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Pi Gamma Mu, International Honor Society in Social Sciences

Censorship in Argentina
Author(s): R. Dwight Wilhelm
Source: International Social Science Review, Vol. 66, No. 1 (WINTER 1991), pp. 21-28
Published by: Pi Gamma Mu, International Honor Society in Social Sciences
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Censorship in Argentina

R. Dwight Wilhelm
Telecommunications Department
Ball State University
Muncie, Indiana 47306
USA

For almost two decades, a series of Argentine military dictators waged a


multifacetedcensorship war against the media of that nation. Their influence
reached beyond the customary print media, radio, and television into the
arts- film, theater,and opera. We know now that their purpose was to stifle
the flow of any information which might have proved detrimental to the
barbaric activities of their regimes which the events of history have since
revealed. To their way of thinking, it was all being done to maintain the
"purity" of Argentine culture. Argentina's geographic proximityto other
countries, however,undermined in several crucial ways the dictators' censor-
ship effortswithin the country. And this eventually was one of the factors
which contributed to their downfall.
Introduction
In 1983, followingalmosttwo decades of militarydictatorshipinterrupted only
by a brief three-year(1973-1976) Peronist civilian government,Argentinare-
turnedto an elected governmentunder PresidentRaúl Alfonsin. During the past
seven years,the nationhas been verymuch in the news as it tried,convicted,and
sentencedin civilian courts several of the militarydictatorswhose regimes had
been notoriousformassive humanrightsviolationsand economic disaster,getting
the nation involvedin a war with England etc.
Argentinahas one ofthemostdeveloped and advanced systemsofmass media in
Latin America withmorethan 150 radio stations,35 televisionstations,1approxi-
mately200 Spanish and foreignlanguage newspapers,2and numerousmagazines.
The electronicmedia are a mixtureof radio and televisionservices, a fewof which
are governmentoperated,but most of which are privatelyowned.
Yet, duringthe era of the dictators,all of the Argentinemedia operatedunder

Dr. R. Dwight Wilhelm earned his doctorate at Columbia University.He


has taught at several institutionsof higher education, including Union Theo-
logical Seminary and the communication faculties of Central Michigan Uni-
versityand Ball State University,his current position. In the United States, he
has worked in both commercial and public broadcasting. From 1969 to 1976,
he lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina, while working as consultant for a Na-
tional Council of Churches-sponsored communication project in six countries
of the southern cone of South America. More recently,he spent the summer
of 1988 as senior Fulbright lecturer in Colombia and returned there in the
same capacity during the summer of 1989. In addition to journal articles, he
is author of Two Waysto Look South: A StudyGuide to Latin America (Friend-
ship Press, 1979).
21

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22 WINTER1991,VOLUME66, NUMBER1

strictgovernmentcensorship.At thebeginning,it was principallya self-imposed


restraint,which allowed the governmentto deny that officialmedia censorship
existed. Later,censorshipbecame quite overtwithsevereconsequences formedia
which did not comply.

