Journalist Oscar Bertone is no stranger to censorship, having worked in Argentina during its long period under military dictatorships. Once synonymous with forced disappearances, systematic human rights abuses and repression, Argentina is today a democratic country that enjoys free expression and a relatively healthy media environment. Yet it is still haunted by 25 years of military rule and its legacy, and new challenges to free media and open politics have come to the fore as they have in so many countries — among them media conglomeration, cultural prejudices — and even political cover-ups.
Today, Oscar Bertone is the managing director of the monthly magazine Rosario Express, headquartered in Rosario, the third most populated city in Argentina. He has also hosted the TV program Mañana Express for almost 20 years.
He spoke to Paula Bonnet about journalism under the dictatorship, when even questioning the quality of grass on a football pitch could be interpreted as an act of political opposition.
Can you tell our readers a bit about how censorship worked in Argentina during the dictatorship? What kind of publications or broadcasts were censored? And what was your own experience?
Most journalists that never had to work during a fierce dictatorship think that there are legal codes that establish what is allowable to say and what isn’t. My experience in Argentina is that dictatorial governments don’t need laws or decrees. The weight of omnipresent power establishes unwritten rules that allow nothing inconvenient to be said about a dictatorial ruling, its most relevant characters and the main ideas on its manifesto. They are usually military proclamations with very generic principles that don’t allow dissent.
In that context, the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina between 1976 and 1982 didn’t have to appeal to a censorship board. Television and radio stations were suddenly led by generals and admirals — chosen from the Army, Navy and the Air Force in equal measure. This proportional split was also used to rule the provinces.
One example: 30 days before the 1978 football World Cup (held in Argentina), a sports journalist decided to question the quality of the grass that had been sown in the Rosario stadium. His editor “missed” this intimate piece of news. Members of the Navy who ruled the Santa Fe province didn’t, however. The editor was severely reprimanded and the journalist was interrogated in order to figure out what his political tendencies were.
Newspapers didn’t need such a strict formal control as they supported the coup d’etat [in 1976, when the Air Force initiated the overthrow of President Isabel Perón] from the beginning. Fluid relationships were established between newsrooms and the military personnel at the Secretariat of Public Information.
How did journalists get around censorship?
Most journalists who had been left-wing political activists had either stopped working at those media outlets immediately after the putsch or had stopped writing about topics that put their lives in danger.
To be clear: in the formal media of the time, there wasn’t even the slightest chink of freedom of opinion on any of the relevant day-to-day topics. Media wasn’t like what it is now. There were three national newspapers, three radio and TV stations and in the main cities each radio station (only AM existed at the time) worked under the command of a military controller.
The journalists that were “heroic” were so because they published outside of that media. Military-controlled news outlets featured 99 percent of the information that got to the public.
There practically wasn’t any alternative media that reached the public, except for the extraordinary national magazine Humor Registrado and a small but dignified minor attempt in my city of Rosario.
Humor was an editorial force that made history. But let’s be clear. Although it appeared during the hardest years of the dictatorship, it never even attempted to publish an article about the missing people, the concentration camps and torture; or direct reports on the disastrous consequences of the economic policies. It would have been closed down immediately.
As the dictatorship was ending, after being defeated at the Malvinas war [also known as the Falklands War], the regulations became looser. The only Argentine journalists that published true reports on human rights violations and the destruction of the economy lived outside of the country. Getting that information into the country was impossible.
How did those media outlets resist the dictatorship? By writing on side topics, generally linked to culture and sports, which impacted on trained readers.
You were arrested during this time. Can you tell me about your experience? Did you know any journalists who were imprisoned?
I had already been detained and tortured in September 1972, during the last years of the previous dictatorship. Then I studied journalism.
In 1977, during the first year of the last military government, I started working as a writer at a newspaper that hoped to create some dialogue between the Navy, the Opus Dei, and the right-wing Perónismo party [the populist party that was banned during the last military dictatorship], in order for national elections to be held during the mid-term.
I was just starting out in journalism and I was lucky. A perceptive editor-in-chief put me in a section where I had to deal with international affairs. It was a relatively comfortable place, as the contradictions between the national military and US President Jimmy Carter’s government’s stances on human rights, the horrid Soviet politics that supported the coup, the Argentine participation in the Olympic Games that were sabotaged by the U.S., and the Sadat-Begin negotiations allowed me to write without focusing on ideology.
I was kidnapped and detained during the last two military dictatorships. As the one led by Generals Onganía, Levingston and Lanusse was ending [1969-1970], I was kidnapped by a residuary task force for 48 hours. At the time I worked as the editor-in-chief at a newspaper and because of that, paradoxically, nothing much happened. The dictatorship didn’t want to support such a crazy little group, so I was released.
What is the effect on the journalism community when any reporter is arrested, detained, and then treated badly in prison?
This question is very hard to answer. The first answer should be none. The most resounding kidnap was Jacobo Timerman’s [a journalist of Lithuanian Jewish descent who reported on atrocities committed by the regime, known as the Dirty War. He was arrested in the late 1970s], and even the Jewish community justified his imprisonment because of his alleged link to the paramilitary group Montoneros.
Most journalists that were killed or kidnapped during that time were taken not because they were journalists, but because they were social or political activists.
Opinions were censored by controlling the information channels. The government didn’t have to kill journalists, as they weren’t any journalists capable of causing important damage.
Can you give a sense of what it was like as Argentina emerged from the dictatorship? How long did it take for journalists to feel confident and to work as they wished? What did this process look like and how was it helped or hindered?
After the dictatorship was over , during the governments of Alfonsín, Menem, De la Rúa and the current one, freedom of expression was and is very widespread.
As violent, closed and efficient the dictatorship was in controlling the media, the first five years after it ended saw a riotous outbreak of freedom of expression, pushed further by the military defeat at the Malvinas conflict.
During the first years after the dictatorship was over, journalists revised the most dramatic, bloody and truculent episodes that happened after 1976, but they didn’t explain the deep motivations, the power struggle and the way the economy was handled. All of these elements led Argentina from being a cultural model in the region to the saddest political night of its history.
How has the government has taken steps toward accountability and transparency? Has it been effective?
The current government actually ended the last legal tether when they derogated an old law that penalized defamation. This was never acknowledged by the opposition media.
Maybe we should talk about a confusing fact: freedom of expression is not as important as freedom of opinion. The former expresses itself through the media but the latter is born in the educational system and in the culture of a country. If a kid is nurtured with prejudice, information will be later confused with knowledge. If there is no way of telling knowledge apart from wisdom, freedom of expression is a fallacy.
What is freedom of expression worth in a society where its inhabitants end their childhood “equipped” with immovable concepts on religion, the free market, gender and racial differences and social disparity, among others? Especially in our countries where media is disguised as independent, but has an unidirectional and almost monopolist speech.
Other interviews from the Journalism is Not a Crime series: