After far-right economist Javier Milei won Argentina’s presidency on Sunday night, it didn’t take him long to set his sights on the media.
“Public television has become a propaganda mechanism,” he told journalist Eduardo Feinmann of Radio Mitre in his first interview on Monday morning. “[…] I don’t believe in those practices of having a covert propaganda ministry. It must be privatised.”
Milei won Sunday’s presidential run-off election with 56% of the vote. His opponent Sergio Massa, economy minister and candidate for the ruling centre-left Union for the Homeland coalition, got 44%. Massa’s defeat came as Argentina suffers through a drawn-out economic crisis: inflation is running at 143% and just over 40% of the population are living in poverty. Neither the current ruling alliance nor the right-wing administration that preceded it have been able to turn things around.
In this context, the libertarian’s victory is a shocking rejection of politics as usual – but his election has been hotly controversial in Argentina. Milei is an outsider whose brash, abrasive populism has drawn comparisons with far-right former presidents Donald Trump in the USA and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. He enjoyed a vertiginous rise to the limelight as an eccentric TV pundit espousing ultra-libertarian views, and had never held elected office until he was voted in as a deputy in 2021. As president, he promises to dollarize Argentina’s economy, liberalise gun controls, privatise healthcare and hold a referendum on abortion, which was legalised in 2020.
As he surged to the forefront of national politics, Milei shouted at reporters, refused to do interviews with critical outlets and accused the media of lying. Online, his supporters insulted and harassed journalists, activists, women, LGBTQAI+ people and anyone else who spoke against their leader.
Now, faced with four years of a Milei presidency, onlookers worry his coalition will move to silence critical media, intimidate dissenting voices and embolden elements of the extreme right who deny the atrocities committed by Argentina’s last civic-military dictatorship.
Lucas “Fauno” Gutiérrez, a queer, HIV-positive activist and journalist, is already receiving thousands of hate messages from hordes of pro-Milei trolls on his social media, and fears the situation will worsen when he takes office. “Once they’ve installed that hate speech, we communicators think twice before saying many things,” he said. “You don’t always have the emotional momentum to deal with 700 messages attacking, insulting and threatening you.”
Some of the most disturbing threats involve Argentina’s last dictatorship. Under the military junta that ruled the country from 1976-1983, 30,000 people were disappeared, tortured and murdered, many of them thrown alive from aeroplanes into the River Plate in the “death flights”.
The scale of the violence and the difficulties reporting disappearances mean it’s impossible to reach an exact figure, but the number of victims is widely accepted by human rights groups in Argentina. However, Milei’s vice president-elect, Victoria Villarruel, campaigns on narratives that seek to play down and exonerate atrocities committed by the security forces. She has repeated the denialist claim that the true number of victims is far lower, a statement Milei echoed during a televised presidential debate. A lawyer by training, she has defended former members of the security forces accused of crimes against humanity. Before his death, she also visited former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla in jail.
In this context, some Milei supporters have taken to threatening those they disagree with by sending them photos of green Ford Falcons with no licence plates – the vehicle the dictatorship’s security forces used to abduct their victims.
“The green Ford Falcon means endorsing the disappearance, torture and extremely violent death of all those who opposed the dictatorship,” said Beatriz Busaniche, president of the human rights and technology foundation, Vía Libre. She described Milei and Villarruel’s denialism as “re-legitimising” discourse that was widely discredited in Argentine society.
“There’s been a retreat of public discourse,” she said. “The sphere of public debate has become so aggressive that many people have started to lock their accounts and leave social media.”
Despite his promises, it is not clear whether Milei would be able to privatise Argentina’s public media, because doing so would require changing the law that governs them, explained Agus Lecchi, secretary general of the SiPreBA journalists’ union, who works for Argentina’s Televisión Pública. That means it would have to pass through Argentina’s congress. Milei’s Freedom Advances coalition will not have a majority in either the deputies or the senate.
Nonetheless, Argentina’s public media have come under fire from hostile governments before: in 2018, right-wing President Mauricio Macri’s administration attempted to lay off 68 journalists at the state news agency, Télam, although all were reincorporated after a labour court found their dismissals to be illegal.
“TV Pública plays a fundamental role for Argentine democracy, not just with regard to pluralist information, but also in terms of coverage of situations across the country,” Lecchi said. “In some corners of the country, TV Pública, National Radio or [state news agency] Télam are all they receive.”
While his comments on Monday took aim at Argentina’s state-owned media, Milei would also have tools in his arsenal to pressure private media. Many Argentine outlets, especially small local and independent media, rely largely on state advertising revenue to stay afloat. Politically-motivated allocation of this budget can exert pressure on the media.
Gutiérrez believes that major social media platforms like Meta and X (formerly Twitter) have a duty to stop hate speech, but worries that they often hold back because the floods of abuse he receives drive engagement. “My emotional life, my mental health and our freedom of expression can’t be subordinated to engagement,” he said.
In October, the government passed the “Olympia Law”, which recognises digital attacks such as doxxing, revenge porn and threats or harassment as a form of gender-based violence. If enforced, its proponents hope it would serve to dissuade some of the worst online attacks. However, Milei has already said that he plans to shut down Argentina’s Ministry of Women, Gender and Diversity, along with most other government ministries.
A bill currently under discussion in Congress also aims to prevent people who deny the dictatorship’s crimes from holding public office, but with the change of government in less than three weeks, it’s unclear whether the bill will become law.
To Busaniche, faced with a president who many say represents antipolitics, the first line of defence could be politics itself. “Congress will oblige him to negotiate,” she said. “Unlike what many Milei voters might expect, the importance of politics will be central.”