in 10 different countries just to circumvent the limitations.”

Play With the Opportunities That Digital Platforms and Social Media Gives You

Although he admits to struggling with recent attempts to master TikTok, Alconada Mon said it's important to try and reach audiences across as many different platforms as possible — using all the tools you have to land a story with the audience. Social media platforms can also help reporters “circumvent the limitations — political, or economic,” he said.

“What we must do is work… Let’s do journalism, they are going to insult us. Threaten us. Maybe try to get us into court. Let’s do our job." — Hugo Alconada Mon

“The ideal situation is to have a wonderful website to publish the entire story,” he noted. “You don’t have that? Then let’s use Twitter, Threads, Instagram, Facebook, and digital platforms like Telegram, WhatsApp, and LinkedIn. Every time I publish, I publish my story on all those social media and digital platforms. Sometimes I get more views on Twitter than on La Nación's website. Sometimes I get people going to La Nación from Twitter. And something I never expected… You know what really drives readers to my articles? It’s not Twitter, it's Instagram Stories. It really amazed me. I found that usually I get more people flying to my articles from Instagram than Twitter or Threads.”

Remember ‘We Are at work, Not at War’

Pointing out that tensions between ruling administrations and the press are nothing new, and not confined in any way to a particular country, Alconada Mon highlighted “Collision of Power,” the 2023 book by the Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron on dealing with the administration of former US President Donald Trump. While Trump had openly declared a running war with the media — some of whom he labeled “enemy of the people” — Baron presented the relationship differently: “We are at work, not at war,” he said.

Echoing the message, Alconada Mon said: “What we must do is work… Let’s do journalism, they are going to insult us. Threaten us. Maybe try to get us into court. Let’s do our job. It’s not easy, sometimes it's not nice. Sometimes your family suffers, and you keep going. But you have to do it in a smart way.”

Watch the full Reuters Institute webinar with Hugo Alconada Mon below. 

Laura Dixon GIJN Associate Editor

Laura Dixon is a senior editor at GIJN and a freelance journalist from the UK. She has reported from Colombia, the US, and Mexico, and her work has been published by The Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. She has received fellowships from the IWMF and the Pulitzer Center.

This article first appeared on Global Investigative Journalism Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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