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Media played key role in Junta exit strategy

A page from the files detailing the Junta’s media strategy.
By Luciana Bertoia
Herald Staff

Military leaders laid out a clear path of how to convince citizens their actions had been necessary

As the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983 was getting ready to step down, it instituted a meticulous plan to step down from power — and the media played a key role.

The archives recently unveiled by the Defence Ministry revealed that during April 1983 the military government prepared a detailed communications plan to reveal its “final document,” which was aimed at granting impunity for those who committed crimes against humanity during the dark regime.

The dictatorship’s officials were fully aware that the last words they would utter would be the hardest, so they needed a strategy to convince citizens that the “costs” they had paid had been necessary.

On April 28, 1983, the last Junta government headed by Reynaldo Bignone released the “final document on war against subversion and terrorism.” In the brief, the repressors said that the disappeared people should be considered dead, though they denied the existence of clandestine detention centres as well as secretly detaining people in jails. In fact, they said that the forced disappearances were the consequence of “terrorist operations.”

The document was strongly rejected by human rights organizations, mainly by Mothers of Plaza de Mayo who had been demanding information on their missing children’s whereabouts for years. If they were dead, where were their bodies?

Two weeks before the document was released, the junta members met at the Army headquarters to discuss how to issue the brief. In the archives that were uncovered last year in the Defence Ministry and made public last week, the military’s stated goal was “to reaffirm and widen the acceptance of the legitimate war against terrorism.”

The repressors knew that the times when people were eager to defend the dictatorship had largely passed, and it was time for a “moderate discourse.” Therefore, it was also necessary to employ spokespersons not directly linked to the Armed Forces.

Steps to reveal the document

Bignone, the last de facto president, wrote a book to justify his days as head of the bloodiest dictatorship that ruled the country. There, Bignone makes a detailed reference to the media. He regrets that TV stations were mainly state-run and that they were divided between the different branches of the Armed Forces. He compared the situation with the press, which was mostly in private hands.

The military divided the country into repressive regions, also dividing their sphere of influence in the media. The Army was responsible for Channels 9 and 11, the Navy for Channel 13 and the Air Force was in charge of Channel 7. It was not a difficult task for the dictatorship to influence how these media outlets were going to cover the issue.

The dictatorship’s plan started three days before the document was to be unveiled. That day, the media were expected to broadcast images of “terrorist organizations abroad,” such as ETA in Spain or the Red Brigades in Italy. A day later, journalists were expected to compare the situation in Europe with the organizations that operated in this country. The following day, a documentary would be broadcast on every channel.

Then “D-Day” arrived, and the dictatorship would unveil its final document via a national broadcast at 10pm.

The information was expected to be debated in the news in the afternoon, but the second day after its revelation, no one was expected to mention it any more. After the third day, it was time for the political TV programmes to discuss the issue.

According to its plan, the Junta had three TV programmes in mind. The first one was Telepolítica, a TV programme hosted by journalist Raúl Urtizberea that was mostly focused on the transitional times and which often invited the most prominent political leaders.

The dictatorship also mentioned Spanish TV programme Si yo fuera presidente (If I were president). The third programme was Tiempo Nuevo, whose hosts were Bernardo Neustadt, late dictator Jorge Rafael Videla’s favourite journalist, and Mariano Grondona.

The plan also included reminding the public of attacks perpetrated by armed left-wing organizations.

The “final document” was rejected not only by human rights groups but also by much of society. During the last months of military rule, the media also contributed to what sociologists call the “horror show” of the dictatorship airing the discovery of corpses and testimonies of bystanders or perpetrators.

The unidentified bodies brought with them several questions: what happened to those people, who were they and who was responsible for their deaths? Thirty-eight years later, many of those questions remain unanswered.

@LucianaBertoia

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