Impunity in Print: How Argentine Newspapers Benefited from the Dictatorship

Since Argentina’s 1976-1983 dictatorship, the nation’s media laws and market have favored big corporations over independent media groups, leading to biased reporting. However, the wind has changed in the South American nation with the government taking on a number of initiatives to target corporate media in an attempt to democratize media ownership and access. Argentina’s government has moved to seize the nation’s only newsprint producer, Papel Prensa. The intervention into Papel Prensa is the latest in a two year old battle between the left-leaning government and the media corporation Clarín.

The clash between the government and Clarín has opened deep wounds left over from the bloody military junta which disappeared some 30,000 people. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner opened an investigation into the nation’s largest newspapers Clarín and La Nación to determine whether the newspapers should be charged with crimes against humanity. Specifically, the investigation will determine whether the news groups conspired with the military government to appropriate the newsprint company which is jointly held by Clarín, La Nación and the government.

The investigation was unveiled during a televised news conference in which President Fernandez de Kirchner broke 33 years of silence regarding Papel Prensa’s dark past and lack of government intervention. The investigation into Clarín’s purchase of a majority stake in Papel Prensa has revealed torture, arrests and other illegal actions to acquire the billion dollar company.

Human rights abuses

The controversy stems from the purchase of a majority stake in Papel Prensa from the Graiver family. The company was started up as part of a government-supported project for import substitution, a development plan to increase local production and reduce foreign dependency. During the 60’s import substitution became a regional trend, as countries wanted to rely less on imported products. Dictatorships throughout the region reversed this trend, shutting down industry and taking out heavy loans from foreign financial institutions.

David Graiver, a young businessman with ties to the left-leaning Peronist government bought 80 percent of the actions in Papel Prensa in 1973. Following the military coup on March 24, 1976 Graiver and his family left Argentina for Mexico. Graiver died in a suspicious plane accident in August 1976. Following his death, his widow Lidia Papaleo returned to Buenos Aires to organize the family assets and companies. By November of that somber year in which the systematic disappearances of dissidents grew to a head, Lidia Papaleo sold the printing press at 1 percent of its then estimated value. The dictatorship had accused Graiver and his family of having relations with the armed militant Peronist Montonero group.

According to Papaleo’s testimony in the investigation, the Graiver family sold the company in a secret meeting. Papeleo, Graiver’s brother and his mother were separated during the meeting and told to sign without consulting with one another. “The only person who I spoke to was a man from Clarín. He told me to sign the deal to protect my daughter’s life,” said Papeleo in a television interview. “I signed without knowledge of how much I was selling the company for. We didn’t know what we signed, and we never got a copy of what we were signing.”

During the following year, Lidia Papaleo and her family were kidnapped in March of 1977. The former share holder of Papel Prensa was tortured during her detention.

The family’s lawyer and right hand man of David Graiver, Jorge Rubinstein was kidnapped and tortured to death. The Human Rights Secretariat has opened charges against Dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, Former Navy Chief Emilio Massera, the former Economic Minister Jose Alfredo Martinez de Hoz and the former Industrial Secretary Raymundo Podesta who will face accusations of illegal detention, extortion, torture and murder in the case.

Clarin and the dictatorship

The director of Clarín, Ernestina Herrera de Noble inaugurated Papel Prensa along with then dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in 1978. Between sips of inaugural Champaign the military government conspired with the nation’s media to black out any reporting on the human rights abuses occurring at the time. The military guaranteed media holders record profits which in return promised support or at least silence over the matter of the kidnappings, clandestine detention centers, picana sessions on iron grids and death flights. The military government also took the silencing of the media into their own hands, disappearing 84 journalists and assassinating 12, which were among the long list of the nation’s 30,000 disappeared.

Clarín’s director Ernestina Herrera de Noble has also faced allegations that her two adopted children were born to victims of the dictatorship and appropriated by the media figure. The two children, now 34, have refused to undergo genetic testing as part of a criminal investigation opened in 2001. They are heirs to a $1 billion fortune. According to the human rights group Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo they are children of one of the disappeared and were illegally appropriated by Herrera de Noble whose family was close to the regime. The Grandmothers have sought the whereabouts of 500 children who were born while their mothers were held captive in clandestine detention centers and were later appropriated by the military or families with ties to the dictatorship.

Monopoly on Paper

The Clarín group has fervently defended its acquisition of Papel Prensa, accusing the government of a witch hunt and attacking freedom of press. The recent investigation has revealed that Papel Prensa has maintained a virtual monopoly on paper production and distribution. The entity produces 170,000 tons of newspaper print annually. Papel Prensa’s only competitor, Papel del Tucuman only produces 20,000 tons a year.

Since the Clarín group acquired Papel Prensa, more than 46 local newspapers have gone out of business, unable to pay the producers high prices or inflated imported paper from Russia, Finland or Chile. Any client other than Clarín pays 50 percent more for paper.  According to the testimony of a former director at Papel Prensa consequently fired, the firm would under produce so to cause a shortage of paper and increased prices for newspapers.

Impunity in print

Since Clarín and La Nación acquired Papel Prensa in March 1977, the company has operated with absolute impunity, never having to present documentation on how they purchased the company or their overpricing of paper. Human rights groups have accused the Clarín media group of acting as accomplices with the dictatorship and their crimes by refusing to report information on the human rights abuses that were reported to the United Nations. The dictatorship used a complex system of over 200 clandestine detention centers to torture and disappear dissidents before they were put on planes, drugged and dropped into the ocean in the death flights. In 1977, Clarín in its daily news paper compared the torture centers to spas.

How can the companies talk of freedom of press if there is any doubt if they conspired with the military dictatorship to build their media empires? Worse yet, the 27 thousand document investigation shows clear evidence that Clarín participated in the human rights abuses to gain control of the billion dollar paper press.

“We are a democratic country,” explained Estella Carlotto, president of the prestigious human rights group Grand Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. “We don’t have to be afraid of speaking out. The media can be voice carriers or they can hide the truth.” Freedom of press is not limited to lack of fear about reporting abuses, democracy requires media diversity and access to media outlets. Up until 2003, Clarín has benefited unrestricted media laws. As the nation revisits its painful past about how the dictatorship operated and its crimes against humanity, business owners who acted as accomplices will also undergo investigations.

Papel Prensa is a reminder that the dictatorship carried out human rights crimes not only to wipe out dissidents but also to put into place a neoliberal economic model. Clarín is just one company that benefited from market conditions which cost 30,000 activists, students, unionists, lawyers and journalists their lives. The question is how effective the human rights trials will be in ending long-standing impunity for the military but also the businesses and institutions which financed and profited from state terrorism.

Marie Trigona is an independent journalist, radio producer and translator based in Argentina. She can be reached through her blog,