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Chile: Lies, Censorship & El Mercurio

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“In Chilean history, 600 or 800 deaths are not important. Killing communists at a certain moment was a biological need for the military to keep functioning and it was needed in order to restore balance to the country”These are the words of Álvaro Puga in a scene from the Chilean documentary film El Diario de Agustín. In the 1970s and 80s, Puga was Communications Adviser to General Pinochet, a member of the DINA secret police, and a columnist for the Santiago evening newspaper La Segunda.

Page from La Segunda alleging missing MIR members killed in ArgentinaMore than forty years after the coup d’état which overthrew the democratic government and brought military rule to Chile, the legacy of the dictatorship continues to be felt throughout daily life. The latest instance centres on the recent broadcast of a Chilean documentary on state television channel TVN.

Ignacio Agüero’s 2008 film El Diario de Agustín examines the role of the El Mercurio newspaper group in the CIA campaign against the Unidad Popular, the 1970-73 democratic government of Salvador Allende, and the group’s complicity in human rights abuses committed under the Pinochet regime. The screening on July 6 2014, the first time El Diario de Agustín has been shown on Chilean public television, came after a protracted saga which raised serious doubts about journalistic liberty in the country and saw accusations of censorship and conflicts of interest levelled at the government.

The full film can be watched here:

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In May 2010, shortly after the election of the right-wing candidate Sebastián Piñera to the Chilean presidency, TVN acquired the rights to El Diario de Agustín, having agreed with the filmmakers to show the documentary three times over the next three years. Yet when the agreement expired in 2013, it remained unscreened. The rights were then picked up by independent cable channel ARTV, but plans to broadcast the film were blocked, leading to the resignation of channel director Natalia Arcos.

Arcos subsequently claimed that she had been angrily instructed by ARTV head Luis Venegas that under no circumstances would El Diario de Agustín air on the channel. ARTV had until then been known for its political and cultural coverage, with programming that often addressed socially relevant themes in Chile and Latin America.

Following on from the no-show controversy at TVN, as well as a cancelled screening at Santiago’s Museum of Memory and Human Rights, many suspected that El Mercurio owner Agustín Edwards Eastman was behind attempts to stifle public access to El Diario de Agustín. Given that the film chronicles a litany of El Mercurio transgressions both prior to the coup and during military rule, it would be in the media group’s interests that Aguero’s film be watched by as few people as possible.

El Mercurio is the world’s oldest Spanish-language newspaper. Founded in 1827 in the port of Valparaiso, it was bought by Agustín Edwards Ross in 1890 and handed down through the family generations to Agustín Edwards Eastman. El Mercurio upholds a tradition of conservative opinion reflected in its editorial and reporting that, along with that of its sister papers La Segunda and Las Últimas Noticias, has made the Edwards politically and financially one of the most influential families in Chile.

"El Mercurio Lies" --banner placed by Popular Unity supporters, 1972Agüero’s film opens with archive footage from a 1974 dinner to mark El Mercurio’s 50,000th edition. Alongside the newspaper’s board of directors and editorial staff, several officials from the military regime are in attendance, including Augusto Pinochet. It emphasises the close links the dictatorship enjoyed with the media company, as Pinochet was indebted to El Mercurio for both its overt and clandestine support for the overthrow of the government during the campaign against Allende. “El Mercurio is a bulwark against totalitarianism,” stated the general in 1975, without any sense of irony.

In 1970, the CIA, which had for the previous few years been seeking to obstruct Allende’s presidential ambitions, began funding a concerted propaganda and misinformation campaign in El Mercurio. Recently-released CIA documents reveal a meeting between Agustín Edwards Eastman and agency director Richard Helms in Washington DC on September 14 1970, ten days after Allende’s election victory. According to the documents and the testimony of ex-CIA agent Jack Devine, the CIA provided Edwards with around US$2m over the next three years. Edwards has always denied this.

 In the aftermath of the coup, El Mercurio was spreading military propaganda before the smoke had even cleared from the rubble of La Moneda Palace. Its front page carried photos of several people targeted by the military authorities for being members of the Communist Party, trade unionists or supporters of the Unidad Popular and facing probable death if detained.

