The prominent Argentine journalist Jorge Elías, a specialist in international politics, in this interview with ReporteAsia, gives us his point of view on increasingly central issues: freedom of expression and disinformation.
This talk is given in the framework of the analysis of the BGMF (Beijing Global Media Footprint) report on Argentina that was published by Freedom House, an internationally recognized entity for its commitment to the dissemination of democratic values and the study of phenomena related to fake news and international propaganda. In this report, following the guidelines of its development, it was found that Beijing’s influence in general terms in the Argentine media and social networks in Argentina has been high in recent years, although it is also established that the resilience and local response is remarkable in the face of this influence, which is applied through different propaganda tools whose objective is to generate an unequivocally positive image of the Chinese Communist Party and its flat gesture, with no room for additional questions, doubts or concerns about the veracity of that information.
The interviewee, who traveled to China on two occasions (in 1997 and 2008), was a columnist on international politics for the newspaper La Nación for 25 years, until 2011, and for the program La Mañana, of Radio Continental, since 2007, among other media in Argentina and abroad. He was also a correspondent in the United States, with competence in Mexico and Canada, and covered elections, conflicts and wars in more than thirty countries. Between 2000 and 2009, he investigated crimes against journalists in the Southern Cone for the Inter American Press Association (IAPA). He has also held interviews with more than fifty presidents. He is also a member of the Institute of International Politics of the National Academy of Moral and Political Sciences and a consulting member of the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI).
In the case of China, which became Argentina’s second-largest trading partner in 2022, the existence of false information or propaganda campaigns related to the «Asian giant» is a fact that has been studied and registered worldwide. It is considered an example of the «soft power» exercised by different countries as strategies to boost their positive image and exalt their qualities of government and society, regardless of whether they are true or not.
This type of communication efforts seeks to anchor certain concepts and messages to influence their conception of China, the Chinese Communist Party, and other aspects of the Asian giant, such as its form of government and the economic results obtained in the last 20 years, as proof that social development is not only the property of the hegemonic democracies of the West and of capitalist economies. Embedded in all this is a cultural battle that accompanies trade wars and geopolitical strategies between different models and types of governance.
At the beginning of the dialogue with Elías, the arrival of Hu Jintao to Argentina in 2004 was taken as a milestone to analyze the last two decades of bilateral diplomatic relations, which will be 52 years old in 2024. Since the visit of Hu, who was scandalously and unexpectedly removed from the last of the closing ceremony of the Communist Party Congress in October 2022, a new relationship with the Asian Giant began to be built.
The growth of information about China
On the growth of the volume of information dedicated to China since then in the Argentine media, Elías considers that China is still perceived with a lot of distance from Argentina «Because it is international information taken from a distance. Little is known about China, we are completely different cultures. We are at the antipodes. This has to do with a relative influence. I would say that what happens inside China’s borders is not a priority in the information agenda. Because if it were, a country like Argentina, which is committed to human rights, would obviously be denouncing the violation of human rights there, the single party, the latent problems of Hong Kong and Taiwan, the persecution of ethnic minorities».
Furthermore, as the interviewee explains, in Argentina the political agenda gives priority to what is urgent and not what is important: «In the case of Argentina, what is urgent is the economic crisis, navel-gazing, the need for support or economic aid».
Therefore, although he agrees that there are specialists in Argentina who are highly trained and informed about China (especially in the academic field), he affirms that the information we receive about China is ‘distant’: «because there is a mother problem, which is that there are no Argentine correspondents in China, and even from other Latin American countries. This makes it very difficult to ‘sink our teeth’ into the reality of another country, in this case, another continent. I insist, on societies that reflect different cultures.»
«So, faced with single sources of information such as China and the hermeticism that characterizes Asian countries in general, it is very difficult to get out of this superficiality,» he added.
In this context, Elías is aware of the existence of attempts from Beijing to position pro-China narratives in the local media, «And to this, we must add a certain positioning in several media through trade agreements. That is to say, inserts from China are published here that are not necessarily political that speak of Chinese prosperity or a thriving middle class».
