April 24, 2014
30 YEARS OF DEMOCRACYTuesday, December 10, 2013
Herald and human rights
From Where I Stand
‘As I saw it, our role was to save lives. We tried to do this in various ways’
During the dictatorship, the Herald transcended itself, responding to what political scientists and philosophers call “radical evil” on a par, although not quite equal to, with that of the Nazi regime. The major media and the judiciary abdicated responsibility. The Herald did not.
The newspaper had been warning throughout the 1970s, with greater and greater insistency as 1975 drew to a close, that the country was becoming a slaughterhouse. News editor Andrew Graham-Yooll recorded the deaths from violence in a black book and every week we published, in a box on the front page, the mounting number of people who had been killed.
We were not prepared, however, to deal with the radical evil of a military dictatorship that was very different from anything that had come before, although Argentina had suffered for almost half a century from intervention or misrule by the armed forces.
We had an early warning of what was to come shortly after the March 24, 1976 coup. There was an error in a death notice telephoned into the Herald by a retired Anglo-Argentine couple who were friends of the father of Graham-Yooll. We received a letter explaining that their son-in-law had died in mysterious circumstances. It was not much more than a week after the coup but we already had an inkling that this coup was different, so we decided to investigate.
We discovered that their son-in-law, who was in charge of the laboratory at the Squibb chemical plant in Zarate, had been found in a ditch a few days after he had been escorted from his home in the early hours of the morning by armed men in uniform. They wanted to ask him a few questions and he went with them willingly.
We learned that he had been savagely tortured and although he was alive when he was found, he died tended to by nuns at a rural hospital. He had returned to the university for evening classes to secure a master’s degree for job security. His fellow students, much younger than him, studied with him at his home. This made him a suspected subversive.
There is nothing worse than to be tortured when you are innocent. You have nothing to tell your torturers, so they become enraged and they are likely to torture you to death.
The cover-up of the murder by the Navy also gave us advance notice of the methods being used by the dictatorship. When a huge crowd turned out for the funeral, unmarked Ford Falcon cars passed by the cemetery leaving in their wake showers of crudely-printed notices. They purported to be from the Montoneros and they claimed that they had “executed” this innocent family man because he had betrayed them. Such subterfuges were also to become familiar to us at the Herald. The “Dirty War” had begun in earnest.
The man’s wife, a mother of two little girls, who realized that the security forces, not the Montoneros, had killed her husband, was terrorized into silence.
This was a story that I could not and would not publish. The safety of the family came first.
I decided that it was my duty as a journalist to report what was happening, so I wrote two stories for The Washington Post under my byline. In one story, I disguised the location of the atrocity in Zarate, but gave the facts about it and other cases to reveal people were still “disappearing” and at a faster rate than before the coup. The “disappearances,” today termed “forced abductions,” were now a policy of the dictatorship. In other words, state terrorism had been unleashed against the Argentine people.
What was being reported abroad as a bloodless, “velvet” coup was, in fact, a sinister, secret campaign to eliminate anyone who stood in the way of the dictatorship.
In the second story, I described the “gentlemen’s agreement” in place, not to report what was going on, that the major media organizations in the country had reached with the dictatorship.
Graham-Yooll, who was secretly reporting for Amnesty International, wisely decided to leave Argentina when his wife saw men in unmarked cars repeatedly filming their house.
I learned much later that Andrew and his wife Micaela were on a list of people that the military had marked down as to be killed. They were suspected of being guerrillas, a ludicrous charge that may have stemmed from the fact that Micaela was a friend of Che Guevara’s sister when they attended the University of Buenos Aires together. Military intelligence was notable for its lack of intelligence. Time and time again, the task forces went to wrong addresses, made mistakes with names and proved to be woefully inefficient, a deficiency they made up for with their savagery and rapaciousness.
Initially, it was the tragedy of innocent people caught in the maw of state terrorism that most disturbed me most. Later, I realized that the horror was all encompassing: there was no legal system in the clandestine prisons to decide who was innocent and who was guilty.
My friend Marshall Meyer, an American rabbi who settled in Argentina in 1959 - the same year that I joined the Herald - held on to the hope that the people who had been dragged from their homes in the middle of the night might still be alive and would one day be released or put on trial. When I was forced to leave just before Christmas 1979, Marshall told me that he was sure that thousands of prisoners were being held in Campo de Mayo. It was unimaginable to both of us that we were witnessing what he eventually described as “a holocaust.”