PrintMedia Intimidation
Even such an internationally knownand respectednewspaperas Buenos Aires'
La Prensa was forcedto comply.Followinga visit to Argentinain 1977, Massa-
chusettsCongressman Robert Drinan wrote, "the 108 year old newspaper La
Prensa printswhat it is told to."3
A few did not and, as a result,broughtdown severe consequences on them-
selves. Robert Cox, the 41-year-old O.B.E.-winning editor of the English-
languagedailyBuenos AiresHerald, refusedto capitulateto censorship.The result
was thatin April 1977, he was arrestedand jailed briefly.Afterhis release, he
persistedin ignoringgovernmentgag rules and so had to leave the countryin
December 1979 because of deaththreatsagainsthim and membersof his family.4
Another example of violent action against the press happened in Córdoba,
Argentina'ssecond largestcity,and was directedat thatcity's largestnewspaper,
La Vozdel Interior( The Voice of the Interior). On January23, 1975, just after
midnight,a delegationfromtheArgentineAnticommunist Alliance, laterrevealed
to be a government-backed secretparamilitarygroup, invadedthe facilitiesof the
paper. Employees were rounded up, the press room sprayedwith machine gun
fire,and explosives were set off. An earlier attempthad been made to bomb the
same newspaper and, on thatoccasion, employees had recognized some of the
would-bebombersas policemen.5It should be notedthat,in Argentina,thepolice
are actually a part of the country'smilitaryforces.
Kidnappingsand unexplaineddisappearancesof workingjournalistswere com-
mon. In April 1977, newspaper executive Edgardo Sajón was kidnapped6and,
laterthatyear,Oscar Serrat,an ArgentinejournalistworkingforAssociated Press
as day editorin theirBuenos Aires office,disappeared on his way to work one
morning.7The followingyear,theeditorof El CronistaComercial (The Commer-
cial Analyst),JulianDelgado, disappearedmysteriously forreasons stillnotclear.8
The most internationallyfamous case was that of La Opinión and its editor,
Jacobo Timerman.At first,his refusalto complywithgovernment censorshipwas
meton severaloccasions withthe confiscationof all copies of his newspaperas it
hitthe streetsof Buenos Aires. Later,therewere visitsto his facilitiesby detach-
mentsof troops. When this still did not bringthe resultsdesired by the govern-
ment, several of his staffwere attackedand severelybeaten by persons never
apprehended.Then, at least one of his staffmembersbecame one of the early
desaparecidos (disappeared ones) forwhich thatperiod of Argentinehistoryhas
now become internationally notorious.Finally,in 1977, whenTimermanpersisted
in reportingcensored information about humanrightsviolationsby the armyand
federalpolice, raids on militaryinstallationsby various antigovernment groups,
the increasingnumberof persons (usually professionals)who were disappearing
mysteriously, etc., he was arrested,imprisoned,and his newspaperconfiscatedby
the government.Probably,the only thingwhich kepthim also fromdisappearing

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INTERNATIONAL
SOCIAL SCIENCE REVIEW 23

was the focusof attentionon his situationby internationalmass media and by the
world Jewishcommunity.He was held in prison by militarydictatorGeneral
RobertoViola formore than a year.
When worldopinion againsttheArgentinemilitarygovernmentfinallybecame
strong,Tïmermanwas strippedof his Argentinecitizenshipand deportedto Israel
in 1979. The governmentseizure of La Opinión and events surroundingTimer-
man's life received much attentionin the world news media. Subsequently,he
wrote of his experiences, includingtorture,at the hands of the militaryregime.
The book, Prisoner WithoutName, Cell WithoutNumber,was published in 1981
by Alfred Knopf. A made-for-television movie by the same name based on the
book aired in the United States on NBC on May 22, 1983, and starredRoy
Scheider as Timermanand Liv Ulmann as his wife.9
Nor were magazines exemptfromgovernment controlor retaliationwhenone of
themprintedsomethingwhich incurredthe wrathof themilitary.One of themost
notable instances of such retaliationwas against Primera Plana (Front Page),
Argentina'sleading news magazine. In 1969, the magazine reportedthetakeover
of a radio stationin Córdoba by a group of retiredarmyofficersto broadcast an
antigovernment attack. The same magazine had also reportedon othernational
unrestand suggestedthat the then-presidentGeneral Juan Carlos Ongania was
about to be overthrown by a right-winggroup.
The press, in general, was being blamed for fomentingunrestin Córdoba, a
hotbedofantigovernment activity,whereprotestingstudentsand workershad been
attackedby the federalpolice at the cost of 21 lives.
So, even thoughtheArgentineconstitutionguaranteesfreedomof thepress, the
militarygovernmentclosed PrimeraPlana and also confiscatedtwo othermaga-
zines whichcarriedstoriesof therumoredoverthrowof Ongania. Commentingon
thechillingeffectthismighthave on the freeflowof news about eventswithinthe
country,Newsweek stated, "Given the pressure he [Ongania] is puttingon the
Argentinepress, readers may not be able to tell very much fromthe papers and
magazines thatcontinueto publish."10
Even the publicationsof religious materialsdid not escape governmentattack.
In September1976, the publicationand distributionof the materialsof Jehovah's
Witnesseswere banned in the country."
Satire and humor,when aimed at the governmentin general or at the heads of
state in particular,were not tolerated.General Ongania was quick to close the
weeklysatiricalTía Vicenta(AuntieVicenta)because it had made funin a cartoon
of his walrus-likemoustache. It had also sarcastically suggested that the two
clasped hands prominenton the Argentinanational emblem be changed to a
militaryboot.
As a result,thepublishersof thedaily Buenos Aires newspaperEl Mundo ( The
World),which had distributedTía Vicenta, replaced its managingeditor with a
relativeof the same ministerof the interiorwho had been orderedby the Ongania
governmentto close the magazine.
When the respectedLa Prensa sided with Tía Vicenta,sayingthatOngania had
committeda "grave error," what resultedwas a furthertighteningof press con-
trols.Police were orderedto confíscatefromthenews vendors' kiosksall copies of
local politicalmagazines, girliemagazines, and anyforeignpublicationscriticalof
Ongania.12

