There were only a few days left before the 1978 World Cup when Robert “Bob” Cox, the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, was called into Government House. He went. He was not alone. There were about 30 people, all of them journalists with some degree of decision-making power in the media where they worked. Before them stood Interior Minister Albano Harguindeguy who told them that they had to behave themselves because the world would be watching Argentina, the host of the 1978 Cup.
“You must present a perfect image of Argentina”, the military man instructed them. Bob Cox left the Casa Rosada with a predisposition to disobey, as he had done so since 1976. Cox continued to publish — even during the World Cup — as the editor of the only Argentine newspaper that dared to publish stories about the ongoing kidnappings and disappearances being carried out by the country’s military dictatorship.
Bob Cox was 26-years-old in 1959, the year he arrived in Argentina to take up a job at the Buenos Aires Herald, a newspaper founded in 1876 to serve the British community. He became editor of the newspaper in 1968. It was on his watch and particularly during the dictatorship — when the rest of the media went silent — that the Herald gained national and international prestige as the only paper to publish what the country’s burgeoning human rights movement was denouncing in the way of human rights crimes. But how did this happen? It happened because Cox was disobedient.
Shortly after the military took power on March 24, 1976, the telephone rang in the Herald’s Azopardo Street office in Buenos Aires. Cox took note of the message: You cannot write about the kidnappings and murders. Nothing. Not a word. Cox turned to the advice of Andrew Graham Yooll — a Herald editor who would later be forced into exile — and decided that he was going to publish every case of a disappearance or murder that was backed up with a complaint, such as a habeas corpus writ, lodged by relatives with the Judiciary.
The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo did not take long to reach the Herald, a publication whose newsroom was just a couple of blocks from Plaza de Mayo. It was with Cox and his colleagues that the Mothers first told the tales of abduction that had culminated in the disappearances of their sons and daughters. The Herald was the only newspaper that opened its doors to the relatives of the disappeared ones, and Cox was the only editor willing to run front-page stories with an aim of saving lives. The newspaper ceased to be a publication solely for the British community and instead became an outlet for essentially anyone in Argentina given that its quarter-page editorial was, by law, always translated into Spanish.
“There was nothing in the press, except in the Herald, which was a small newspaper published in English with little importance. The majority of our readers were foreigners, from the Anglo community in Argentina. We had ascertained that they were taking people away to clandestine detention centres. That's how the Herald became important”, Cox recalls, 40 years later, in his Recoleta apartment.
During 1978, the Herald brought together two of the most important current affairs items: the joy of the World Cup and the horror of the disappearances being carried out by Argentina's Police and Armed Forces. “The World Cup was a moment of horror and at the same time a moment of glory”, Cox recalls. In the pages of the Sports section, it ran a countdown to the Cup under the headline “World Cupitis”, suggesting the paper did not shy away from the fervour surrounding one of the most important sporting events to ever be held in the country.
“I enjoyed writing about the World Cup. I enjoyed the matches. I knew what was happening, though briefly I could forget about it. I thought that it could be a chance for the military to return to decency and that they would stop, but they didn’t. They continued, not so openly like before but they continued”.
Cox’s expectations about the World Cup might be summed up on the one hand as a celebration of the possibility of an end to the repression. And on the other hand, of relief over the willingness shown by visiting foreign journalists to report on what was happening, on what was not being published in the local media. This forced the ruling military Junta to actively deny their own crimes.
The appeal to the foreign media to increase international pressure on Argentina is clear in the Herald’s May 17, 1978 editorial titled “A political time bomb”. “Although their presence [that of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo] has been largely ignored by the local press (apart from their appearance on lists requesting information about disappeared people and the arrest last year of about 200 of them at a demonstration outside Congress), they are a regular feature of almost every visiting journalist and television crew. Their sad story has travelled around the world. And it is their image on television screens that will determine the image of Argentina during the upcoming World Cup”.
The Herald, under Cox’s leadership, continued to publish cases of disappearances throughout the World Cup. It even dedicated a frontage to the kidnapping of Julián Delgado, the editor of El Cronista Comercial newspaper and of Mercado magazine. Delgado disappeared on June 4, just three days after the start of the World Cup. None of the local media reported the kidnapping. But the Herald did, on June 13. Such boldness saw Cox again summoned to Government House by Harguindeguy, who rebuked him for the publication and told him that Delgado had committed suicide, as David Cox recalls in his book Dirty War, Dirty Secrets. The anger of the Junta, as well as that of Delgado’s associates, toward the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald can also be traced in declassified cables from the United States.
Cox not only went to the Government House but also sent letters demanding information. On June 12, he wrote to Harguindeguy’s number 2, José Ruiz Palacios, asking him for information about the kidnappings of the Eroles family. Two days later, he asked him what had happened to Alejandra Naftal, at that time a high-school student who had been abducted from her home.
But the investigation or the publication of information given to it by the relatives of the disappeared ones did not earn the Herald any sympathy with the country’s left. In an editorial printed three days later, the paper demanded that the de-facto government use legal repression against leftist armed groups, whom Cox and his colleagues defined as terrorists.
“The visiting journalists will soon see that this is not Russia. The ‘mad mothers of Plaza de Mayo’ would not be allowed anywhere near Red Square. They will see that Argentina is an exceptionally peaceful place, not at all similar to the ferocious military dictatorship which they have been reading about in the ultra-leftist press. But they will soon be able to ask some embarrassing questions such as: Why are they keeping Professor Alfredo Bravo, a human rights leader, locked up without charge? And why was Adolfo Pérez Esquivel arrested more than a year ago without charge, a man opposed to the violence who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the winners of the prize in 1976?”.
The Herald’s liberal viewpoint about Argentina’s situation could not stop the repression from encircling its editor. Cox watched the Argentina-Holland final on June 25, 1978, and wrote about it: “The jubilation was so great that the massive celebrations of 1945 for the end of the war in Europe paled in comparison to the frantic joy that has gripped the country’s 26 million inhabitants”, he typed. He went out with wife, Maud, and their five children to celebrate the win in the streets of Recoleta. “If you don’t jump, you’re Dutch,” his neighbors shouted. Tiny pieces of paper were thrown from balconies and people banged on pots to celebrate. But the joy was short-lived.
In December the following year, the Coxes left the country. A threatening letter sent to one of his children was a point of no return for the editor, who had been locked up twice in the clandestine centre that operated in the Federal Security Headquarters in Buenos Aires. Cox had experienced the dictatorship’s tactics in first person.
On December 16, 1979, he wrote his last editorial in the Herald. Two days later, the Mothers farewelled him in a classified that was published in the newspaper La Prensa. “Thank you for being one of the very few journalists who demonstrated through his professional activity an understanding of our pain and for making us feel less alone.”
This article originally appeared in Spanish on the platform Papelitos.com.ar, a research initiative into Argentina’s 1978 World Cup carried out by Memoria Abierta and NAN, with the support of the Dutch Embassy in Argentina.