Paranoia Keeps Chilean Press in Line

<i> John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper's Magazine. He recently visited Chile with the Committee to Protect Journalists. </i>

Last month, on the morning that Chile’s supposedly free press reported the military government’s lifting of emergency restrictions on civil liberties, three plainclothes policemen, guns drawn, approached the Santiago home of Francisco Herreros, editor of Cauce, a weekly opposition magazine. Herreros heard the commotion, went outside and, in the presence of his frightened and pregnant wife, was handcuffed and hauled off to jail on charges of libeling Fernando Torres, the nation’s chief military prosecutor. Torres, it seems, was offended by an article that Herreros published in June, accusing him of politicizing his office and rating him among the most unpopular people in Chile. The following evening, in jail, Herreros calmly described his sixth arrest as “normal” procedure, and so it is.

As President Augusto Pinochet enters the final weeks of the campaign for the plebiscite that he claims will restore democracy, figures compiled by Chilean press groups show 41 pending prosecutions against 27 opposition journalists. Of those cases, 32 are being pursued under an article of the military code that covers calumny, a wastebasket definition for anything that the armed forces deem libelous, slanderous, disrespectfully satirical or, in some cases, insultingly factual. In Chile truth is not necessarily a defense against libel charges.

Typically, an offending journalist spends five days in jail while a military judge reviews the case. Following indictment, journalists frequently are detained without bail for weeks. For Herreros, it was 13 days this time.

Adding to their insecurity, editors and reporters often find themselves answering for articles published months or even years earlier.


In this atmosphere of seemingly infinite jeopardy, government officials reply to complaints about press censorship with a sort of absurd candor. Undersecretary of the Interior Alberto Cardemil grinned when our delegation discusses a sarcastic editorial from the weekly magazine Analisis, in which Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno was depicted as an old woman in a meeting with Pinochet. Asked if the law permits satire, Cardemil says, “Of course, as long as it doesn’t offend someone’s honor.” This particular insult didn’t draw charges. But last year a satirical issue of the weekly APSI, with a caricature of Pinochet as Louis XIV on the cover, earned the magazine confiscation of its entire press run and yet another arrest for its editor, Marcelo Contreras. Analisis editor Juan Pablo Cardenas is already spending time in jail for libel. His incredibly perverse sentence runs for 541 consecutive nights but allows him to leave prison to work at the magazine during the day.

Atty. Gen. Ambrosio Rodriguez is asked if he’s bothered by the high proportion of cases against journalists that land in military court, rather than under his jurisdiction in civil court. He answers that military prosecutions for calumny are backed by law dating to 1925. Then, with bland finality, he states that “the majority of these journalists have put their money and ability at the service of the Communist Party,” and “anyone can see this just by reading the names of the contributors to their magazines.” Rodriguez counts some of the prosecuted journalists among his oldest friends, so how can he be biased?

Supreme Court President Luis Maldonado, when politely queried about the theory and precedent behind military prosecutions for calumny, simply refuses to answer. He acknowledges the theoretical supremacy of his court over the military tribunals, but says that since the military coup in 1973, “most everything regarding calumny has been turned over to the military courts,” where “anything can be denounced.”

With laws like this, it’s not difficult to see why in Chile self-censorship equals self-preservation. Outside of a minority of courageous magazine and newspaper journalists, the government has little to worry about. The Catholic University’s Channel 13 dominates the television market and is sometimes cited by Pinochet apologists as proof of independence in the media. But the station’s director, Eleodoro Rodriguez, proudly notes that since 1973, not one of his newsmen has been detained. It’s clear why. A few days earlier, the Chilean Journalists Assn. staged a protest against government repression in front of the presidential palace, which Channel 13 failed to cover. News director Louis Salazar explained that the association was notoriously bad at public relations and neglected to inform the station of its plans. Yes, Salazar admitted, his entire news staff belongs to the association. And, yes, the university’s rector is selected jointly by the military and the Vatican.


There is opposition radio in Chile, but the news directors of two principal anti-government stations freely admit their frequent use of euphemism and self-censorship to stay out of jail.

Even Federico Willoughby, Pinochet’s former press secretary and now a member of the conservative opposition, calls government claims about press freedom an “intellectual fraud.” Willoughby, who is officially uncommitted on the plebiscite, says that opposition journals like Analisis are allowed to publish as a token gesture to the public and foreign critics.

When journalists in democracies report on Pinochet’s plebiscite, the least that we can do is refuse the dictatorship’s line on freedom of the press.