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Press: War as a Media Event

9 minute read
William A. Henry III

In El Salvador, truth is elusive, danger too dose

At the Camino Real hotel in San Salvador, where most of them stay, the 200-odd foreign journalists in El Salvador daily swap stories of near misses and miraculous escapes. In one episode a photographer rolled under his car just in time to elude bullets blasting from a helicopter gunship overhead. In another, a van carrying an NBC crew had its windows blown out; the passengers got away unhurt save for cuts from flying glass. Such adventures are often recounted with black humor, and justified on the grounds of competitive pressure. Says one U.S. newsman: “If another network gets a story and gets out alive, then it was safe to go, and I should have.”

But last week brought a frightening reminder of what every journalist in El Salvador knows beneath the bravado: that danger is more than barroom folklore. Four Dutch TV newsmen set out to film rebel encampments near the dusty village of Santa Rita in northern Chalatenango Department. They arrived to meet guerrilla contacts at 5 p.m. Ten minutes later, villagers heard prolonged shooting. Eight people died. The four Dutchmen were shot repeatedly at close range, and their bodies were quickly removed to the capital by Salvadoran soldiers. The army claimed that they died in a firefight, but most reporters suspected that instead the Dutchmen were followed by the army to the rebels, then murdered. A week before their deaths the four Dutchmen had been called in for five hours of questioning by the Hacienda, or treasury, police because the name of one of them, Jacobus Andries Koster, 46, had been on a piece of paper allegedly found on the body of a slain guerrilla. Koster and Jan Kuiper, 39, had a reputation in The Netherlands for deep emotional commitment to Latin American revolutionary movements.

The Dutchmen were killed on the same day that a “hit list” surfaced naming 35 people, mostly journalists, as targets of right-wing death squads. Most correspondents felt the list was probably a hoax and tried to dismiss it with sarcastic remarks. Some of the people named had long since left the country—although at least one,

Alan Riding of the New York Times, went because of repeated warnings from Salvadoran friends. At week’s end eight journalists who drove up to inspect the site where the Dutch died had a scare that suggested the list could be taken more seriously. Armed men jumped out of a cattle truck, demanded identification and acted menacing. Said Photographer Susan Meiselas: “We all thought this was it.”

The sudden specter of violent death—the first of a foreign journalist in El Salvador since early last year when Photographer Olivier Rebbot was shot—heightened the pressures of covering a war that is in some measure a staged media event. Both Secretary of State Alexander Haig and El Salvador’s Marxist-dominated rebels say that the government of President José Napoleón Duarte cannot last without U.S. military aid. Thus both sides are fighting partly to influence American opinion. When New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal returned this month from a tour to “get the feeling” of the situation, he said he had never seen a place “where journalism was more part of the process … Everybody is trying to manipulate the press, not only Salvadorans but Haig.”

Until last week the press pack had nonetheless maintained a wry esprit de corps. Some correspondents sported T shirts that said in Spanish DON’T SHOOT. Others groused that the capital’s supply of Beaujolais had been drunk up by the legions of new arrivals. The newcomers complained that all the cars had been rented. Newspaper writers watched with envy and amusement as the U.S. TV networks started a bidding war for the services of an able woman interpreter.

Most of the journalists are from the U.S., but there are contingents from Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Japan and Brazil. Paul Ellman of the Times of London, looking at the “circus” at breakfast at the Camino Real, sighed for the days a year ago when “only one floor of the hotel was operating, for six or seven reporters.” Back then, he said wistfully, “it was a great little war.”

Now the press corps is so big and the country so small (4.9 million people in an area the size of Massachusetts) that reporters often end up at the same skirmishes, trying to match one another, quote for quote and photo for photo. Earlier this month a crew for Cable News Network struggled along a dirt road as bumpy as a creek bed toward a former school where the army had installed an antiguerrilla operation. With its armed soldiers and landing helicopters, the place provided the kind of “visuals” that television thrives on. Only one sight marred this otherwise perfect photo opportunity: Richard Wagner of CBS and his crew had got there first. Wagner, who had spent a week negotiating his way into the encampment, was exasperated. “This country’s too damn small,” he said. “You can’t even get an exclusive.”