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24 WINTER1991,VOLUME66, NUMBER1

Radio and Television


The government-owned and -operatedradio and televisionchannelsfunctioned
as directpropagandainstruments duringmuchof thisera. Only the government's
versionof eventshappeningwithinthe countryappeared on newscasts, and any-
thingwhich the governmentdid not wantreportedwas not. In addition,govern-
mentpolicies and practiceswere lauded and promoted.
Privatelyowned televisionand radio stationsfollowedsuit out of fearof what
mighthappen to them and their facilitiesif theydid not. On a few occasions,
stationswere raided by detachmentsof soldiers. But these were usually forthe
purpose of intimidatingotherstationsin order to keep them in line.
Othermethodswere also used to pressurethe radio and televisionstationsinto
compliance with governmentwishes. For example, almost all broadcast equip-
ment in Argentinaat thattime was of foreignmanufacture.So the government
rigidlycontrolledthe importationand distributionof replacementparts. Put sim-
ply,ifa stationwantedto keep itsequipmentoperatingand on theair,itcooperated
withthe government.
A similartacticwas used withnewspapers.If a publisherwished to continueto
receive newsprint,which was also importedand strictlycontrolled,he quickly
foundit necessarynot to incur the government'sdisfavor.

Movies, the Theater,the Arts


Movie censorshipwas exercisedat bothpoliticaland moral levels. The censor's
scissorswereveryevidentin thecase of a bare bosom or a bittoo suggestivesexual
activity.In such cases, the scissors were put to work withoutconcern forsound
track, estheticcontent,etc. It was only afterI had seen Stanley Kubrick's A
ClockworkOrange in Chile thatI realized fullyall thathad been censoredfromthe
version I had seen earlier in Argentina.
Film censorshipprobably reached its zenith during Ongania's regime. Offi-
cially,all themilitarydictatorswere extremelyprudish,althoughit was generally
recognized that privatelymost of them maintainedmistresses. But Ongania's
prudishnesswas more in evidence because of his extremeactions againstthearts.
He banned such internationally recognized artisticfilmsas the Czechoslovakian
Loves ofa Blonde. And althoughAntonioni'sBlow-Up was based on a shortstory
by Argentina'sown Julio Cortázar, this filmwas also forbiddenby Ongania on
supposed moral grounds.13
Political feelingsrun high in most dictatorships,and Argentinawas no excep-
tion. Therefore,the governmentdid not permitsuch highlypoliticized films as
Costa Gavras's Z to be shown. For, even thoughthe settingof the film was in
Greece, thestoryof a countryundermilitarydomination,withthe accompanying
excessive human rightsviolation, etc., so paralleled the Argentinesituationthat
the generals fearedthatit mightincite increased terroristactivityon the part of
such antigovernment groups as the Montonerosand the Ejército Revolucionario
's
del Pueblo (People RevolutionaryArmy).
Gavras's StateofSiege was, however,permittedto be shownin thecountry.This
film,which is based on an actual historicaleventin neighboringUruguay,deals
withthe kidnappingand subsequentmurderof American CIA secret agent Dan

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INTERNATIONAL
SOCIAL SCIENCE REVIEW 25

Mitrioneby the militantantigovernment Tupumaros.One speculationas to why


this film was acceptable when Z had not been was that the Argentinemilitary
governmenthoped thatthe film's action, which was directedagainstthe "Yankee
devil," would discharge or redirectsome of the strongantigovernment feeling
which had built up in the Argentinesagainst theirown government.
Even thoughall filmshad to be approvedby the governmentcensorshipoffice,
occasionally a film with a strong sexual orientationwould unexplainablyslip
through.But when it did, it usually did not last long. Such was the case of
Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, starringMarlon Brando. I saw the movie in
Buenos Aires theday itopened. The nextday,thegovernment confiscatedthefilm
and closed the theater.
On at least one occasion, censorshipwas suspectedof being the resultof anti-
Semitic feelingon the part of the militarygovernment.AlthoughArgentinahas
repeatedlydenied officiallythat anti-Semitismexists in the country,recurring
activitiesagainstJewshave indicatedit not only exists but is neverfarbelow the
surface. The case in point here was the film Los Gauchos Judios ( The Jewish
Gauchos) by ArgentinadirectorJuanJosé Jusid.Originally,the reason given for
censoringthe filmwas "for privateand unlistedreasons." The resultingreaction,
primarilyfromthe intellectualcommunity,was so strongthatthe censors were
forced to come up with another reason. The real reason, they finallytried to
explain, was thatthe filmhad not faithfully interpretedthe real meaning of the
book on whichitis based. That book, whichbore thesame name, had been written
in 1910 bytheArgentineauthor,AlbertoGerchunoff,14 and itshistoricauthenticity
had neverbeforebeen questioned.
Nor did opera and the theaterescape the military'spuritanicalattention.Four-
teen monthsafterGeneral Ongania seized controlof the government,Japanese
Crown Prince Akihitopaid a statevisit to Argentina.In honor of the occasion,
Stravinski'sRite of Springwas presented.Halfwaythroughthe performance,the
generalusheredhis wifeand 28-year-olddaughterout ofthetheater.The following
morning,he informedthe mayorof Buenos Aires that it was a dirtyballet and
should notbe performedthere.So dirtywas it, he explained,thathe had had to go
to confessionas a resultof having attended.
In August 1967, the Federal Police raided Buenos Aires's Instituteof Modern
ArtTheaterand closed it minutesbeforethe scheduledopeningof Harold Pinter's
The Homecoming.The theaterhad to remainclosed 15 days as a penaltyand as a
warningto themand othertheatergroupsnotto produce anyother"dirtyplays" in
the future.
Still further
evidence ofcensorshipin theperforming artshas to do withAlberto
Ginastera,who was the firstArgentineto compose an opera of any importance.
The premiere performanceof his Bomarzo was in Washington,D.C., to an
audience which included the likes of the late Vice PresidentHubert Humphrey.
However, three monthslater,just prior to its scheduled opening in Argentina,
Ongania banned the opera because it was "too obsessed with sex."15

Results of the Censorship


While the militarydictatorsof Argentinaof that era seemed obsessed with
censorshipof the mass media withinthe country,the potentialeffectsof media

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26 WINTER1991,VOLUME66, NUMBER1

from'outside the countryseemed to be of less concern to them.


The major citiesof Argentinalie in close geographicalproximityto neighboring
countrieson all but the east side. So, while the governmentcould censor the
national press, radio, and television,it could not preventthe entranceof radio
signals fromoutsidethecountry.Such an example is thepowerfulRadio Colonia,
located in Uruguay,just 25 miles across the Rio de la Plata, which separates
Uruguay and Argentinaon the northeast.So people in centralArgentinatuned
regularlyto sources such as thisto findout whatwas happeningwithinthecountry.
Also, Voice of America, the BBC, Radio Moscow, and Radio Peking (from a
transmitter in Havana, Cuba) put strongsignals intoArgentina,as well as stations
fromtheotherneighboringcountriesof Paraguay,Bolivia, and Chile. As a result,
Argentineswereprettywell awareofmuchthatwas happeningin theircountryas a
result of informationthat was spiritedout of the countryand sent back in by
foreignmedia.
Attemptswere made to controlforeignmedia representatives.At one time, all
foreignnews media representativeshad to registerwith the government.16 But
action directedat foreignmedia personnel was usually sporadic and unevenly
applied. In 1977, two such instancesdid occur. In October of thatyear,thepolice
arrestedseveral foreignjournalists covering a demonstrationof 350 women in
frontoftheCongressbuilding.Amongthosearrestedwere UnitedStatesreporters
from NBC radio, UPI, CBS-TV, The Will StreetJournal, plus an Argentine
national workingforAP.'7
The followingmonth,Al Ortiz of Voice of America and Derek Wilson of the
BBC were detained forseven hours forhavingtriedto record an interviewwith
some women who had assembled in Plaza de Mayo in frontof the Government
House to demand informationabout disappeared relatives. The officialreason
given fordetainingthe reporterswas "for verificationof theiridentities."18
But verylittlepreventedforeignjournalistsfromfilingtheirstories,even if they
had to cross theriverintoneighboringUruguayor Paraguayto do so, a tripwhich
in some locationswas less thanhalfan hour.And retaliationforunflattering stories
sent out of the countrywas sporadic and generallyineffective.
Despite thetightcontrolon theirown news magazines, littleor no attemptwas
made on any regularbasis to keep out foreignmagazines. I do notrememberever
missinga copy of theinternational editionof Timemagazine to whichI subscribed
throughoutmy seven years there. News periodicals fromboth the United States
and Europe enteredmore or less freelyand were only sporadicallyconfiscated,as
in the case of Ongania already mentioned.
About the only foreignmagazine strictlyforbiddenwas Playboy, and customs
searches were diligentin interceptingcopies which could readilybe obtained in
neighboringcountries.However,one was neversureifthediligenceofthecustoms
agentsto get theirhands on Playboy was officiallyor personallymotivated.This
censorshipon moralgroundscomplementedthegovernment'spolicy on contentof
televisionprogramsand films.The televisionprogramof popular filmstarLiber-
tad Leblanc was cancelled because of too much skin being displayedto suit the
government.19

