Damián Pachter did not imagine that he would be forced to flee his homeland of Argentina and settle in Israel a few days after tweeting that Argentinian prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his house late in the evening of Jan. 18, 2015. Despite not seeing his mother and family since he left Argentina, he has tried to make the best out of his exile. This week, the Latin American reporter visited Chapel Hill, N.C. to participate in a journalist roundtable in the Reconsidering Antisemitism Conference organized by the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies. The Chronicle’s Jesús Hidalgo spoke with Pachter to talk to him about the night when Pachter reported Nisman’s death, his new life in Israel and the meaning of journalism in his life.
Duke Chronicle: Can you give us a short chronology of what happened the evening you reported prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s death?
Damián Pachter: The Argentinian opposition had scheduled an audience in Congress with Nisman on Monday, [Jan.] 19, 2015, because he had filed an accusation against the Argentinian head of state Cristina Kirchner a week earlier. He was investigating the bombing attack at the AMIA building, the Jewish Community Center [which happened July 18, 1994]. According to Argentinian courts, it was a terrorist attack by Iran and Hezbollah. What Nisan found out is that president Cristina Kirchner and other important politicians were trying to cover up his investigation in order to absolve the Iranian responsibility from the bombing. In 2013, the Argentinian government signed a memorandum of understanding with Iran, which was supposed to reset the bilateral relations between the two countries. Speaking in American terms, imagine that an American president would sign a memorandum of understanding with Al-Qaeda after 9/11. That’s the kind of shock that happened in the Argentinian society. The night of Sunday, [Jan.] 18, 2015, everyone was expecting a major event—Nisman appearing at Congress to give a speech the day after. Suddenly, I received a message from a source saying that prosecutor Alberto Nisman was dead, covered in a pool of blood. That happened at about 11 p.m. I kept questioning my source for 30 minutes and at 11:35 p.m. I used Twitter to break the news. The first tweet was that I was informed about an incident at the prosecutor’s house. I already knew what had happened, but I only said that there was an incident at his house in order to have more time to double-check my information with my source. I was the first and only one with the information about his death. Then at 12:08 a.m., I confirmed what I was told and said that the prosecutor was found over a pool of blood and was not breathing and that the doctors were there.
TC: Why did you choose Twitter to report his death?
DP: I was working at that time as a staff writer for the Buenos Aires Herald, a pro-government paper. My two editors were on vacation so I found myself alone in this particular situation so I thought, “I need to guide myself with my own instincts, with the priority of letting the public know what had happened.” That’s the most basic thing a journalist should do—to expose things that are supposed to remain hidden. I just tweeted from my personal account because I thought that if there were a mistake, the entire responsibility would fall upon me. And I turned on a particular robot mode. When a journalist receives information, you do the process of checking and then you publish [instantly]. I felt that Twitter was the fastest way to let people know about it even though I had just 200 followers at that time. But it actually had the effect that I wanted and people shared it immediately across the globe.
TC: How involved was then-president Cristina Kirchner in Nisman’s death?
DP: I’m certain that she was involved in Nisman’s murder with elements of the Islamic Republic of Iran. What happened after his death was a media operation orchestrated by the government trying to disqualify his work, demonstrate that he committed suicide instead of being murdered, and show Cristina Kirchner as a victim [of false accusations].
TC: When was the moment that you realized that your life was in danger?
DP: One of my sources whom I trust and who lived outside Buenos Aires asked me to visit him. I didn’t know what he meant at the beginning, but then I understood that I had to leave the city. I waited for the newsroom to be empty. I left my car at the parking lot of the newspaper, and I called a cab. I didn’t register my exit from the building, and I went to my apartment and told my mom, “Mom, from this moment on, don’t believe in anything that goes out on TV about me. I’ll come back in three days,” which was my original plan. I didn’t want the spotlight to be on me instead of Nisman’s death. I packed a small backpack, I took a few dollars with me, and I can’t explain how it happened, but I just took my Israeli passport and ID. That was a decision that saved my life. I left the city, and while I was waiting for my source to have a coffee at a gas station, suddenly a very strange guy came. The guy looked suspicious, was sitting close to me and didn’t order anything. It was weird. My source arrived and recognized the guy. He was an Intelligence officer, and my source knew him personally. We pretended that we were taking a selfie but actually took a picture of the guy. When he realized what we were doing, he stood up and left immediately. That’s the moment when I realized that I had to leave the country because my life was in danger. Thanks to some friends, I managed to travel to Uruguay without using my own credit card, and from there, I flew to Spain and then to Israel.
TC: What is the most difficult part about living in exile?
DP: Obviously, being away from my family and the country where I lived and where I was born, which I felt rejected from. I was forced to leave. The most difficult part was entering a new life, without money in another country. But besides the material stuff, I also had my working routine and now all of that is gone.
TC: Do you envision yourself returning to Argentina soon?
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DP: I’m not planning to go back to Argentina at least for now. What I want to do is to find a full-time job in Israel and focus on both my academic life and in my journalistic career. I’m working as a freelance reporter and correspondent for an Argentinian newspaper. And I started a master's in Latin American History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Maybe I’ll do a Ph.D. later somewhere, but I still don’t know where.
TC: How would you describe what journalism is in your life?
DP: For me, it’s the tool under which I fulfill my purpose. Of course, it’s a passion. I don’t imagine myself doing anything else but that. And I just feel very lucky that I had the chance to break a story like that in the way that it was made, which happens once in a lifetime and, in general, to journalists older than me. I feel lucky and proud. I paid the ultimate price that a journalist pays when he does his job, but I don’t complain.
TC: You said that you would never reveal who your sources are because you are guided by fundamental journalistic principles. What is the most fundamental principle a journalist should always follow?
DP: To save your source, of course. Both from the ethics point of view and especially because of how sensible the [Nisman] case is, if I expose my sources, something could happen to them even today. Revealing my sources is a big no. I will keep them for myself until I’m in my grave.