The irony of Chile’s media is that there was more ideological diversity and journalistic energy in the printed press in the late 1980s, in the waning years of the hard-line dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, than now when he is long gone and proponents of democracy are firmly in control. Two daily newspapers, El Mercurio and La Tercera, dominate. Both are politically right of center. Their virtual monopoly is a legacy of the scorched-earth ideological repression that took place when Pinochet took power in the 1970s, confiscating or closing all media organizations that did not cheer on his military government. Chile’s newspaper market became what one study called a market ”duopoly… accompanied by an ideological monopoly.”

One might think that such an unbalanced press would have been remedied in the sixteen years since Pinochet left power, especially considering that the center-left Concertación, a coalition of moderate Socialists and Christian Democrats, has won all the elections. But one would be wrong.

”In sixteen years of democracy, clearly we have a failure in this area,”said Ricardo Lagos Weber, a government minister and spokesman. ”We have a debit, as they say, a debt. The majority that voted for the Concertación still does not have a print medium with which it can fully identify. But what can the state do about this? That is a delicate question.”

Doing nothing–a hands-off policy–perhaps would be defensible. But fighting tooth and nail against the re-emergence of a paper shut down by Pinochet is harder to understand. Consider the Sisyphean struggle of ninety-two-year-old Victor Pey. Pey wants to relaunch Clarín, the raucous, left-leaning tabloid that was the largest-selling weekday paper in the country until it was confiscated by Pinochet as part of his military takeover in 1973.

Pey had purchased the paper a few months before it was confiscated, and he has been trying for more than ten years to get the current government to pay him financial restitution so that he can put Clarín back on the streets. The new Clarín, he assures me, will be independent of any party and will occupy the place it once had as a mass-circulation newspaper on the side of ordinary Chileans. It will be, as its masthead proclaimed in its heyday, Firme con el pueblo, ”Solidly With the People.”

Judging from Pey’s political associations, however, a new Clarín could also be counted on to be firme with most of the policies of the current government, while providing long-absent critical coverage of Chile’s powerful right-wing parties and business community. In a region in which objectivity is not the rule in journalism, diversity of political views and diversity of ownership in the media take on critical importance for democracy. A reasonable restitution settlement–projected in journalistic circles in Chile to be at least $50 million to $100 million–could ensure that Pey’s Clarín avoids the fate of several other newspaper start-ups in recent years that lacked the financial backing to survive.

So why is Chile’s government so furiously opposed to settling with Pey? It’s not for lack of democratic credentials or a willingness to make reparations for the abuses of the dictatorship. Chile’s current president, Michelle Bachelet, was herself a political prisoner. Her election last year as the country’s first woman president attracted wide and laudatory international coverage. Indeed, Chile is often held up as the shining example of the effort to re-establish democracy in Latin America. The Concertación governments have recognized their obligation to pay for confiscated property and have doled out tens of millions of dollars in reparations to human rights victims.

When it comes to repairing the skewed media situation left by Pinochet, however, the government has been curiously passive. And when it comes to the case of Pey and Clarín in particular, the government has put up a wall of opposition.

Victor Pey runs his private crusade to restore some ideological balance to the Chilean press from a modest second-floor apartment in the middle-class Ñuñoa neighborhood in Santiago. There is a worn brown rug, a chair with a broken back in front of a computer, and shelves of books, magazines, and photos from his variegated past. Pey is an erect man with pale skin and an aura of always being in a hurry. Now, recently recovered from a heart ailment, at his age he is understandably impatient to settle the dispute over Clarín and get on with the business of building a new newspaper.

John Dinges is the co-founder of the investigative journalism center in Santiago, Chile. He has written three books about military dictatorships and human rights in Latin America. The most recent is The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. He is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.