The newspaper also actively misled the public over conditions in the many concentration camps set up by the military from the Atacama Desert to the Antarctic. One such camp was on Dawson Island in Chile’s extreme south, lashed throughout the year by freezing weather conditions and where surviving members of Allende’s cabinet such as José Tohá and Sergio Bitar were imprisoned.

El Mercurio made Dawson Island sound like a holiday camp, publishing an article on October 5 1973 which criticised ‘international organisations’ that ‘complain about (prisoners) being sent to inhospitable places where they lack all kind of substance. But this is not Siberia, nor is it a concentration camp. Wood exists in abundance, at arm’s reach; for food they have exquisite (foodstuffs) on the coasts, to go and gather sea-urchins, clams, mussels, etc.’ The first post-dictatorship Chilean government’s 1991 investigation into human rights abuses, the Rettig Report, exposed the reports as falsehoods, highlighting the lack of sufficient food and clothing on Dawson Island.

44 years on El Mercurio still liesEl Diario de Agustín provides further evidence of El Mercurio’s wilful collaboration with the military authorities. Foremost among these is the case of Operation Colombo, a systematic programme of elimination undertaken by Pinochet’s secret police force, the DINA (Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional). Operation Colombo aimed to liquidate political opponents of the dictatorship, several of whom belonged to the Movimiento Izquierdista Revolucionario (MIR), a left- wing militant organisation.

As the list of those missing grew longer, El Mercurio and other newspapers published a stream of articles claiming that any deaths were the result of internecine disputes among MIR activists and that they had taken place in Argentina. Not only was this intended to refute military involvement in extrajudicial assassinations, it also helped cover up the authorities’ modus operandi of forced disappearances.

When victims’ bodies were discovered, as seen in El Diario de Agustin with the case of Marta Ugarte, newspapers changed their identities and cause of death so as to obscure links to the security forces. Ugarte, a 42-year old member of the Communist Party, was killed by the DINA and dumped at sea, only for her body to wash up on the coast. The Chilean press reported the death of a 23-year old brutally attacked in a ‘crime of passion’.

Álvaro Puga was an important bridge between military regime and the media. As Pinochet’s communications adviser and a member of the DINA, he orchestrated the propaganda campaign and passed information directly to the media, including the list of 119 victims of Operation Colombo. El Mercurio, La Segunda and La Tercera, as well as foreign magazines and newspapers such as Argentina’s Lea and Brazil’s Novo O’Día subsequently printed the names and the fabricated story of a bloody feud within the MIR.

As if to underline the close association between military authorities and the media, Puga combined his official and clandestine roles in the regime with working as a columnist for La Segunda and as a regular contributor to other newspapers. He used his position to write columns which manipulated public opinion, praising the DINA’s work as ‘the cleanest I’ve ever seen’ or propagating the myth that members of the MIR were responsible for killing their comrades.

El Mercurio’s apparent attempts to suppress public access to El Diario de Agustín were largely successful in the first five years or so after the film’s release. Some observers suspected that the media group had allies within Sebastian Piñera´s right-wing coalition government, Alianza, who also wanted to downplay past human rights abuses. This seems plausible considering that TVN acquired the television rights to the film shortly after Piñera took office.

In a similar case in 2013, the Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán vehemently criticised TVN after the channel made unauthorised edits to his documentary Nostalgia por la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light), which centres on the search for the remains of regime victims in the Atacama. In an open letter to TVN executive director Mauro Valdés, published in several newspapers, but none belonging to the El Mercurio group, Guzmán wrote ‘this unacceptable sabotage of a cinematic work which clearly denounces the crimes of the dictatorship and features many people who were victims of repression and crime has left me utterly indignant… not only is it a violation of moral right and of my rights of as a film director, it is also a grave denial of recent Chilean history by a state television channel in a democratic country. It is probable that this is because there are those among your staff who deny the history of the dictatorship and express this via the media channel that you direct.’

The arduous quest to air El Diario de Agustín on public television has now finally come to an end. Whether or not this is related to a change in government, to the centre-left coalition of Michelle Bachelet’s Nueva Mayoría, remains a matter of conjecture. But for those who believe that state broadcasting ought to provide a platform for exploring Chile’s troubled history, regardless of the powerful figures it upsets, the screening of Ignacio Agüero’s film at least suggests a more objective stance in future.