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SOCIAL SCIENCE REVIEW
INTERNATIONAL 27

Observations
These specific attemptsof the Argentinemilitarygovernmentsto muzzle all
theirmass media fornearlytwo decades point us towardseveral observations.
First,media censorshipas an effectivemeans of controllingtheflowof informa-
tion into, and within, a countryhas become a thing of the past. In today's
electronicage, itis futileifnot,in thefinalanalysis,impossible. Whereas national
channelsof printand electronicjournalismmaybe somewhatcontrolled,multiple
incomingelectronicsignalscannot. In situationssuch as Argentina's,wheremany
broadcast band stationscan easily be picked up fromneighboringcountrieson
readilyavailable transistorizedradios and on car radios, thereis no effectiveway
of preventingpersons withinthe countryfromlistening.And, withsuch a multi-
plicity of signals, jamming becomes impossible. Now, with receptiondirectly
fromsatellites,internalcensorshipis renderedeven more useless.
Second, attemptsat media censorshipare counterproductive.When a people
becomes aware thatnews is being withheldfromthem, rumorsrun rife. In the
absence of reliable information,human naturetends to imagine the worst. This
conditionis exacerbatedwhere thereis already great distrustof the government
and, in addition, it leads to even greaterdistrustand animosity.The personal
experience of the author in the Argentinesituationverifiesthat the numberof
rumorsseemed to runin directproportionto thedegree of media repressionat any
given time. So, the streetswere constantlyalive withdistortedor totallybaseless
reportsabout supposed incidentswhichhad happenedin one partofthecountryor
whatwas about to happenwithinthegovernment.But nobodybelieved theofficial
reportsin the nationalmedia.
Third, the only way a governmentcan hope to controlnews effectivelyis to
preventmedia's access to it in the firstplace. But even thistypeof controlhas its
limits. For media personnel have ways of obtaininginformation.And, unless
bordersare totallyclosed and watched carefully,reporterscan and do cross into
neighboringcountriesand file theirstories. And, once in internationalchannels,
news inevitablymakes its way back to the place of its origin via some medium.
These conclusions are not necessarilypeculiar to the Argentinesituationof the
1960's and 1970's. They only demonstratethatthe Argentinemilitaryregimesof
thatera fell victimto what theyeitherdid not know,or chose to ignore, about
attemptsat mass media censorshipin today's world.

NOTES
'J.Frost, editor,WorldRadio-TV Handbook 1985, New York: Billboard Publi-
cations, 1984, pp. 313-315, 429.
2RobertBrown, editor, Editor and Publishing International Yearbook 1985,
New York: Editor and Publisher, 1985, pp. 57-60.
3Commonweal,February 18, 1977, pp. 103-104.
"ArthurBanks and William Street,editors, Political Handbook of the World:
1982-1983, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983, p. 25.
'New Yorklimes, January¿4, 1973, p. I.
6Ibid., May 15, 1977, p. 17.
Ubid., November 11, 1977, p. 7.

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28 WINTER1991,VOLUME66, NUMBER1

'Banks and Street,loc. cit.


9NewYorkTimes, May 22, 1983, p. II, 25.
i0Newsweek,August 18, 1969, p. 91.
"New YorkTimes, September9, 1976, p. 8.
nNewsweek,August 8, 1966, p. 45.
"Time, August 18, 1976, p. 33.
l4TheNation, August 16, 1975, p. 126.
l5lime, August 18, 1976, p. 33.
l6NewYorkTimes, June6, 1978, p. 8.
"Ibid. , October 15, 1977, p. 9.
"Ibid. , November25, 1977, p. 17.
l9Time,August 18, 1976, p. 33.

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