There is nothing more embarrassing for me than being the subject (should it be the object?) of a “homenaje.” I was taught by my journalistic mentors that journalists should refuse all honours. But when I did actually accept an honour, it probably saved my life.
In 1978, when the military malignancy in Argentina was at the height of its power, the diplomats at the British Embassy sounded me out about accepting an honour. It was then that I realised that those who honour, rather than the honourees, are those who should be honoured.
Before that, I was a fly, ripe for swatting. Afterwards, I was somebody. Three little letters, O, B and E, (which stands for Officer of the Order of the British Empire) acted as a shield when reporters started to disappear in Argentina. I note today that the latest figure for journalists who were killed outright, or kidnapped and later murdered, during the 1976-83 dictatorship stands at 172.
You can’t be anything but humbled by the knowledge that journalists were high up on the list of people who were to be liquidated that was drawn up by the genocidal leaders of “The Process.” The Proceso de Reorganización Nacional had marked them down for “Disposición Final” (the “final disposal”) of leftists. It was the Argentine version of the Nazi’s “Final Solution” for the Jews.
Today, as I say, it is still embarrassing, being honoured for the role played by the Buenos Aires Herald in reporting the disappearances and denouncing the atrocities committed by the dictatorship, and in supporting the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo in their efforts in saving lives.
Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say that the Herald “denounced” the Argentine Holocaust. Re-reading the editorials recently I realised that we simply sought to dissuade the military from using illegal methods to deal with what I think is best described as an insurgency. It was formed by a generation of young people who were misled by the madness of those times into taking up arms. Some of the editorials read like sermons. Many that I believe to be the most memorable were written by James Neilson. But through what I believe is a secular form of transubstantiation, editorial writers take on the identity of the newspaper they serve and become its impersonal voice. The Herald was us and we were the Herald.
When it came to the honour bestowed upon me recently by FOPEA (El Foro de Periodismo Argentino), the Argentine journalism forum, I had to overcome my embarrassment and step forward. As I told the 250 journalists gathered at the Sheraton Hotel for the fifth annual awards ceremony for investigative journalism, there could be no greater honour than to be recognised by other journalists. The plaque presented to me by FOPEA recognises me “for dignifying the profession and for being a lasting example for present and future generations of journalists.” It is the greatest honour of my life.
I had not prepared a written speech for the event because I wanted to respond to FOPEA spontaneously. There is a reason for that. When I was told that I was expected to attend the prize-giving ceremony, on November 3, I didn’t know what for, exactly, but I knew I had to be there. Why? Because I am convinced that if FOPEA had existed when the Armed Forces seized power, on March 24, 1976, it would have been impossible for the military to carry out its murderous plan of secret abductions, known as “forced disappearances” according to human rights law. If journalists had been organised nationwide then, on that scale, with links to democratic journalistic organisations abroad, as FOPEA is today, there would have been a reaction. Perhaps it would not have come immediately, but pretty soon after it became known what Jorge Rafael Videla, Emilio Eduardo Massera and Orlando Ramón Agosti, the three original members of the junta, were up to, the game would have been up.
The reason that the dictatorship was able to get away with its diabolical plan to dispose of thousands of people, while denying their crimes against humanity to all others, is because journalists had no institution to represent them or to defend them. The two major newspapers at that time, Clarín and La Nación, could have made a difference. The former mostly chose silence, although in its pages the late Hermenegildo ‘Menchi’ Sábat, like Goya, reported what was going in his drawings without words. María Elena Walsh managed to sound the alarm with a brilliant essay in the paper’s literary section. The latter chose to conform, its policy during that time as neutral as possible. The mothers searching for their children, who had been wiped out, were blotted out.
The FOPEA awards ceremony gave me an opportunity to emphasise a point I have been making for years. I believe that journalism is more than a profession, it is a vocation. It is a vocation because journalists have a duty to inform. I believe that they are also the guardians of the people and the defenders of democracy.
FOPEA, an organisation that holds principles that are the foundation stones of good journalism, did not come on the scene until 2002. Several attempts to set up journalistic associations since the return of democracy failed because of ideological fall-outs and personal disputes. But FOPEA has continued to grow in influence and effectiveness. Despite the so-called ‘grieta,’ the political divide that is keeping Argentines apart and holding Argentina back, it has forged ahead. It is a pity, as a friend observed recently, that there was no-one who recognisably came from “el otro lado” (“the other side”) at the prizegiving, which was sponsored by Grupo América, owners of the popular Telefe channel.
I do not know how the ideological gap can be bridged. But I am encouraged by efforts to overcome it, like the upcoming meeting at the Cabildo on November 20, which Perfil’s founder Jorge Fontevecchia has organised. His latest book Periodismo y Verdad, which contains interviews with 39 journalists who span a wide range of attitudes and opinions, will be launched on this occasion.
Argentine journalists have a particular duty to perform. They must ensure that never again will they fail to inform. That never again will there be silence in response to crimes against humanity. That is the reason that I welcomed the homenaje. It allowed me to make an immodest proposal: that the owners of Clarín and La Nación should investigate their own newspapers, to discover why, during the dictatorship, they failed to do their duty.
That was what The New York Times did to regain the trust of their readers, which was undermined when the newspaper falsely reported that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The Times promised “to continue aggressive reporting aimed at setting the record straight.” And it kept its word.
It is long past time for Clarín and La Nación to remove the badges of shame they deserved for their failure to report the truth during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. They should investigate their reporting of the dictatorship and its crimes. When they do that, we can celebrate with a heartfelt homenaje. Without feeling embarrassed.