The issue of collaboration and information exchange agreements between Argentine and Chinese media a topic that Freedom House identified in its research- represents a phenomenon that the interviewee finds representative of a greater capillarity between the journalism of both countries, and which he analyzed from different points of view, although, as he said, these may not represent a greater impact of information referring to China in the local public opinion.
«Agreements between media are commercial and are conjunctural. This talking about public media. They increased during the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, they also increased and continued during the government of (Mauricio) Macri and lasted during the presidency of Alberto Fernández. About the private media, you have a wide spectrum of editorial lines, but in general, there is no ideological approach to China on their part», he said.
As he described, when the private media republish content offered from Beijing, they are pieces that do not have political content, pure and simple, but they cover mostly economic and social issues, «there is no lowering of the line as it could happen in other cases».
Lack of media receptivity
However, the Argentine journalist considers that it is important to evaluate what concrete impact this type of publication has on public opinion, «because I do not know to what extent people watch Telesur, or read an insert in a newspaper that talks (positively) about China or about how good or beautiful the Great Wall is».
In this context, he offers a concrete example of the lack of receptiveness of the Chinese media in local journalism and the competition of information on China with other international media: «In Argentina there is the Xinhua Agency and the question is: who consults it? There is an agreement with Télam and who downloads a cable from Télam speaking wonders about China? There is an agreement with Public Television and what material is there from China? We are even talking about free information, but what is the interest of the ordinary citizen who is dealing with other issues and who, if he was not worried about the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, Armenia, the Abraham agreements, the terrorist massacre in Israel by Hamas, Israel’s reply, etc.».
Likewise, these collaborations do not represent a danger in itself nor a potential channel for the dissemination of false information, because the local media, while publishing a paid insert, simultaneously in the international information section, whose data depends on news agencies or international media, reproduce what is happening politically and economically in China.
He also accepts that in Argentina there are media groups that have an interest in disseminating information originating in Beijing as if it were data corroborated by international agencies: «Then we can talk about militant journalism, if we go to the point. That is to say, those who defend to the hilt everything from the cultural revolution to the confinements during the pandemic in China, to the strategic alliance between Argentina and China, and so on. But that is not journalism», said the interviewee, clarifying that this type of information «is mostly propaganda, which is precisely the antithesis of journalism, which is to investigate, inform and entertain».
In these cases, he continued, what is imposed is the background of the imposition of a single discourse: «And of course, in this way, the taboo topic par excellence is avoided: don’t talk to me about the communist party or the regime, let’s just talk about the lifestyle of Chinese society».
Do you think that these narratives that may drive militant journalism or China’s, or China’s effort from Beijing may have receptivity in local public opinion?
I think more than anything China has had a positive impact, beyond militant journalism. Positive because, as a Democratic legislator in the United States said, «all politics is local» and in a certain way one sees the prosperity or presumed prosperity of China, of New York-style skyscrapers but in the middle of muddy alleys where snakes are sold as aphrodisiacs, and one is left with the skyscraper and says «well, let’s see, what is the virtue of these people? And that they fed the world’s largest population (although today surpassed by India). That is still a virtue».
Secondly, as Elías maintains, there is the official discourse on the part of the Argentine authorities on the goodness of a regime that is coupled with the production of journalism that does not criticize the Chinese model and only ponders its positive aspects, as happened with a former Argentine ambassador to China, Sabino Vaca Narvaja, «who seemed to be a Chinese ambassador in Argentina».
So,» Elías concludes, «there may be a relatively favorable image of China in the public opinion, but in the end, it is not a clear-cut opinion either».
How do you think journalism can improve its practices concerning reporting on China?
Training and information exchange. Obviously, in my opinion, nothing replaces face-to-face contact. Getting to know the reality of another country through a free professional performance. This cannot be done in China. The times I have traveled, if I did not go with one government, I went with another. And it is very difficult for an Argentine media to finance a stay in China or a trip. And it is also very difficult to access sources. That is to say, apart from the fact that people can tell you things (how they live and so on), when you want to access a government source it is a whole process and sometimes you can’t even get it, and that takes time.
«We have an abysmal difference in terms of time. What is urgent for us is patience for them. When we talk about oriental patience, we are not talking about a cliché. They are talking about the fact that it can take months to get an interview with a minister or a foreign minister, let alone the president. It can take years. And who is willing to take it and hold it? Who is interested? This is another fact,» he remarks.
Furthermore, he invites journalism to join the debate on China, considering that the discussion today goes through academic bodies: «I am part of the Institute of International Politics of the National Academy of Moral and Political Sciences and China is discussed. I am part of CARI, and China is discussed. But we are talking about diplomats, and economists, but not journalists. There are some journalists. We are learning all the time, it is not that one already has a finished idea and this is so because so and so says so».
Influence on the values of democracy
In some ways, China’s experience over the past 20 years stands in contrast to Argentina’s: while the Chinese governance model broke growth records for years, achieving outstanding developments in economic issues and growth of its society, Argentina saw its economic and social drive capabilities decline in many aspects, considering that poverty figures reached an alarming 40.1% in the second half of 2023 according to the government entity INDEC, in an inflationary context that exceeded 100% year-on-year (it is the third most inflationary economy in the world) in 2022-2023.
Do you think that perhaps the rise of government models such as China’s has any implications for this way of looking at democracy in this part of the world?
I don’t think so, because there is a long-standing dissatisfaction with democracy. That is to say, it exceeds the possibility of comparison. I insist you cannot compare a one-party regime with a nascent democracy. If we go to the case, in Argentina we are talking about 40 years of democracy, which in the eyes of the Chinese, are just a breath of wind.
Regarding the dissatisfaction with democracy, Elías prefers not to define an exact date when this phenomenon started in Argentina, but worldwide «I could say that it dates back to 2008 when the first outrage appeared in Iceland and then in Spain, which had a worldwide repercussion.
However, he states that he does not perceive a local attempt to copy the Chinese regime in an attempt to implement it locally: «That is to say, there may be spokespersons who say that in China there is a democracy – in China, there is no democracy, this is a reality, it is a one-party dictatorship where Human Rights are violated and where there is an imposition that is an imposition that is the result of the dictatorship. and where there is an imposition of a regime or a dominant party, which has positive facets in the eyes of the world (of certain sectors), but I have not seen, I do not see, except for some government spokesperson, anyone saying to you: «Look, the best thing that can happen to us is a cultural revolution and we have a single party».
The relationship ahead: 5G and political alignment
Argentina is going through a time of many changes. The arrival of President Javier Milei comes to challenge many of the truths on which the Argentine reality has been built until now. And one of them is the China issue. While previous governments, especially those of Peronist-Kirchnerist origin, tended to impose the idea that China had politically become a priority partner of Argentina, the new Administration proposes a re-foundation of the link, while relocating its political axis between the United States and Israel, according to the words of the President himself.
But as the Argentine journalist brings up, it should not be forgotten that China has not only entered the local economy through its efforts, but it is also the third largest partner of the International Monetary Fund, a creditor of the Argentine government for more than US$ 40 billion.
«To these, we must add other challenges that the relationship has ahead, related, for example, to the update of the telecommunications network in Argentina: «At some point, our country is going to have to install 5G. And this technology means choosing, and behind it is Huawei, which is the Chinese cell phone company».
Towards the end of the talk, we found it interesting to know Elías’ opinion on the level of «awareness» about disinformation related to China in Argentina. His answer was categorical: information on China and the debate on that country in journalism is collateral in the local agenda, and the reading about the Asian Giant is, in general, superficial. He also warns about the growing importance of social networks and influencers over traditional media and about journalism.
«the news agenda is being renewed, because there is no longer that time for analysis that there was when the press was printed (I am not being nostalgic, but I used to work in a newspaper, and as an analyst, I had the whole afternoon to be able to make an analysis, pick up a phone, look for sources, ask questions. It wasn’t a Google search, it was looking for three, four, or five opinions, checking information. Then, what was published the following day, under my responsibility, had been rigorously checked, because it was also my requirement».
There is another fact, he clarifies, which in his opinion is a bit worrying, and that is that the media have been overtaken by social networks. «So today, anyone who has a social network account practically becomes a journalist. That distorts the trade, art or profession, or whatever you want to call it.»