Remembering Argentina’s Dirty War & Effects on the Press

Members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo commemorate events of Argentina's Dirty War during a gathering in 2011.

(Editor’s Note: Some students in the International Media program at American University are now researching final papers on a variety of topics. We are posting proposals and updates on these projects to demonstrate their progress.)

by Allison Dickinson
Special to Sutradhar’s Market

The Dirty War in Argentina (la guerra sucia) was a long conflict, waged primarily under a military junta known as El Proceso de Reorganización Nacional, which ruled from 1976 until 1983.  As Patricia Marchak writes:  “It was not a declared war, there was no specific legislation addressing it, and there were no rules.”   The military junta, often termed the Proceso (the “Process”), came to power through a coup in 1976, its leading generals promising “to wipe out guerrilla activity and restore public order,” as David William Foster, Melissa Fitch Lockhart, and Darrell B. Lockhart note,  at the time pressing concerns for Argentina, leading many to welcome the change in power. However, this view quickly took a turn for the worse when, under the dictatorship, as Daniel K. Lewis writes, the Dirty War “exploded into a campaign of terror against innocent civilians.”  Thomas Skidmore and Peter Smith add that the junta “began arresting ‘subversives’ at will. And then there were the desaparecidos.”   One of the best-known tactics used by the military during the Dirty War was to “disappear” citizens for real or perceived subversive activity; estimates range between 10,000 and 40,000 over the course of the Dirty War.

The period of the Dirty War, Heriberto Muraro writes, had a profound effect on the media: “During the long military dictatorship, the armed forces put into force a regime of terror for the media. The junta murdered journalists, closed newspapers and censored publications.” For my paper, I propose to address the effects military, police, and government violence had over the print media in Argentina during the Dirty War. I have primarily focused my research on the period between 1976 and 1983, but I may also include 1973-1976, as one source claims that the Dirty War itself actually began in the years before the Proceso took power, dating back to Juan Perón’s government, and there are sundry examples of government censorship being enforced through violence and threats dating back further than the beginning of the junta Marchak notes: “In 1975, sixteen actors, writers, and journalists received threats from the Anticommunist Alliance of Argentina (AAA)…. Journalists were now one of the most persecuted groups in the country.”

To begin, I will introduce the historical background to situate the reader properly in time and to set up later discussion in greater detail. I will talk briefly about Argentine politics, especially the second phase of Peronism and the rampant guerrilla activity in Argentina leading up to the Proceso takeover, along with basic information on the Dirty War and the Proceso government and its stated goals.

I will proceed by discussing the general climate of intimidation, threats, and actual physical violence present in Argentina during the Dirty War and its focus on editors and journalists within the print media. One example is the military government’s generalized guidelines or “procedures” regarding media coverage, which were vague but as Marchak says “were soon made more concrete as reporters and editors began to disappear and newspaper offices were bombed.”

I will continue by addressing certain case studies of disappeared, kidnapped, or threatened journalists. Case studies may include the kidnapping of Jacobo Timerman, editor of La Opinión, by a faction within the military, the torture and killing of Rodolfo Walsh, who Foster, Lockhart & Lockhart say is “the first journalist to defy the military leaders openly,” and the kidnapping of Rafael Perrota, director of El Cronista.   I found a useful resource in Marchak’s book God’s Assassins, which contains some first-hand accounts of what journalists experienced during the Dirty War. I plan to delve into some of the interviews conducted in the book, with Andrew Graham-Yooll, the Buenos Aires Herald’s political editor during the Dirty War and with Maximo Gainza of La Prensa, to examine the climate of fear in which journalists were kept. Through these examples, I will demonstrate the incentive present for journalists and editors to keep any “subversive” or questionable content out of their newspapers. As Marvin Alisky succinctly put it, “[g]overnment threats against editors left their mark on what most Argentines could and could not read and hear.”

I will use the evidence found about the media climate and the threats and real violence to examine news coverage of certain events, or how journalists and editors conducted themselves under the tense climate demonstrated earlier in my essay. Did journalists fight back openly, come up with clandestine ways to subvert, leave the country, begin to write favorably about the government, or not write about the government at all? I hope to perform further research about the specific newspapers and their politics, so these scenarios can be presented in detail. The general trend, from my research thus far is similar to Lewis’ findings:  “[t]he press offered little opposition…. Attacks and disappearances made most journalists retreat from the topic of the campaign of terror.”

I will likely conclude with a brief recounting of the fall of the Proceso and the effects of the aftermath on the media. I would like to examine the media treatment of the Malvinas War (or Falklands War) and whether it had any impact on the fall of the government, as this war was the main catalyst in the fall of the Proceso.  As Marguerite Feitlowitz writes:

In April 1982, in a desperate attempt to distract the population and rescue its image, the junta went to war against the British for the tiny Falkland Islands (Las Malvinas) in the South Atlantic. The invasion was in every way a fiasco, and the defeat in every way humiliating. For the dictatorship, it spelled the end.

With the end of the Proceso comes the end of the Dirty War, after the junta issues a “Final Report” declaring the war over. I hope to find some information on the media’s coverage of the “Final Report” to see if this coverage differs from previous views. If I am able, I might like to mention the Nunca Más report printed by the Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared and coverage of the trials of the generals as an appendix to the Dirty War and the attempt to rebuild a beleaguered nation.

(The photo is by Emiliano Ortiz of Argentina via Flickr, using a Creative Commons license.)

About rickrockwell2011

Rick Rockwell is the Director of the School of Communication’s International Media program at American University. Rockwell is an award-winning journalist and author. His book, Media Power in Central America, won an award from the American Library Association. Please see the additional links for a full profile.
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4 Responses to Remembering Argentina’s Dirty War & Effects on the Press

  1. Robert LaPlant says:

    I’m doing a research paper over the censorship of people during the Dirty War and this article helped me immensely, i would just like to thank you for writing it because it allowed me to get so much information

  2. Finding Mabel: a documentary about the “Dirty War” is currently being filmed in Argentina. Please visit our site to find out more about our project and to support us in post-production!

  3. Pingback: Recent Posts | Sutradhar's Market

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