Argentina has found an effective way of stifling independent inflation data — fining economists who question the official government statistics. Ed Stocker reports.
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In Argentina, inflation is never far from the media agenda. Primetime news channels endlessly debate the monthly rises in the canasta básica — the basic monthly family shopping basket — and the apparent divergence from official statistics.Expressing contrasting views about the level of inflation in the country has become a divisive issue, highlighted by the decision of Internal Commerce Secretariat to fine several companies in April over their price-rise data.Companies fined include Estudio Bein & Asociados, Finsoport, M&S Consultores and GRA Consultoras, as well as Graciela Bevacqua, a former employee of Indec, the state organisation charged with gathering statistics.

The secretariat claimed companies were being fined for publishing information that lacked “scientific rigour”, adding that if it was broadcast by media organisations it could “lead to error, deception or confusion”.

Miguel Kiguel, a former economist for the World Bank and head of the Econviews financial consultancy, received a fine of AR$500,000 (£73,000) for his forecast.

Speaking to Index on Censorship, he said: “This whole episode [fine] is surprising. The process is based on fair commerce laws that don’t apply to professional services and misleading advertising –– but we don’t carry out any type of advertising.

“It’s a way of scaring professionals who suggest that inflation is higher than the figures published by Indec.”

Asked if the government’s actions amounted to a freedom of expression violation, he replied: “Effectively these fines limit freedom of expression. The whole case is based on public declarations that I made in newspapers and on the radio. It is very worrying that one can receive very high fines for expressing one’s opinion on inflation and monetary policy.”

Last Thursday (28 April) members of the Internal Commerce Secretariat defended their decision to impose fines. El Cronista Comericial, a newspaper that had previously questioned the reasons behind the fines, published an article by Internal Commerce national director Fernando Carro and Graciela Peppe, entitled “The truth will make us free”.

In the article they wrote: “One cannot assume that the resolutions behind the fines violate rights guaranteed by the National Constitution… Claiming that the fines infringe constitutional rights has no basis.” They added that suggesting government actions were an act of censorship showed a “profound confusion”.

The article continued: “From the ongoing investigation it has been possible to prove that the levels [of inflation] ascertained and disseminated by the firms that have been punished are little more than an artificial invention, based on reflections lacking the smallest hint of reliability.”

Earlier this year Indec published its figures for 2010, stating that inflation for the year was 10.9 per cent. Other economists suggest the unofficial figure is closer to 25 per cent.

Last April a group of pro-government activists interrupted the launch of a new book criticising Indec at Buenos Aires’ annual Feria del Libro (Book Fair). Gustavo Noreiga’s Indek: historia íntima de una estafa (Indek: the intimate story of a fraud) criticises the running of the statistics body, claiming President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner exercises political control over it.