BUENOS AIRES — If one measure of democracy is the freedom to make fun of the government, a quick round of channel surfing suggests that democracy is thriving in Argentina.
On one channel, a popular program gleefully replays the (alleged) lies and verbal pitfalls of public figures such as the union boss who declared roguishly, "For the country to make progress, what we should do is stop stealing for a couple of years."
On another show, a satirical newscast dispatches brash "reporters" to ambush mayoral candidates, interrogate police chiefs and fluster the education minister by demanding that she name the capital of Sri Lanka.
And a popular TV character is Rivarola, the king of parasitic public servants, a sleazy bureaucrat who lives to make money without working. His motto: "This country has enough for everybody."
The styles of the programs differ, and the content ranges from brilliant to silly. But they share an irreverent, satirical edge. They are products of a recent trend that blends comedy, politics and journalism in an exuberant confrontation with the powers that be.
During Argentina's military dictatorship, which ended 13 years ago, stern colonels ran the TV stations. And the elite in many Latin American nations still use direct and indirect censorship to control the airwaves.
But Argentina has experienced its longest period of uninterrupted democracy in six decades. Television has become an instructive, occasionally chaotic mirror of a society in which freedom of speech is exercised with relish.
"It reflects the consolidation of democracy," said Miguel Rodriguez Arias, producer of the show "The Legs of the Lie."
"The more years that pass, the less fear . . . people have to express themselves--even though the politicians still fear television the most."
The obsession with political humor, analysts say, results partly from the freewheeling political style that has flourished since President Carlos Menem was elected in 1989.
Even as a provincial governor, when he cultivated the charismatic, sideburned image of a rural strongman, Menem enjoyed mixing with the Buenos Aires jet set. Earlier in his term as president, he made the rounds of gossipy talk shows and serious interview programs alike, singing tangos, playing soccer with the national team and answering personal questions with amiable candor.
Although the president's profile has lowered with the years, his initial anything-goes accessibility set a new tone, according to TV critic Pablo Sirven, author of two books on the media. Politicians have developed a frank, informal attitude, he said.
"The formality of politics has faded," Sirven said. "The reaction of television has been, 'If the politicians don't take themselves seriously, why should we take them seriously?' "
Argentines have a preoccupation with the hustler or con artist. The slang abounds with terms such as trucho, which means fake or scam, and chanta, which means swindler. As the democracy has matured, the public has come to see its elected representatives in this context, Rodriguez said.
"After the dictatorship fell in 1983, being a congressman was respectable," Rodriguez said. "Today, a congressman is a chanta. The image has deteriorated."
The combination of nonstop corruption scandals and an unfettered media generates plenty of material, said actor Miguel Del Sel.
"Politicians do incredible things, things you couldn't make up--they hand it to you on a silver platter," said Del Sel, a chameleon-like comic who stars on a show that dubs Argentina "Trucholandia" (Scamland). Del Sel portrays the strutting chiseler Rivarola, a grandiose maestro of small-time corruption who is popular with viewers because "at the office or among their friends, everyone knows a Rivarola."
While "Trucholandia" is a conventional comedy, other programs experiment with form. The most innovative and sophisticated is "The Legs of the Lie." The title refers to the Spanish saying, "Lies have short legs."
Producer Rodriguez, 50, is a cerebral man with a black goatee, a psychologist who worked in advertising for 25 years. Motivated by an intellectual interest in political discourse, Rodriguez began compiling video clips in the late 1980s. He built the biggest television archive in Argentina--an act with subversive implications in a society whose dictators tried to erase the painful memories of their brutality.
"The military had a very old policy of not respecting memory," Rodriguez said. "There was a lack of documents, of television archives."
Poring over his videos, Rodriguez discovered that the televised words of political leaders were the best satirical material of all. Politicians contradicted themselves. They made Freudian slips. They talked frankly about skulduggery. They did outrageous things: A former defense minister allowed himself to be interviewed on a round bed by a scantily clad talk-show hostess.