Reporters cluster at the same scenes of combat because they all monitor the same radio reports and get the same tips. The congestion of journalists is irksome, but it has provided a check on facts and, more important, judgment. Many reporters are new to the country and do not know Spanish. Network crews, for example, stay only three to five weeks and might not return there. Some of the reporters in El Salvador have little experience reporting. When one young newspaperman tried to tell a tableful of war-wise colleagues that 5,000 refugees had been trapped and shelled by government forces—the essence of a rebel propaganda broadcast—the graybeards picked the story apart. Only a handful of bodies had been found. There was no trace of large numbers of others. If 5,000 people had been there, they had been made to disappear without leaving a shred of proof.

But even the oldest hands have trouble getting to the truth. Accounts by witnesses are often skewed by political bias or fear of reprisal, and prisoners who might offer useful testimony rarely survive long with the army. When a reporter asked one lieutenant colonel if he had anyone in custody, the officer replied: “We had a prisoner, but somehow he died.”

The guerrillas are extremely press conscious. As Author David Halberstam observed last month in a Wall Street Journal column, “The conduct of a guerrilla war is largely political.” By contrast, the army is not used to having to justify itself and has little sense of public relations. Says one TV producer: “The army does not try to distinguish between a liberal Italian newspaper and the National Broadcasting Company.”

The uneven quality of coverage has improved considerably with the influx of old pros such as Peter Arnett of Cable News Network, a Pulitzer prizewinner for Viet Nam coverage when he was with the Associated Press. The correspondents are a little like political reporters in the U.S., often less interested in ideology and its consequences than in the sheer struggle for power. The Marxist orientation of the guerrillas has been better noted than it was in coverage of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, which was widely portrayed as pluralistic. But reporters have generally failed to distinguish among the five loosely connected rebel groups, which have widely differing philosophies. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal did characterize the factions, in succinct though belated articles, last week.

An even more crucial if common oversight is the fact that women and children, generally presumed to be civilians, can be active participants in guerrilla war. New York Times Correspondent Raymond Bonner underplayed that possibility, for example, in a much protested Jan. 27 report of a massacre by the army in and around the village of Mozote.

Bonner, 39, a boyish and moody former Nader’s Raider, is at once probably the most energetic and the most controversial reporter on the scene. Some peers vigorously defend him; others say he is readier to believe guerrillas than the government. A fellow Times reporter says Bonner’s reporting caused a rift with Deane Hinton, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador. One of Bonner’s most debated stories, published in January, suggested that U.S. military advisers had attended a session at which Salvadoran army officers allegedly tortured two rebel prisoners, one of them a 13-year-old girl. Bonner’s only source was a man living in Mexico who claimed to be a Salvadoran army deserter, whose key assertions about his family proved false, and who admitted his brother was a longtime guerrilla.

Bonner’s editor, Rosenthal, is critical in turn of the Associated Press for relying heavily on Salvadoran nationals. On returning from an inspection tour he told A.P. executives: “It was really asking a hell of a lot for a stringer to write about a civil war in his own country.” Rosenthal and other editors particularly disliked the work of Eduardo Vazquez Becker, recently removed as A.P.’s main local reporter in El Salvador. Becker is, however, credited with exceptional sources among the military and right-wing, largely through family connections and ideological sympathy. United Press International also drew complaints for relying on Salvadoran stringers. One major newspaper’s foreign editor said he would not trust wire service coverage from El Salvador even long enough to pull out his reporters for a rest.

The demands on the press in El Salvador are especially trying because coverage of events may be more important than the events themselves. Mistaking a firefight for a massacre, for example, could have an incalculable effect on American policy—and, given the importance of U.S. aid, on the eventual outcome in El Salvador. This responsibility weighs heavily on many correspondents. Shirley Christian of the Miami Herald, who won a Pulitzer Prize last year for her coverage of Latin America, has become even more influential among her peers since she published an article in the Washington Journalism Review detailing the failure of leading newspapers to probe the nature of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua until too late. Says Christian of the journalist’s responsibility in El Salvador: “People here will be left with the solution partly or wholly created by us—not just the American Government but the American press. Then we will all leave when the story disappears.”

—By William A. Henry III. Reported by Harry Kelly/San Salvador

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