Independent Media in an Authoritarian State: Making a Dream Come True

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My name is Kitty Sanders. I’m the chief editor of “Visión Independiente” newspaper. Today I would like to talk to you about organizing an independent news agency in a country where all such agencies are under full control of the government.

In my lifetime I have worked in many countries, from Russia to Brazil. I have had experiments with all kinds of journalism as well, including some dangerous and extreme research topics (my latest book, “Carne”, is based on my years-long research into such forbidden subjects as illegal immigration, adult industry, drug trafficking, and the role of the state in the criminal world and the shadow economy. In my research I had to infiltrate the world of night clubs and other dens and lairs of not very nice people, for only there was I able to find glimpses of understanding as to the workings of this world, its relations to a government and the reason it is both shaded and shady. I am now living in Argentina, I have finished this research, and now I work on finalizing the final draft of the book, preparing it for publication. I don’t own a business or a bank account except for virtual ones (such as PayPal and Bitcoin): my foreigner status doesn’t allow me to become a part of the economic society here. I live off the fees I get for the articles I manage to publish, from the money I got from my first book, “Brotes Pisoteados”; my political projects are also sponsored by this money and by the donations of my supporters throughout the world.

I have to say that, for all its faults, Argentina compares quite favorably to, for instance, Russia, Belarus, Venezuela or Nicaragua. Its political and economic problems, however, are systemic. The government is corrupt and has a pronounced tendency towards totalitarianism. The office of the President bears a strong resemblance to monarchy – it is transferred from body to body with almost no relation to the needs and wishes of the people. Cristina Kirchner’s economic policies can, in my opinion, be safely listed among the most incompetent, stupid and ugly economic policies of the civilized world. To survive, Argentina is forced to borrow money – mostly from Russia and China, the two largest authoritarian, corrupt, etatist monster-states, covering the world with their foul shadow, giving support to the most nefarious forces in various countries – the socialists in some, the nationalists in others. Argentina is no different – its two partners have great influence over it, and along with the money its government borrows deeply of their policies, tightening its choke on the economic and civil liberties of its people.

Naturally, for this to be so the government needs a functional and effective propaganda machine. Argentina had invited one of the main Russian propaganda forces – Russia Today – to build such a machine for its uses, and is consistently destroying oppositionist media. Fortunately, this cannot be done as directly as in Russia or in China – at least not yet – because the system, founded by Juan Perón, is a populist one, and cannot simply shut down the newspapers and radio stations; this would come into direct conflict with the official stand of “government supporting all people’s initiatives”. Thus, the liquidation of the really oppositionist, really dangerous media is carried out with an oblique approach: using the institutionalized unions and the centralized state-controlled and state-sponsored media. In addition, the private businesses are being oppressed and terrorized, they are strangled by impossible taxes and have to cope with the constant threat of “nationalization”; for the oppositionist media this means no reliable source of advertisement – their readers, frightened of interfering in “anti-government conspiracies” may simply refuse to buy them. Last but not least is the factor of leftist discourse which completely dominates the minds of the populace – most people are so brainwashed, their reaction to such words as “market”, “libertarianism” and even “center-right politics” is quite extreme; they have been taught to fear the market would destroy their livelihood, and their only protection against such a disaster is socialism.

So now we finally come to what this all comes to. One of the country’s unions controls the work of newspaper distributions, including the selling thereof in stalls and booths. One cannot simply come to a stall owner and ask him to sell one’s newspaper – it must arrive via the union distribution system; any other means are outside the law. Now, the union fees for this ‘service’ come to 32% of the sale. Another 32% are the standard fee of the stall owner. Thus, unless you set the newspaper price unreasonably high, you will go bust very swiftly (remember: you have no income from placing ads!).

Of course, you can always try to get the state to support you. For this you will pay with your content – you will no longer be an oppositionist, you will have to support either socialists… or other socialists… or left radicals… or center-left…. you get the idea.

Truth be told, there is another way of distributing the newspaper, even if only in Buenos Aires. You can hire the homeless people to sell it on the streets. Unfortunately, this way is almost exclusively leftist – the young left-minded bums who failed to get state-financed, combine their lofty talks about the good of the people and the selfless fight against exploitation with paying pennies to the sick and hungry homeless of the capital for selling their leftist trash. Justly afraid to lose even that source of income, the homeless almost never agree to sell the oppositionist newspapers. (They are also afraid of direct physical assault, and justly so – the ultra-left hoodlums have already attacked Ricardo Lopez Murphy and tried to storm the hotel hosting Foro Buenos Aires; they would think nothing of attacking a homeless man who dares to sell the ‘wrong’ kind of newspapers).

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At any rate, my original goal was to create a newspaper which would have nothing at all to do with the state. My experience in this area was limited to Russia, and it was more of a rehearsal than a real attempt at a serious, widely circulated newspaper. I have more experience with online media (I own and support two internet sites, my articles are published in several online resources); unfortunately, Argentina is rather backward in this: paper-based, ‘real’ newspapers are a dominant force here. I began with gathering a high-quality contingent of writers who support the free economy, stand against socialism, or belong to libertarian circles. I then found some sponsors among the businessmen and politically keen people displeased with the way the country is run. The next step was finding a good publishing agency and a designer (the latter drew a really funny caricature for the first issue of the newspaper). As for the distribution…

First thing I tried was turning to the funds or organizations promoting free economy and civil liberties. Some of them agreed to sell the newspaper – for which I was grateful, though it was far from enough: there are but a few such funds and Buenos Aires is a huge, sprawling metropolis; it is doubtful many people would suffer an hour and a half of underground or traffic just to buy my newspaper.