I was also in touch with two families whose sons had been kidnapped and were prisoners in the now notorious ESMA torture centre. The two young men had been allowed to telephone their parents, giving the impression that they would be released. I had waited for the parents to give me permission to report their plight. By publishing carefully written reports, we had been successful in securing the release of some prisoners.
We had been particularly successful in saving the lives of babies and children by writing news stories that shamed the military into behaving relatively decently by, for example, abandoning the children on the steps of a hospital.
I remained in touch with the parents whose sons were in the hell that was ESMA, hoping for good news. But I had left Argentina and I was in the United States when the father of one of boys sent me a telegram. It read: “Speak out, Cox. They have been killed.”
As I saw it, the Herald’s chief role was to save lives. We tried to do this in various ways.
In the beginning the challenge was to find out what was happening. I took to the street as a reporter, going to funerals, even cocktail parties and diplomatic receptions, dinners at embassies, where the military beasts were honoured guests, and so on… I heard that they were burning bodies in the Chacarita crematorium in the middle of the night. My wife insisted on coming with me, so we drove to the cemetery to find out. It was true. Smoke was billowing from the crematorium chimney.
I also heard that people who were searching for their relatives had begun gathering in Plaza de Mayo, late in the evening, in the hope of securing one of the 10 numbers handed out at 8am each morning which got you an appointment with an officer in Government House, whose job was to inform relatives when detainees were transferred from one prison to another.
Mingling with these desperate people during the night, I learned a great deal about the methods being used by the military. I also learned that the mothers of young people who had been seized by the military task forces were beginning to organize themselves.
It took courage to work for the Herald, both before and after the coup. Uki Goñi,who joined the newspaper in 1975 when he was 21, is undoubtedly the most courageous journalist of his generation. I have also described him as the greatest Argentine journalist in two generations. You can learn more about him and his role at the Herald by watching this video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNMsjhycvoI) or by visiting website, ukinet.com.
He worked alongside a group of young people who came together as staff members at the Herald. They were very different, had no political ideology in common, but found a common cause in defending human rights and, such were the times, human lives.
I look back at the Herald journalists who defied the dictatorship as a virtuous circle. There was James Neilson, who wrote the most stinging editorials. Jim was as strong and unbending as an oak tree. He took over as editor when I left Argentina and continued to uphold the Herald’s commitment to human rights. We were joined by Raymond Mckay, a young Texan professor, who is remembered with affection by the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo because of his concern and consideration for them.
We kept a constant watch on the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo, fearing that they would be abducted. There was always someone from the Herald looking on as they circled the pyramid in Plaza de Mayo every Thursday.
One Thursday, the dictatorship did move against the mothers. Police commandeered buses and herded the mothers aboard. With them was a Herald reporter. Pamela Wheaton, a young US citizen who worked with us during the dangerous years. She recalled this moment when she wrote to me from New York last week.
“The time at the police station was quite brief,” she wrote. “I don't know that I was actually scared, it was actually rather anti-climactic after so many years of the disappearances. It is only so many years later, after becoming a mother myself, that I actually can fully realize the anguish felt by all the mothers who came to us at the Herald.”
Pamela’s presence and the publicity that the mothers attracted at that time thwarted that attempt to crush them.
There was another virtuous circle of individuals who supported the Herald that I will write about in a future column. Chief among them was Peter Manigault, the chairman of the board of the Evening Post Publishing Company, headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina, who was the majority shareholder of the Buenos Aires Herald from December 1968 to December 2007. His sole instruction to me, when he made me president of the company as well as editor-in-chief, was: “Just do you job.”
I think that then, and I hope now and in the future, all Herald staff will live up to that instruction, which is a commitment to truth, human rights and justice.
This paid ad was published in La Prensa newspaper in Dec. 18, 1979. "To Robert Cox; the dignified journalist, the man of integrity - With admiration, affection and also today with sorrow, given your departure, which has been virtually forced on you by the threats of those who exercise violence with impunity, we say: Thank you very much! Thank you for having been one of the few, very few, journalists who showed through his professional actions an understanding of our sorrow and who made us feel less alone. THANK YOU for showing solidarity with our demands for justice over the disappearance of our children. THANK YOU for advocating, without demands, for the universal respect for human rights, and for ours and that of our detained and disappeared children. THANK YOU for your brave contribution to making our Argentina truly the country the Constitutionalists of ‘53 dreamed of, a democratic Argentina where an atmosphere of freedom respects man as a human and as a citizen. We hope this dream can soon become reality and that Robert Cox can again be amongst us continuing his enlightening and brave journalism with the Herald. Again, THANK YOU VERY MUCH, and until we meet again soon, The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo."