The Bodies Counted Are Our Own

Long-jailed journalist Jacobo Timerman on press repression

Context clues: During Argentina’s Dirty War, Jacobo Timerman, the founding publisher of a newspaper called La Opinión, was held prisoner by state agents, stripped of his citizenship, and eventually expelled from the country. The following report appeared in the May/June 1980 edition of CJR.

For many years, we have been subjected to a drumroll of tragic statistics—the genocides in Southeast Asia, the thousands imprisoned in the Russian gulags, the millions exterminated in Nazi concentration camps, the hordes of Chinese exe­cuted in Mao’s cultural revolution, the scores of people—their corpses coated with cement—who were thrown into the Rio de la Plata by the government of Argentina. The question for the press is a moral one: Is it enough merely to report the impersonal statistics?

As a recently released political prisoner, my strong belief is that the press must join the battle for human rights in the world. I believe it must go beyond an­swering the question of how many lives have been lost and ask itself the question: How many lives can we save? The numbers here are a traumatic statistic.

I discovered that a special relationship exists between journalism and human rights, first as an editor of a newspaper engaged in the human-rights struggle under a military dictatorship, then as a prisoner sub­jected to torture by that same government. For thirty months—from April 15, 1977, through September 25, 1979—I was held captive by the Argentine army. I spent twelve months in various prisons, although I had not been charged with any crime nor had I ever been brought to trial; and I spent eighteen months under strict house arrest.

For the first forty days I was kept in a clandestine jail, where I was tortured and interrogated. For the next thirty days, my jail was in the police headquarters in Buenos Aires. There I was allowed to see my wife and children for from three to five minutes each day in a small room crowded with people. Although it was difficult to carry on a conversation there, I was able to tell my family of at least some of the tortures I had been subjected to. No journalists were permitted to see me, and those who heard of my experiences raised the question: Who will be named as the source if we pub­lish any of this information? Fearful of what the gov­ernment might do, I did not want my family to be named. And the national press was afraid to act.


The international press, too, had to have some source to whom to attribute details. Despite the difficulties involved, I was able to put to­gether some news, which was then sent abroad. When, subsequently, I was transferred to an­other clandestine prison, my family was acutely aware that my only hope of being saved lay in spreading the word about my situation.

Then, once again, I was back in the hands of the army. This time, however, there was less torture and some guards even showed me brief Argentine newspa­per accounts about my disappearance. The accounts bore datelines from various cities and were credited to news agencies. So the news was getting out.

My situation improved after the arrival, first, of Pa­tricia Derian, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, then of U.S. Representative Benjamin Gilman, of New York, in August 1977, who, as a member of the Inter-Amer­ican Affairs Subcommittee, was allowed to interview me in the Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires. I was transferred to a legal prison. There, whenever they could win the friendship of one of the guards, journalists were able to get some newspapers to me. There, too, I was allowed to see my family for up to an hour a day. As time went on, we were able to organize and re­fine a kind of news-spreading chain, whose effective­ness demonstrated to us the importance of the press. It worked like this:

  • Each time The Buenos Aires Herald—the outspo­ken English-language daily—published an article about my situation, my wife and children distributed copies to the international news agencies and to for­eign correspondents. They also telexed these articles to papers throughout the world.
  • My wife also engaged Argentine journalists to write articles, under a pseudonym, which were then sent off to newspapers and magazines abroad. As they ap­peared, copies of these articles would then be distrib­uted to the international news agencies in Buenos Aires. A few Argentine papers would always print at least a few lines.
  • Through the help of friends, my wife and children managed to obtain statements on my behalf from abroad—from institutions, prominent politicians, au­thors, and clergy. If the statement was issued in a small French city and not picked up by the French press, we would try to have it played up elsewhere in Europe—London, for example—and then sent via a news agency to Buenos Aires.

While it is probably true that the Argen­tine press used no more than one per­cent of what was published abroad, all the clippings from the foreign press about Argentina were on the desks of army leaders and members of the government. It became clear to us that what appeared to be merely professional journalistic reporting compelled the government to become more concerned about establishing its “legal” relationship with me. The government showed its power by confis­cating my newspaper (it is now owned by the army and edited by a colonel) and other property, and by taking away my citizenship and expelling me from Argentina, but it could not accuse me of any crime because the international press had already laid bare the true na­ture of my situation: that I had been imprisoned and my paper closed down because I denounced all kinds of terrorism, whether carried out by the left or the right, the state or the individual; because La Opinion de­fended the right to life and to a legal trial of any ar­rested person and published lists of the thousands of abduction victims who were never heard of again. (The Buenos Aires Herald was the only other paper that performed a similar task. Last December, its editor, Robert Cox, had to leave Argentina because of the constant death threats he and his family had received. As he explained in an article in Newsweek, the threats came from the very security forces which should have protected him from them.)

My family and I were able to establish our simple, yet effective, news-spreading chain because I am a professional journalist. I was encouraged to continue my efforts, both when in prison and later under house arrest, because I observed that each time a prisoner’s relative was able to give him some facts about the cam­paign being waged on my behalf, the prisoner felt en­couraged: he assumed that, beyond the prison walls, the international press was taking a strong stand against the Argentine dictatorship. Often, this was the only source of encouragement. I believe, however, that prisoners of conscience deserve more than the notice afforded a journalist who, like myself, happens to have good contacts abroad. They deserve attention on their own account.


Unofficial estimates of the number of Argen­tine journalists who have “disappeared” or been murdered by members of the military forces range from sixty to seventy. It would seem that in Argentina we have witnessed the first ge­nocide of journalists to occur in a Western hemisphere nation. Two years ago, the Inter-American Press Asso­ciation awarded its Ottmar Mergenthaler prize for the struggle for a free press to the murdered and missing journalists of Argentina and to those imprisoned there. Fearful of the government’s repressive measures, the Argentine delegation to the IAPA congress did not ac­cept the prize. It is being held in the association’s of­fices in Miami, waiting for someone to claim it. Per­haps it is waiting to be claimed by the ghosts of all those Argentine journalists who were tortured with electric shocks, whose feet were burned, whose genitals were smashed by hammer blows, whose corpses were thrown into the sea from a helicopter.

Why has the military government’s violence against journalists reached a magnitude that is, perhaps, even greater than that brought to bear against the nation’s terrorists? A totalitarian government, be it left wing or right wing, has a fixed image of itself, a rigid concept of its role in history, and an unshakeable concept of its own justness. The only force that can topple this mono­lithic structure is the press. For only the press can dis­pute that monopoly on reality which is the sine qua non for the existence of any totalitarian government. An­other essential is that it must project an image of strength. But when a government persecutes obsessive­ly, it is, in fact, weak. To allow itself to be perceived as weak is, for a totalitarian government, intolerable. Thus, the government of Argentina has consistently sought to prevent coverage of its murderous fury.

Obsessed with maintaining an image of strength and rectitude, totalitarian governments pay close attention to foreign coverage. It may be useful at this point to describe the kind of attention such coverage receives. In Argentina, the international press is re­viewed daily by the intelligence agencies and special­ists in psychological warfare, as well as by assistants in the offices of the president, the army, and the ministry of economics.

Typical scenarios, with appropriate officialese, could be as follows:

Place: Army General Headquarters. Meeting of the Com­mander in Chief with heads of various divisions.

Object of the Meeting: Report of the head of the Intelli­gence Department on recent events related to the campaign against Argentina being conducted abroad.

Report: Long article in Le Monde about a group of Argen­tine mothers who reported their children had disappeared.

Conclusion: Le Monde is a newspaper controlled by the French left-wing, and its reporting on Argentina is exclusive­ly in the hands of the terrorists in exile. Other French newspapers have been gradually distancing themselves from the public relations office engaged by the Argentine government in Paris and from the office of communication opened by the presidency of the Argentine nation. The anti-Argentine cam­paign in France will be difficult to counteract.

Report: Article in The Washington Post on the conditions of prisons in Argentina.

Conclusion: The Washington Post has joined the anti-Ar­gentine campaign. Therefore it must be assumed that, given the influence of this newspaper in Washington, it would be difficult to get any American congressmen to become inter­ested in defending the Argentine point of view. It is to be expected that a sister publication, Newsweek, will pick up the campaign. In all likelihood The Washington Post, through its contacts in Congress, will lead some congressmen to demand from the Argentine government a public statement on the conditions of some prisoners.

Suggestion: That the ambassador in Washington attempt to persuade friendly congressmen to write personal letters to the president of Argentina, expressing their interest in the fate of some prisoners whose release could be [safely] granted in the immediate future [as a face-saving device].

The above may seem a hallucination. However, it accurately depicts a part of the mechanism used to deal with Argentina’s image abroad. This mechanism is capable of producing an infinite variety of responses: purchase of special sections in newspapers and maga­zines to explain the government’s point of view; the offer of lucrative contracts to foreign news agencies in exchange for a benevolent attitude regarding Argenti­na, or for at least remaining silent on the subject of human rights violations; search for renowned scholars who will justify the barbaric repressions with apoca­lyptic arguments about what would have happened if such measures had not been taken; invitations to journalists and public figures to visit the country under the government’s auspices; engagement of large public re­lations agencies in New York, Frankfurt, London, Paris, Rome; utilization of multinational corporations, owning highly profitable businesses in Argentina, as pressure groups in their own countries.

One could go on and on. But all I am trying to bring out is the inordinate importance that a totalitarian government gives to its image. Given this chink in the armor of a totalitarian regime, journalists throughout the world must decide whether simply giving informa­tion about what is happening—the numbers of those killed, “missing,” or imprisoned—is enough. Or whether they must go beyond a journalism that merely exposes reality to one that helps to save lives.

The difference between  tragic statistics—the sum of lives lost—and traumatic statistics—the sum of those we might have saved—was a subject I often discussed with my staff in Buenos Aires. It was a matter I was led to understand only because I was forced to live it through, because I had to decide daily which of two attitudes to adopt: Should I try to save as many lives as possible even if this meant a confrontation with the army, or should I remain silent, as did the editors of other Argentine papers, who justified their silence by claiming that, in a better future, they would still be around to help democratize the country? I chose to save lives. I believe Robert Cox did, too. And both of us were forced to leave Argentina.

The violation of human rights in the world has reached such levels of permanency, magnitude, and so­phistication that I, for one, cannot see how journalists can still regard the topic as a subtheme in political, social, and diplomatic coverage. I believe it has be­ come a theme, or beat, in itself. And in moral terms, coverage of it has become an obligation. Even in pro­fessional terms, it deserves a department to itself, one requiring no less commitment, space, and specializa­tion than that required for a paper’s “Bridge,” “Furni­ture,” or “Food” departments.

In my office as editor of La Opinion, I was able to save lives by covering human rights as thoroughly as sports, for instance. And when I was in prison, I could often ascertain that a few lines in The New York Times, an article in Le Figaro, or a statement in the Corriere della Sera had immediate repercussions on our living conditions and treatment as prisoners. I witnessed how a campaign conducted by the Los Angeles Times saved the lives of an entire Argentine family. And I myself would not be free now had not the for­eign press—the U.S. press, in particular—kept up a steady barrage of coverage about my plight.


On many occasions while in prison I asked myself what would happen if the world’s twenty leading newspapers were to print a weekly list of journalists imprisoned for de­fending the free press in different countries. One could ask why journalists and not physicians. I do not know. But this was my thought in prison because I realized that the press can do more in the struggle for human rights than the pope, the United Nations, and Amnes­ty International.

The tragic statistics that appear in the press these days are, perhaps, inevitable. But perhaps we could do something to reduce the magnitude of those statistics, if for no other reason than to keep the press from being haunted by the nightmare of thinking it could have saved some lives if only it had realized the true extent of its influence.

Many of my fellow prisoners of conscience and I knew that our release was not close at hand. However, when some newspapers reported on our situation in distant places of this world, be it a small town or a large city, this news reached us by that miracle of com­munication which political prisoners the world over have managed to establish. And it helped us to live through that day; to not give up in the face of filth, starvation, and despair; to reject suicide. A small piece of information published in San Diego or Quebec, in Edinburgh or Naples, in Tel Aviv or Costa Rica, lifted, if only briefly, the burden of that worst of all punish­ments: loneliness. The awareness that there was someone out there who, for a moment of his or her life, cared about us saved many lives.

And only journalism could do it.




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Jacobo Timerman was abducted by government agents in 1977 and held prisoner by the Argentine army for thirty months.

TOP IMAGE: Jacobo Timerman, 1984; AP Photo/Eduardo di Baia