Some of my friends and colleagues bought a few copies each in order to give or sell it around. This had a distinct feeling of samizdat*, which I did not like. And then an inspiration struck.

I have decided to turn to the foreign students, citizens of other Latin American countries. I reasoned thus: they are always in need of money – they did, after all, come to Argentina, where education, although free, is of deplorably low quality compared, for instance, to Chile and Colombia – so they would hardly say ‘no’ to a small additional income. My knowledge of Buenos Aires came to my aid: I have lived in various districts of the city and, having also collaborated with the oppositionist right-center PRO party, I had a good idea of where to look for the people who may be interested in buying “Visión Independiente”. The rest was relatively easy. I talked to my acquaintances among the Venezuelan and Colombian diaspora, most of which is anti-communist anyway, and found a few pretty girls in need of money. We printed the name of the newspaper on T-shirts and caps, and off they went to sell “Visión Independiente” in the places I have chosen. I paid them well, by the way; they got 50% of the income – which, for me, was still much better than agreeing to go the union way (64% income loss plus the indirect losses due to carelessness of their deliveries and salespeople who lose, drop or destroy them; not to mention the direct and indirect censorship).

Many of these girls have to live on 2000 Argentinian pesos per month. This is not nearly enough for almost anything – a tiny stipend grudgingly given by the socialist state in order to humiliate them and force them to poverty. I have seen this in many countries – from Russia and Belarus to Brazil and Venezuela: socialism’s ultimate goal is to put a man on his knees and keep him that way, make him fully dependent on the giveouts. The foreign students in the countries where the socialism is aggravated by nationalistic tendencies, i.e. where a foreigner has no right to make a living, are even worse off.

Thus, the additional income of 500-750 pesos from selling 100-150 copies of a newspaper is a significant improvement for these girls; they can save and buy clothes, shoes, better food. They sell fast – it is difficult to say ‘no’ to a pretty girl batting her lashes at you. And by paying them 50% I made them feel like partners, not hired help – thus keeping them honest. In addition, working for a rightist newspaper they participate in a fight against socialism and etatism, become true ‘freedom fighters’ – this, understandably, is almost as important to them as the money.

Now, the 2nd issue of the newspaper presented a new challenge. It was larger and heavier – both in weight and in content. I have invited not only the Argentinian columnists, but also several specialists from Columbia and Paraguay. The girls undertook selling of significantly less copies than before: not only was each copy heavier, thus making it difficult for them to carry around, but the paper looked ‘too serious’ and thus less attractive. Even though it featured a satirical column by Mr. Bugman, a famous Argentinian stand-up comedian, the girls were afraid they would not be able to sell too many copies.

I had to find a new approach. My new book, “Carne”, gave me an original idea: my research into the shadow economy of the adult industry brought me to make the acquaintance of various prostitutes, models and dancers in Buenos-Aires.

It is an unfortunate fact that many Argentinian young women are forced into prostitution simply because they have no other means of supporting themselves in this socialist paradise. Rape statistics in the country are horrible, especially among the illegal immigrants, fleeing the state-driven drug cartel of Evo Morales or Maduro’s repressions. These girls are not under any kind of police protection, they are frightened and poor, their ‘services’ cost between 20 and 80 pesos (compare this to the price of some common foodstuffs if you will: a chicken costs 90-100 pesos, a carton of milk 20 pesos, a carton of orange juice 30 pesos). They are often raped by their clients, or refused payment; quite often they are single mothers, because the abortion clinics are illegal except for special circumstances – and rape pregnancies not included. Thus, there is a huge sub-populace of almost two million women in the capital who are forced to live in poverty and are in no way protected by the state; they live in Villas — the criminal districts similar to the Brazilian Favelas; they work for peanuts, without contracts, permits or guarantees of any kind.

Of course, life is not much better for many Argentinian women… Born poor they have almost no chances of living a normal life, and turn to prostitution as a means to improve the income and feed the children. Some of them move to Chile where, it being a capitalist state, they earn about 7-10 times as more as in Argentina. These are few and far between – most remain where they are.

So what I did was walk the streets, talk to some of these girls and offered them to sell my newspaper. They were reluctant at first. Not only did this mean a significant change in their schedule and behavior (they work at night and hide from the police), but they also had to change their image: leopard-printed leggings, impossibly high heels and thrust-out boobs are hardly what would sell a rightist, human-rights-centered newspaper, nor would potential buyers feel at ease talking to them. So I started with only one Paraguayan girl who, fortunately for me, was young and passionate about her life and desired to break out of her degrading routine. She earned 400 pesos on her first day as a saleswoman, which allowed her to buy her daughter a toy and fill her fridge with good food for three days. “Working with you makes me no longer hungry, I’m less afraid of the future,” she said. I can’t think of a better praise for an employer.

There is much to be done yet – lots of hard work and thorny challenges lie ahead. We will have to increase the circulation, spread to the outlying districts and maybe even to rural areas. Already, however, I am proud to say that, even though a foreigner, having no rights and oppressed by the socialist economic dictatorship, I was able to do more for many girls than the state ever could: I gave them work and a sense of belonging, of doing something important, of being human again. One for the good guys, indeed!

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* The word samizdat comes from USSR and means the underground printing or copying and distribution of forbidden literature. This was a dangerous game – even the reading of such books could mean prison time. The circulation was, of necessity, small, and the contents quite marginalized.

Kitty Sanders, 2015

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