Gen. Augusto Pinochet wipes tears away during his 1998 farewell speech when he retired as Commander-in-Chief of the Chilean armed forces. Photo courtesy of Reuters.
On the day before British Home Secretary Jack Straw ruled that General Augusto Pinochet could face extradition proceedings to Spain, a judge in Santiago, Chile, confiscated all the copies of the so-called “Black Book of Chilean Justice” from the publisher’s warehouse.

The book, which had not yet been released, is a journalistic investigation of several cases of corruption, nepotism and fraudulent practices inside Chile’s judicial branch of government. It describes judges’ ties to drug trafficking, pedophilic tendencies of certain court magistrates, and the predilection of Supreme Court Justice Servando Jordán, formerly the Chief Justice, for local whorehouses. Jordán, who gave the order prohibiting the book’s distribution, narrowly escaped being thrown off the bench two years ago after parliamentarians accused him of participating in cover-ups and protecting drug traffickers.

The extradition approval and the book confiscation took place on different days and different continents, but they must be interpreted in the same general context. If one wants to understand the stance of the Chilean media in regards to the Pinochet case, one must first understand the social context in which the media operate. On one hand, there is a legal system that imposes severe restrictions on freedom of expression; on the other hand, the media’s monopolistic ownership is closely linked to conservative sectors of public opinion. For the most part, the media are supporters of the former de facto ruler.

“Many seemingly plausible arguments can be advanced to explain the freedom of expression deficit [in Chile]. Among them are political and institutional factors, particularly political restraints imposed by the country’s authoritarian constitution,” observed a 1998 Human Rights Watch report entitled “Limits of Tolerance: Freedom of Expression and the Public Debate in Chile.” The report went on to say: “Government officials frequently point out that the undemocratic composition of the Senate has given conservatives and former supporters of the military government disproportionate power in government, enabling them to frustrate or dilute any far-reaching reform initiatives.”

This analysis was based on the nature of the orchestrated transition from the military to civilian governance, a change which occurred in 1989 when elected officials assumed power but within the context of a constitution that had been drawn up by Pinochet. The new constitution provided that he would continue in office for eight more years as Commander-in-Chief, unable to be removed from the post, and that subsequently he would hold the position of Senator-for-Life.

The Human Rights Watch report continues, “The need to respect this fragile consensus, it is argued, has imposed a tendency of caution, realism and deference to the middle ground, even self-censorship. It is also arguable that violations of freedom of expression arise mainly out of court rulings that reflect the conservative mentality of much of the judiciary.”

Fear of official sources’ reactions, fear of generating conflict, the fragile nature of public liberties and of democracy itself, characterize the climate in which the overwhelming majority of the press—with the exception of two small extreme left publications—reported on the arrest of the “Senator-for-Life.” In contrast, television networks such as CNN and CBS consistently refer to Pinochet as “the former Chilean dictator.” Without a doubt, this semantic difference in the treatment of this topic is symbolic of the coverage of the Pinochet case.

When newspapers such as Spain’s El País, The Washington Post or the Parisian Liberación carry editorials in favor of Pinochet’s arrest, they remind the public about the grounds of the accusations above and beyond the legalistic debates surrounding the arrest. They remind readers about the 3,000 disappeared people, the thousands of cases of torture, and the summary executions of those characterized as political enemies.

Frequently these news accounts have given a human face to chilling statistics and horrible histories. The world press places information about Chile in a historic context and, at the same time, gives it a personal context. Thus, it justifies value judgments with facts and reminds the reader of how Pinochet stands as a symbol of the time when Latin America was dominated by military regimes. The world press reminds its readers that the only reason former dictator Pinochet is a Senator-for-Life is that he wrote himself into office.

In Chile, however, the impact of these reminders is limited. Most Chileans lack Internet or cable television access to foreign media and instead rely on Chilean television to get their information. Chilean media occasionally address foreign coverage of the Pinochet arrest, but such acknowledgments are rare. Thus, when the Chilean press calls Pinochet “Senator-for-Life,” it situates itself in a present that is devoid of memory, conveniently forgotten by necessity. This is a form of pragmatism that takes for granted the limitations of a process marked by legal parameters, but not necessarily ethical ones. Otherwise, it cannot be understood why justice has been done in only a handful of emblematic human rights cases after nine years of democracy.

Page after page, hour after hour, in newspapers and television, are spent explaining the highly complex legal morass in which Pinochet finds himself, and yet the basic issue is somehow set aside: the recent history of Chile. In the official world, the one of the consensual transition, this theme is a very uncomfortable one for all its protagonists: 17 years of systematic violations of human rights, planned and executed by the State, against those who thought in a different way from the military government.

Even if we could leave aside discussion about whether military dictatorships are necessary, whether they are the result of processes of social breakdown generated by weak governments, and whether it is legitimate to use any means possible to eliminate subversion or other sorts of disquisitions (topics that are more appropriate to the realm of political science), what is certain is that in communication things must be called by their rightful names.

In the Chile of transition, the media do not talk about a dictator or a dictatorship. They talk about a military regime. The tortures which form the grounds for extradition are termed “illegitimate judicial compulsions,” as the law defines them. And when it is necessary to remember why Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon is accusing the general, the media resort to the term “alleged human rights violations.” The word “alleged” is consistently used despite the fact that everyone knows that the violations happened. Indeed, an official commission has set down these abuses in black and white, secure in the knowledge that the majority of perpetrators can never be brought to justice under Chilean law.

The dominance of the conservative sectors at an institutional level, as pointed out in the Human Rights Watch report, determines the course of the general narrative and the manipulation of language. It weaves an invisible thread throughout this socially constructed reality (see Berger and Luckmann, “The Social Construction of Reality.”) These sectors have managed to implant the idea that Pinochet’s arrest is an affront to national sovereignty: He is Chilean, most of the crimes were committed in Chile, and therefore the country’s courts should judge him.

It is a dangerous premise and one that the government is obligated to adopt in order not to create conflict with the military. If the constitutional mission of the armed forces is to defend sovereignty, anyone who argues in favor of Pinochet’s stay in Europe is therefore considered to be not just anti-Pinochet, but a traitor to the country and an enemy in the eyes of the military. The official way of thinking, with certain nuances, has become that the defense of Pinochet is also the defense of Chile.

The right has also been equally vehement in criticizing the judicial process against the general. It historically justified the military coup by asserting politicians’ incapability to rule the country and comparing politics with the worst of social vices. In this vein, too, any action against Pinochet has been branded as a merely political decision. This argument has been used once again to denigrate the resolutions of the House of Lords and Home Secretary Straw. If the decision had been in favor of Pinochet, then it undoubtedly would have been viewed as one that met the letter of the law. The right, in an old but undoubtedly effective strategy, labels as political everything that does not conform to the politics of the right.

This consistent type of coverage becomes possible because the majority of media in Chile are linked to some sector of the right. Some are linked to former members of the military regimes, which control the two largest newspaper chains. Others are connected with the most conservative sectors of the Catholic Church, which owns the largest television station.

It is paradoxical that the social and cultural world exemplified by the governing left-centrist coalition does not have its own media in which to express its perspectives. The existing public television channel must finance itself, competing in the market for advertising and administered by a seven-member board appointed by the Senate through a political quota system. This results in a virtual stalemate and a pact of nonaggression subjecting the station’s journalists to a hybrid editorial policy that tries to be all things to all people. This channel is presumed to be more pluralist than the others. However, it is not allowed to show films about the period of military dictatorship such as Costa Gavras’s “Missing,” which depicts Jack Lemmon as a father searching for his son, a North American journalist who is arrested and disappeared in the first days of the military coup. In the film, he finally discovers the tortured body of his son.

La Nación, the only state-owned newspaper, also has its problems; the newspaper now concentrates on covering sports events. La Nación was the protagonist of a major incident concerning freedom of expression during Chile’s political transition in May 1993, at the beginning of the democratic government, when it published a long article about the case popularly known as “Pinocheques.” The case involved bank documents discovered in 1991, revealing Army loans to Pinochet’s son, Augusto Pinochet Hiriart.

The long newspaper article, complete with photographs of the documents, was considered hostile and an act of provocation. In a meeting of generals, held in the Armed Forces building that is located in front of the government’s La Moneda palace, publication of the article was interpreted as harassment of the “Army and the person of its Commander-in-Chief.” To demonstrate their anger, the generals closed off the building, encircling it with a group of 60 elite and well-equipped black beret soldiers.

Responding to the generals, government authorities gave in to some of the demands of the military, including publication of a year-old comptrollers’ report which established that the “Pinocheques” operation was not a criminal act.

But that was not all.

That same day a general by the name of Concha talked directly to La Nación’s News Editor Alberto Luengo to negotiate the next day’s headline.

“Excuse me, general, but I have no instructions about this. We have never received an order concerning a headline from La Moneda, and we are certainly not going to receive one from you,” the editor said. “We want the main headline,” stressed Concha, after consulting with the generals while still on the phone.

A bit later Luengo received a call from Enrique Correa, one of the government’s most influential ministers. “Alberto,” he said. “It’s all well and fine not to cave into pressure, but the security of the state is involved and the solution for the country is for you to publish what they ask.”

The editor explained to Correa that he could not put the main headline on a year-old piece of news and that obviously the top story had to be about the unusual movement of troops in front of the presidential palace. And he said that if he was ordered to do otherwise, he would present his resignation.

“Resign then!” Luengo heard someone in Correa’s office exclaim. Managing Editor Abraham Santibañez told Correa that the military wanted the headline, “Army acted according to law in the checks case.” And he confirmed that the majority of the journalists would quit along with Luengo if the military got its way.

The solution negotiated by Correa and proposed by the managing editor was a Solomonic one: The edition would have no main headline. The issue came out with a large photo of one of the black berets and, in the middle of the page, the headline demanded by the military. Beneath that was another headline intended to please everyone: “Unusual Movement of Generals.” The true story of this cryptic front page was only known behind closed doors of the seats of power.

There were no resignations at the newspaper over this incident and no immediate reactions. However, when Eduardo Frei became President the following year, the newspaper’s editorial line was completely changed, and all the reporters who did political investigations and wrote about sensitive subjects left La Nación.

Today, in the Pinochet case, if one defines news as a fact, more than as a continuing narrative with an historic context, one has to conclude that the media in Chile at least collect the facts. Then they often write a story riddled with euphemisms and, in general, omit the broader context. Information is published (the text of Home Secretary Straw’s last decision, for example, was printed in its entirety, as were the arguments of the prosecutor and defense).

However, the emphasis in both the headlines and the placement of the information in newspapers and magazines conveys the sense that the Pinochet case is not being handled correctly. According to polls, a majority of Chileans believe that Pinochet is responsible for human rights violations, but this same majority feel that he should be tried in Chile and that he is being held illegitimately in England.

A photographer takes a picture of a placard featuring a caricature of Pinochet outside the House of Lords in London. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

Mirko Macari is a Chilean journalist who studied law before becoming a writer. He covers national and international political issues for the magazine El Sábado.

Translation by June Carolyn Erlick, Publications Director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University. She was the Inter-American Press Association investigator of unpunished crimes against journalists in Guatemala.

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