A judge has subpoenaed six newspapers for the names and phone numbers of all reporters and editors who have covered Argentina's economy over the past five years, so they can be called as witnesses against their sources.
News organisations called it an attempt to censor and intimidate the media from accurately reporting on Argentina's inflation, which many economists say is above 20 per cent annually, more than twice what the government reports.
Officials say the annual inflation rate was 9.8 per cent last month, but the data has lost credibility since political appointees began intervening in its methodology in 2007. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reprimanded the government in its annual global outlook this week, saying the IMF would rely on private consultants in part to obtain more accurate data from now on.
Commerce Secretary Guillermo Moreno has sought to silence these consultants by formally accusing them of criminally publishing false numbers to generate unfair profits for their clients, to the detriment of consumers and the Argentine state.
The numbers have more than political consequences for President Cristina Fernandez. Because much of Argentina's debt is issued in inflation-indexed bonds, the government saves billions on repayments to bondholders if official inflation remains low. Most bondholders are now Argentine taxpayers, since the government nationalised private pensions and required the new system to invest in government debt.
Judge Alejandro Catania followed through on Moreno's complaint by sending subpoenas last Thursday to Argentina's leading newspapers. He also subpoenaed the IMF office in Argentina, the tax ministry, the central bank and the stock market seeking information about the consultants and their clients, according to the state news agency Telam.
Nicolas Eyzaguirre, The IMF director for the Western Hemisphere, told the Associated Press that he had no comment because it was a legal matter.
The consultants have continued to collect data but no longer publish it directly since Moreno threatened to fine them 500,000 pesos ($123,000) for releasing price-rise figures that differ from official inflation numbers.
Instead, some of the private economists now secretly give their data to the congressional freedom of expression committee to make public each month, providing the consultants with some protection. This week, the judge also subpoenaed the congressional committee demanding that it also reveal its sources.
After criticism from opposition lawmakers, newspapers and press freedom groups, Catania clarified his order on Friday, saying he needs only to be given office contact information, not private phone numbers and addresses, of journalists who have worked for El Cronista, La Nacion, Clarin, Ambito Financiero, BAE and Pagina/12.
But Argentina's newspaper trade group, ADEPA, said the order still amounted to brazen intimidation of people trying to freely report matters of public interest.
"Now they want to involve journalists who publish this information, complying with their responsibility to their readers to rely on various sources and not become mere mouthpieces of official statistics that have been strongly questioned for several years," ADEPA's statement said. "The imposition of a single official story threatens the very concept of democracy and free expression."
The Inter-American Press Association condemned the judicial order as unusual and improper. In a statement from Miami, the group said on Friday that the subpoenas don't respect the work of journalists or their sources' right to privacy.
The president of the congressional committee, Silvana Giudici, accused the government of preparing "blacklists" like the military junta did during Argentina's 1976-83 dictatorship.
"First, they came for the consultants, then for the journalists and now they're coming for the lawmakers," she said, vowing not to turn over any information.