Freedom of speech is occupying the minds of many at this moment in history. At the national level, President-Elect Donald Trump has tweeted that burning the American flag should be faced with “perhaps loss of citizenship or a year in jail” and that he’s going to “open up libel laws” to go after news organizations that print unflattering stories about him — both clear contradictions to the protections offered by the First Amendment. Closer to home, we’ve run into questions about freedom of speech on the University of Oregon campus with the recent controversy sparked by a law professor who wore blackface as part of a Halloween costume.
At the UO School of Journalism and Communication, freedom of expression and the press is a topic that always holds great interest for students and faculty. In November, we had the chance to meet someone who had dealt with attacks on freedom of the press that hit a whole different level when Javier Borelli, president of the Buenos Aires newspaper Tiempo Argentino, visited the SOJC to tell the story of a recent attack on his newspaper in Argentina and the pains that have come with recovery. It was a story I became all too familiar with during my study-abroad experience in Argentina last summer.
A violent attack
The tale that Borelli told to a packed lecture room in Allen Hall was not just timely, but also full of action and intrigue.
A gang of 16 men rushed into the Tiempo Argentino newsroom after midnight on July 4, 2016, just a few days after my fellow UO students and I had visited Buenos Aires. They smashed computers, ripped wires out of the walls and erected barricades. They forcibly ejected the reporters on night watch, some bleeding as they hit the street outside.
“They tried to interrupt our communication and service,” Borelli said. “They wanted to keep us from the streets and the public, so it imposed on our freedom of speech.”
When the police arrived, they did not stop the gang. In fact, they barred reporters and workers from entering the building, allowing the men to do further damage. When the police finally did act, they took the attackers’ names, arrested no one and drove the gang leaders away from the scene so they could disappear into the early hours of the morning.
The newspaper had been, reportedly, sold in January of that year to a business owner named Mariano Martínez Rojas, who has a questionable past that includes accusations of business fraud. Until the night of the attack, the workers, who started a cooperative called Por Más Tiempo to keep the paper running, hadn’t been paid — a full six months.
The attack, however, did not have its intended effects. The next day, the publication came out with a special edition headlined “Fierce Attack on Tiempo Argentino,” a story that boosted the publication’s sales and national recognition.
An international problem
Borelli visited the SOJC to internationalize the story of the attack and to learn from UO faculty about digital editorial and business opportunities for his paper.
It had been more than three months after the newspaper was attacked, but the way Borelli spoke about the incident reflected the extent to which it still occupies his mind.
We saw pictures of telephone lines that had been ripped apart, walls that had been destroyed, injuries workers had sustained — all efforts by the gang members “to destroy our ability to publish,” as Borelli said in a podcast recorded by the UO’s UNESCO Crossings Institute.
As I sat and listened to Borelli’s passionate talk, I thought about Argentina and all I had experienced there and learned about the country’s dynamic history. I remembered interviewing a woman whose son Osvaldo was kidnapped by the military dictatorship 40 years ago and was never seen again. Because of what I had learned in Argentina, I was able to hear Borelli’s story in the context of the politically divided history that preceded it.
My fellow SOJC student, Nathan Stevens, recalls Borelli’s message as one of hope and perseverance in the face of tragedy. Journalism, he says, is in a strange position right now, and the co-op structure that Borelli has adopted at his paper can benefit smaller news industries.
I sensed the hope that Borelli maintained after this incident too. To me, when freedom of speech is second-guessed or under attack, journalism itself seems less promising as an avenue to change the world for good. But listening to his talk and seeing his paper’s recovery reassured me of the profession’s resilience.
Far-reaching effects on freedom
The ramifications of an incident like this go beyond Argentine borders, especially now. Mass media have transformed the world into what renowned media theorist Marshall McLuhan once called a global village. Technological advances since McLuhan’s time have further shrunk that village, making information more easily accessible than ever. We media professionals in the U.S. and Argentina share the benefits that come with these changes, but we also share the grief of seeing those benefits taken away.
The fact that Tiempo Argentino’s president was speaking to classmates of mine, in a lecture hall I had sat in for journalism courses, forced me to realize that this wasn’t a problem they should cope with alone. The issue of an attack on freedom of speech is something we are now facing even in our own country. And many of us felt an obligation to help, as we should.
When government officials don’t show support to a newsroom after a brutal attack and police are casual about freedom of speech and safety violations, the consequences are not necessarily immediate or direct. Although more than 6,000 miles separate our newsrooms, we must feel the pains of this attack too, as storytellers who, with common goals, make up one global village.
As Borelli said, “An attack on freedom of speech anywhere is an attack on freedom of speech everywhere.”
How we can help
When Borelli was asked how we on this side of the globe can help, he told us that we must continue to build awareness about this recent attack. We also need to transcend our industry’s competitive mindset so we can build strong connections with journalists from different networks and companies.
In this, we can follow the example of Tiempo, which has embraced cooperation in the face of a corrupt business model. Now, more than ever, we journalists must be able to depend on each other for joint solutions. After all, our freedom is at stake.