Centro Popular de la Memoria, Rosario, Argentina: Detention center where the police tortured prisoners (1976-1979).
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Thirty years ago this week in Argentina, the pioneering investigative journalist Rodolfo Walsh was murdered by the henchman of the military regime ruling his country. When the leader of the junta, General Jorge Videla, seized control of Argentina, he asked the press to be honest and not obsequious in its coverage of his regime – but he didn't mean it.
Now Argentina no longer suffers under a dictatorship, but the media still struggle for genuine independence. Rachel Hopkin has this report on the past, present and future of the Argentinean press. RACHEL HOPKIN: Horacio Verbitsky has been a journalist in Argentina since the 1960s, but after Videla took control in March of '76, everything changed. HORACIO VERBITSKY: Then for doing real journalism in Argentina was absolutely necessary to go underground. RACHEL HOPKIN: Which is what Verbitsky did. He joined his friend and colleague, Rodolfo Walsh, in a clandestine news network that Walsh had quickly pulled together. HORACIO VERBITSKY: We dispersed information concerning the concentration camps, the kidnapping, the torture, the killings of people, that were sent to the media inside the country, and now – wrote. RACHEL HOPKIN: One of the people killed was Walsh's own daughter. A few months later he wrote an open letter to the junta. HORACIO VERBITSKY: The last that Rodolfo did before being killed by a platoon of the navy was to send the first copies of the open letter. RACHEL HOPKIN: Although they arrived with the newspapers a couple of days later, it would be many years before the open letter was freely published in Walsh's homeland. His death also went unreported. [SPANISH] RACHEL HOPKIN: In that archive recording, a journalist is asking a policeman why he is conducting a stop-and-search investigation. The policeman tells him he can give no information, and the journalist thanks him. End of questions.
But even such a gentle approach could put an Argentine journalist in danger during the dictatorship years, and over a hundred journalists, like Walsh, were murdered. But Verbitsky believes that the reasons for the lack of critical reporting had even deeper roots. HORACIO VERBITSKY: Since 1930 on, Argentina went through at least one dictatorship a decade. And each one was more criminal than the previous one, and the cultural fear prevailed in the whole society, and especially in the journalistic community. RACHEL HOPKIN: The England-language Buenos Aires Herald was in its centenary year when the military coup took place. With its church notices and small ads, it can have the feel of a village newspaper. But during the dictatorship, it took on a heroic and lonely role, routinely publishing details of the disappeared – at great risks to the journalists involved.
Andrew Graham-Yooll, its then news editor, was forced to go into exile in Britain. There he gained an international perspective on the media back home. ANDREW GRAHAM-YOOLL: The press was the mockery of the world and really sucked up to the military government. RACHEL HOPKIN: By the time he returned a few years later on a visit, Argentina was losing the Falklands War. And with the military government now severely weakened, change was in the air. ANDREW GRAHAM-YOOLL: June, 1982, showed a series of reports which concentrated on the disappeared of the previous six years. Suddenly, you know, people started saying, look, there's a mass burial ground in cemetery so-and-so. I saw secret burials at night in another cemetery. So all the dirt of the six years starts to come to the surface. RACHEL HOPKIN: The dictatorship fell one year later. [SPANISH] RACHEL HOPKIN: Argentineans devour the newspapers, which they can buy at stands on almost every street corner. Clarin and La Nacion are the long-established big sellers, but in the 1980s, a new paper started up – Pagina/12. Horacio Verbitsky has written for it since it launched. He says Pagina/12 broke new ground in investigative reporting, taking on the government of Carlos Menem, elected in 1989.
For instance, there was a story about Menem's brother-in-law and advisor taking a bribe from an American firm. HORACIO VERBITSKY: When we broke this news, the first reaction of the mainstream press was silence. Then it was next week that the rest of the Argentine press started to run pieces on corruption in the government. RACHEL HOPKIN: Menem's government began over 100 legal proceedings against journalists. Verbitsky, who was later honored with an International Press Freedom Award, was threatened with jail until the catch-all Desacato law. Loosely translated, it means disrespect. Verbitsky went to the Organization of American States to challenge Menem, and the law was done away with.
The current president, Nestor Kirchner, came to power in 2003. Under him, the economy has grown after a meltdown a couple of years earlier. His approval ratings are very high among the public at large, though perhaps not so high among all journalists.
Miguel Winazki is a senior editor at Clarin. He says there's no lack of pressure from the current government. MIGUEL WINAZKI: You write an article and they call you and press you for for– write another thing. But it's oral. It's just a call. We have no trials to the journalists and we have no journalists killed or disappeared, as the dictatorship. It’s a very different situation. RACHEL HOPKIN: Andrew Graham-Yooll is now back living in Argentina and is the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald. He says the pressure now is based more on money than fear. ANDREW GRAHAM-YOOLL: And this government has a really evil little habit of using government advertising to favor pro-government press. And it's a carrot-and-stick situation. I think most of the press now, in one way or another, is pro-government, and that's a favor or a support which is bought. RACHEL HOPKIN: Bought or not, one Kirchner policy has met with widespread approval – abolishing the highly controversial amnesty previously awarded to the henchmen of the Dirty War by Carlos Menem. Now, new legal proceedings are finally underway to attain justice for their victims. In one such recent trial, a key witness was disappeared, just as thousands were 30 years ago. The case was widely reported.
Miguel Winazki told me that journalists now are not afraid when it comes to reporting on the crimes of past governments. RACHEL HOPKIN (Q): But would you be afraid of reporting, say, corruption in the government now? MIGUEL WINAZKI: Yes. I think that our democracy is not a really open democracy. It is, at the same time, a feudal system with a strong personality in power. This tradition is too strong, so we are condemned to work in this kind of situation. RACHEL HOPKIN: Horacio Verbitsky believes that the Argentine media needs to do some self-criticism if it's to come to terms with its over-compliant past. HORACIO VERBITSKY: The Argentine press needs to do some degree of self-criticism. And the Argentine press is ethically flawed because of their behavior during the dictatorship, and they must admit it, and they must ask for forgiveness for doing that. RACHEL HOPKIN: As yet, there's no sign they're seeking absolution. For On the Media, this is Rachel Hopkin in Buenos Aires.