This past weekend, political leaders from Europe, the United States and Latin America met in Chile for the Progressive Leaders Summit, but for the press, it might as well have taken place in the Antarctic. Most reporters got nowhere near the delegates, very few were allowed to ask questions, and even less were able to get an insider’s view of what was going on. Impossible. They were all cooped up in a corral far from the proceedings.
Armenian defense analyst and financial consultant Armen Kouyoumdjian, a long-time resident of Viña del Mar, the coastal city where the summit was held, was denied an invitation to attend the meeting. So he switched to Plan B and got press credentials, hoping to get an idea of what the Prime Ministers of Great Britain and Norway, the Vice President of the United States, and the presidents of Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile were actually talking about inside. He got the credentials, but not much else.
I am taking the liberty, with his authorization, of reproducing part of his amusing yet indignant account of what went on there:
“To this day I do not know which is the institution or person (s) directly responsible for organizing press and security arrangements for this summit, but may all the plagues of Egypt fall upon them for eternity.
At some stage, it was decided that the only potential danger that the delegates were exposed to was the press corps, so all the security concentrated on keeping journalists as far away from the proceedings as possible. This belies a total lack of understanding of what these gatherings were all about, and why many members of the international press travelled for 24 hours to be here.
A badly written 5-page set of instructions, if you read it carefully several times, brought you to the conclusion that unless you were a still or TV cameraman, you had no business being anywhere near the event. The fact that whatever is said in public could be watched online from a bed in Oslo or Timbuktu and would be common knowledge the next day, and that the real journalistic work at these events was to be able to informally address delegates, private or official, in the corridors and at coffee breaks, soak-in some atmosphere, etc. was totally alien to the organizers.
A prefab dome had been set up on the hotel car park, at least one hundred yards away and could not even be seen from the hotel due to a tree line. Inside, there were a lot of computers, though the signal often broke off, many screens froze and the keyboards were in bad conditions. There was supposed to be an image and sound feed from the conference, but that was not on until lunch time (and of course no facilities available to distribute copies of the speeches).
If there were toilet facilities, I did not see them. From time to time, a food and drink trolley arrived from the hotel, with a couple of coffee mugs. The first of these deliveries was not until 2 p.m. on the first day, by which time the press corps was getting frantic and those who had Chilean currency were relying on a private kiosk in the corner which did a roaring business. Sometimes it was accompanied by something to eat (small sandwiches, and at lunchtime the second day, Madeleine cookies, arguably a strange choice for lunchtime fare), but far less than our accumulated hunger needed. Journalists assaulted the few trays.
The Carabineros police in charge of security, when they saw your badge a mile away, would direct you straight to the fenced-in corral. Mind you, if you had a good story, and in typical local fashion, you could talk your way past them. A shabbily dressed young couple said they were going to use the hotel’s gym and were let through without even being asked for ID. Conference and summit delegates had a badge which said “Policy Network” (easily forgeable, I thought) and at no time was any attempt made to check that they were the rightful owners of that badge. Some journalists, obviously more “progressive” than others, had managed to be invited to the proceedings.
Some journalists who had made the trip with government leaders could not get anywhere near them inside the hotel. From time to time, some second division personality or official spokesman would deign to come over the fence and say a few words to those hacks lucky enough to be waiting patiently under a freezing foggy Viña del Mar autumn day.
Because it was in the open air, and windy, not to mention six feet away from a busy road nobody had thought of closing off, the only way you could hear the speaker was to be so close to him as to run the risk of being arrested for sexual assault. Some of those spokespeople for some reason refused to be photographed.
Occasionally, some journalists managed to arrange an interview inside the hotel by telephone, but when they tried to actually go in to record it, they were not let through. I witnessed the episode when the press secretary of British minister and Policy Network president Peter Mandelson went to fetch a team from Sky News from the press corral.
The carabineros said that only some “liaison” ladies from the organisers (they were only two of them) had the right to escort them in, and none of them could be found. Strangely, as the (authorised) Economist correspondent was walking by, the cops told her to take them in (obviously a senior ministerial servant has less clout than a weekly magazine, as long as they are both British, of course). I saw many other cases of totally arbitrary decisions as to who got in.
After several hours of playing the paparazzo, I suddenly realised that notwithstanding the harassment of the press, the navy commandos patrolling the sea opposite the Sheraton Miramar, and the helicopter patrol which made listening to the impromptu press conferences-in-the-street even more difficult, there was a major open flank in the security of the summit and all those inside.
It is very difficult to describe precisely where the weakness lay, unless you know that particular spot of Viña. Basically, if you drove up Marina avenue from the centre towards the hotel, in a solid vehicle laden with explosives, you could easily rev up the engine and go through the driveway between the plastic cones and without bollards or metal barriers to stop you, smash the glass entrance doors and bang into the lobby.
There were not even foot police on that side of the hotel’s flank (they were too busy keeping those murderous journalists away). I am surprised that the two plane loads of Biden’s entourage did not realize that (next week the same location hosts the regional meeting of Interpol — say no more).
Another ridiculous security lapse was the delegate accreditation office which was under a tent within the press concentration camp. As even ministers had to go through there before being allowed in, it exposed them to all sort of risks.
The last ignominy was the closing press conference of the leaders at lunchtime on Saturday, March 28. By now, I was quite prepared to hear that the press conference would take place without the press being present. No, we were assured that we could finally go in. Hallelujah!
Nearly an hour after the scheduled time, and after both Ms Kirchner and Lula had departed, we were escorted to the hotel, in a manner of speaking. The fact that we were third-class citizens was not forgotten, and we were directed to a staircase from the street to the underground car park. We started being submitted to a search vaguely based on that of U.S. airports.
This was soon interrupted because Lula had decided to drive off at that same moment, and the two flows were in opposite directions. We also walked past Biden’s armoured SUV (so much for security), up the stairs again and straight into the conference room (which had three doors, and though it was an event FOR THE PRESS, we were clearly told that “journalists go through the third door”).
Six questions were to be drawn by lot, and as I was not present at the draw, would not wish to speculate on whether this was carried out fairly or not (some local hacks expressed surprise that El Mercurio always seems to draw a question). In fact, in the event, only four were asked, if I counted well.
The local press, generally docile and resigned, knows that it cannot complain because they will not be accredited next time, and might even lose their jobs. The foreign press were livid. As one international news chain’s correspondent remarked when we were being herded back through the car park under orders of “periodistas abajo” (“journalists down”) by the kapos, “what they really mean to say is ‘abajo los periodistas’ (“down with journalists”).”