Many journalists were among the victims of the military dictatorships in six South American countries (Argentine, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay) which formed a repressive alliance known as Operation Condor with US backing in the 1970s.
While hailing the judicial and legislative advances that have taken place in some of these countries this week, Reporters Without Borders calls for more access to information about this period. In this regard, the announced creation of a joint commission of enquiry into the Operation Condor years by the Mercosur countries (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) is very promising.
A total of 112 journalists, columnists and writers lost their lives or “disappeared” during Isabel Martínez de Perón’s presidency (1974-76) and the ensuing military dictatorship (1976-83).
Rodolfo Walsh, who disappeared after being kidnapped 25 March 1977, was the best known of the Argentine journalists who fell victim to state terror because of their work or their political involvement. The list also includes foreigners such as the Uruguayan politician and journalist Zelmar Michelini, who was murdered in Buenos Aires in May 1976, and the Italian-American Toni Agatina Motta, who disappeared in Buenos Aires in October 1980.
“It is with very great satisfaction that we welcome the long jail sentences that a Buenos Aires court imposed on 26 October on 16 of the former military and police officers who were tried for the worst human rights violations every committed in this part of the world,” Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-François Julliard said.
“The murderers of Rodolfo Walsh and so many others, including the former naval captains Alfredo Astiz and Jorge Acosta, who received life sentences, have finally received the punishment that an entire people and families in other countries had awaited for so long. A trial of this importance would not have been possible without a long campaign by civil society, which in return must be allowed access in the relevant countries to all the information about a period that is still very present in the minds of so many.”
This demand also concerns the US government, which began to open its archives during Bill Clinton’s presidency in June 1999.
The hope of justice in Uruguay might have been dashed forever if its parliament had not adopted a new law yesterday abolished time limits on the punishment of crimes committed under the military-backed regime that governed from 1973 to 1985. It was high time, as the time limit was to have expired on 1 November.
The law’s adoption was in line with President José Mújica’s decision in July to authorize the reopening of 80 investigations in crimes committed during the dictatorship. This had been blocked by an amnesty known as the Expiry Law, which was ratified twice by a referendum, in 1989 and 2009, and was declared unconstitutional twice. Parliament voted to repeal by one vote last May.
The law abolishing time limits has sent a clear signal to the judicial system. But will it make such a big difference for researchers, whose work is often blocked by the military’s silence and refusal to cooperate? This is the key question, according to the journalist Roger Rodríguez, a specialist in this area, who was recently the victim of a campaign of online threats by former soldiers and their relatives.
“This law still has to be promulgated and still has to escape being declared unconstitutional by the supreme court of justice,” Rodríguez told Reporters Without Borders. “The state must declassify the dictatorship’s archives. A way must be found to break the military pact of silence.”
It seems that justice will have to travel a much longer road in Brazil, where the 1979 amnesty law was upheld by the Federal Supreme Tribunal (STF) in 2010. It renders the military officers who were responsible for crimes under the 1964-85 dictatorship untouchable. Will those who murdered journalists such as Vladimir Herzog – the TV Cultura editor in chief who was kidnapped and tortured to death by the São Paulo military police in October 1975 – remain unpunished forever?
Whatever the answer to that question, Reporters Without Borders welcomes the senate’s approval on 25 October of a law on access to information which, after it is promulgated, could unlock secrets that have been jealously guarded by various institutions including the armed forces since the dictatorship. Under the new law, “top-secret” files will be declassified after 25 years, “secret” files will be declassified after 15 years and “restricted” files will be declassified after five years.
“After the ‘Revealed Memories’ project established during Lula’s presidency, this access to information law represents another encouraging step towards the truth, in the absence of justice,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We nonetheless fear that one of the new law’s provisions could be used to reclassify many important ‘top-secret’ files for another 25 years. This provision constitutes an obvious obstacle to the publication of evidence and the possibility of using it in any trial. We hope President Dilma Rousseff will veto it.”
Reporters Without Borders notes that, at the same time as it approved this law, the senate also approved the proposed creation of truth commission on human rights violations under the military dictatorship.
Judicial progress is still awaited in Chile, where seven former soldiers were formally accused on 26 October of the murders of three Uruguayans during the early stages of the 1973-90 military dictatorship.
“We take this opportunity to point out that the still very present Pinochet heritage is currently being seriously challenged from within Chilean society, especially by its students,” Reporters Without Borders added. “This heritage continues to have a very negative effect on the media, which lack diversity and are poorly distributed. It is time for a process of renewal in Chile’s media.”
- Regarding the 1954-89 dictatorship in Paraguay, Reporters Without Borders recommends consulting the Virtual Museum that was opened this year by the Centre for Development Information and Resources (CIRD).
- Like Argentina, Bolivia has been a pioneer in access to information. It opened the archives of Gen. García Meza’s 1980-81 dictatorship in May 2010.