In the 1960s and 70s, Central and South America were rife with dictatorships which used secret police, the military, right-wing death squads and tight control of the media to quash dissent and keep power. One of the most egregious of these police states was Argentina, still recovering from its anti-democratic Peronist era. In that nation, the right-wing government was explicitly anti-Communist and anti-Semetic. Thousands of people disappeared, thousands more were exiled, thousands more imprisoned and tortured.
If you’re under 40, you may not have much awareness of this history, unless you’ve seen the 1985 film Kiss of the Spider Woman (from the 1976 novel by Manuel Puig) or read the seminal account Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number by Jacobo Timerman. Timerman was a newspaper editor who was imprisoned and tortured for three years, during which the police and intelligence agents who interrogated him made clear the fascist, anti-Semetic basis of the regime’s ideology. (Timerman’s book — reviewed by the New York Times here — was excerpted at length in the New Yorker, bringing the regime’s crimes to the view of many Americans for the first time. And only a few weeks ago, the Dirty War was recently the focus of a short story by Guillermo Martinez, “Vast Hell,” in the April 27, 2009 issue of the same magazine.)
The story of another newspaper editor — Robert Cox, the editor of the English-language Buenos Aires herald — has just been published. Dirty Secrets, Dirty War — The Exile of Editor Robert J. Cox was written by the son of the man who courageously published lists of the names of the disappeared, until threats against his family forced him to flee the country in 1979, three years after the coup. In an AP interview, Cox, now 75, says that part of his life is still too painful for him to write about, so his 42-year-old son, CNN Web producer David Cox, wrote it.
When we think about the crisis in the mass media industry and the death of newspapers, we should remember the role they play in exposing government and corportate crimes to the light of day. Without the courageous editors of Buenos Aires in the 1970s, and Cape Town in the 1980s, and innumerable other places through the last hundred years, what hope would people have struggling under oppression?