The new Falklands war

At a great, rumbustious old fashioned Fleet Street leaving do, shortly before Christmas, one of the departing journalists recalled in his farewell speech that he has been looking through his old passports and found he has visited more than a hundred countries.

That, however, was before he had fallen out with a new regime at the paper and been grounded. Such was the froideur he felt he “had been posted to Antarctica”.

On a visit to Argentina, soon afterwards, I wondered whether my friend and   fellow hack would one day end up covering Antarctica after all. The talk in Buenos Aires was about how the perfidious British, having refused to give up the Malvinas, are now after the mineral wealth in the frozen wilderness at the tip of Latin America.

Global warming and the shrinking ice cap have made oil and gas exploration commercially viable and Britain has claimed, thanks to the territorial waters of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia, another 100,000 sq km of the adjoining seabed.

This, unsurprisingly, has not gone down well with Argentina which, along with Chile and a number of other countries, has its own claim to the desolate but lucrative wilderness.

Argentina itself has sought to bolster its claim to sovereignty by establishing its own population in the Antarctic, the same principle, it says, that Britain used in saying the Falklands are British.

As far back as 1978 they flew the pregnant wife of an army captain to give birth to its base in Esperanza and her son Emilio Marcos de Palma became, in theory, the first Argo-Antarctican.

Now, with the British move to extend its territory, the Argentines have made a similar claim. It has also formed an alliance with China on exploration in Antarctica.

Beijing’s voracious appetite for resources, so evident in Africa, has now spread to the southern extremities of the world and there are over a hundred scientists at two research stations with a third one  being built. Chinese research ships regularly receive official welcome in Buenos Aires.

To add to the Argentine sense of injustice, surveys have also revealed that oil just off the Falklands may rival a major North Sea oil field. Five companies are active in the area, and here, without the constraint of the Antarctic treaty, drilling can begin within a couple of years and the Falkland islanders, already on a massive per capita income thanks to fishing rights, will be richer still.

At the inauguration of Cristina Kirchner as president in December the French sent prime minister Francois Fillon, Britain sent Bob Blizzard, MP for Waveney, north Suffolk, an assistant whip. Now Mr Blizzard is a thoroughly nice chap who resigned his post of parliamentary private secretary in opposition to the Iraq war. But he is not, perhaps, the highest profile of international figures.

The reason he was sent and not someone more senior, apparently, was the danger that he would be snubbed at the ceremony by the new president. That did not happen, although in her speech President Cristina Kirchner mentioned the “occupying country” (Argentine officials do not refer to Britain by name on these matters but as the ‘occupying country’, much in the way the Arabs talk about the ‘Zionist entity’ rather than Israel) still practicing colonialism in Latin America.

M Fillon, in the meantime, laid flowers at the grave of two French nuns murdered by the military junta during the dirty war. An Argentine naval officer, commander Alfredo Astiz, was convicted in absentia by a French court for the killings. He was captured by the British during the Falklands war and brought back to England as the only Argentine PoW to be brought home. I remember futile attempts to get to see him at a military police barracks at Chichester in Sussex.

Human rights groups wanted him sent to France to stand trial, but Margaret Thatcher’s government returned him to Argentina instead. The scars of military repression are still raw in Argentina. More than 30,000 people were killed between 1976 and 1983 before the junta collapsed in the wake of the Falklands defeat.

The focus at present is on 500 babies born in military prisons and handed over to military families after their parents had been tortured and killed. Now many of them are discovering who their real parents were and meeting their families for the first time while learning to cope with the fact that the people who they thought were their mothers and fathers had been complicit in this horrendous crime.

A great journalist who did much to bring the abuse to international attention at the time, Andrew Graham Yooll of the Buenos Aires Herald, has just taken early retirement. A very brave man who had been forced into exile and withstood threats from military dictatorships around Latin America, he decried the way news coverage is being increasingly trivialized.

Andrew’s despair at the dumbing down of journalism, over a lunch in Buenos Aires, reminded me of the complaints at the Fleet Street leaving bash. This is a universal problem, but in some places, of course, ‘serious journalism’ continues to involve lethal risks.

Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, a student of journalism, has been sentenced to death in Afghanistan for downloading a report from the Internet on women’s rights. A petition to free him, started by The Independent, has gathered 77,000 signatures as I write this and various public figures like Condoleezza Rice have promised to help, but even if he avoids capital punishment, the danger remains of a lengthy prison sentence.

His brother Yaqub Ibarahimi, a campaigning reporter I got to know in Afghanistan, is in the meantime, in hiding following death threats after he exposed how public figures have been involved in criminality including murder.