Media and gay marriage in Argentina


Leer en español. BUENOS AIRES - The heated debate over Argentina's controversial new law permitting gay marriage once again revealed media's shortcomings and defects in their coverage of religious actors in society.

Argentina's Senate approved the law on July 15, ending a legislative process begun in 2009 and making Argentina one of just 10 countries worldwide that recognize gay marriage.

This novel project, backed firmly and persistently by groups defending the rights of homosexuals, was picked up by various political parties. The historic nature of the law prompted current deputy and former president Néstor Kirchner to cast the one and only vote he has ever cast as a legislator.

Kirchner's action is revealing, since his wife Cristina Fernández, the sitting president of the country, forced all Senators in her party to vote in favor of the law. Fernández's move prompted backlash in the party and parliament over the loss of free conscience on this issue.

Kirchner's decision should also be taken in the context of the family's conflict-prone relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, which in Argentina remains a conservative social presence. Kirchner has used the battles with the Church to strengthen his position in urban and progressive sectors.

The Catholic Church stayed out of the gay-marriage debate until June, when the matter reached the floor of the Senate. Other churches made their opposition to the law clear much earlier. The most prominent opposition came from evangelical federations, such as the Argentine Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches (ACIERA) and the Evangelical Pentecostal Brotherhood (FECEP), which together speak for a majority of non-Catholic churches in Argentina.

Evangelicals' combative attitude, along with public protests in April and May cemented their place as the primary antagonists in the media storyline.

With few exceptions - one of which was the country's second-most influential daily La Nación - the media fell back on stereotypes and prejudices in their coverage of religious groups and especially evangelicals. The media, predictably, was favorable to the positions of the pro-gay camp.

La Nación, which published two editorials opposed to the law, has historically remained close to the conservative establishment.

Its counterpart, Página/12 is leftist and pro-Kirchner, and the paper was militant in its support for the law. The coverage in Página/12 was very negative toward the evangelical position, except for those churches and pastors that supported the law.

The most interesting and unique case is that of the highly influentia, multi-media Clarín group, which had been the nemesis of the Kirchner administration but chose to side with the presidential family on this issue. The Clarín group gave positive coverage to the homosexual sector across all of its media platforms, including its newspaper (Clarín, the country's larges daily), Canal 13 (largest network in Argentina), and "Todo Noticias" ("All the News", the country's main news program). Pro-gay groups were given wide latitude in all these mediums to present their case free of criticism.

Religious sectors, by contrast, were the target of accusations and were painted as prudish and fanatical.

The picture was far different, however, in media based in the interior of the country away from Buenos Aires. In the non-Buenos-Aires media, coverage of those opposed to the law was far more positive.

One vivid example of the differences in coverage came during the Catholic-evangelical protest of 13 July in front of the Congress. Some 60,000 citizens participated, according to the main dailies outside Buenos Aires.

TV America 24's reporter, however, said there were "15,000 marchers". Channel 7, the state's TV network, didn't even send a reporter or camera crew to cover the march. Most media outlets did not broadcast the content of a single document from the gathering, though many were read aloud by protesters. Most media outlets simply showed a few pictures of the event.

In media's never ending search for conflict and tensions that will attract an audience, they pigeonholed the religious camp as the primary opposition to the law.

As Catholic lawyer Juan Navarro Floria said, an extreme interpretation of the doctrine of separation of church and state - which was one of the key arguments of leftist and pro-gay groups - makes the claim that religion has to be reduced to something strictly private, with no place in the public debate.

"Free expression is a right of everyone, including those who make vile attacks against religious belief," Floria said, "but not to the adherents of the religions themselves. "Churches and religious communities should be excluded from the debate and disqualified a priori, this camp says."

"Those with anti-religious ideas are very active, are economically power and have free access to mass media," Floria continued. "This makes legislators worry that, if they echo the voices of those who want to keep the religious perspective in the debate, they will somehow be attacked or stigmatized for doing so. And that's how we end up with laws that pass against the will of the majority of Argentinians."

It is important also to note that some of the church-group and religious spokespersons were also intolerant and closed off to dialog during the run up to the vote on the law, but these were a minority. And an intolerant few are not sufficient basis to argue that religious beliefs must then be excluded from the debate.

The arguments and tensions among media, religious and anti-religious activists will not end anytime soon. If anything, the debates over religion, media and the public square are set to intensify.

This is because next up on the legislative agenda are the legalization of abortion and gender discrimination in Argentina.