Argentines in the dark on war losses; Censored press only begins to hint all not well
Buenos Aires — At the climactic moment of the Falklands war, the blinkered world of Argentina is being denied an accurate picture of the cold, exhaustion, and military setbacks suffered by Argentine troops.
Although some Argentines are beginning to sense that all is not well with the troops in the Falkands, the propaganda mood remains upbeat.
What the mainland viewing public continues to see is well-rested, well-groomed young men moving backward and forward in armored personnel carriers or helicopters. Television film footage usually has a studio voice-over or dramatic background music, but the film clips show about as much emotion as dusty archive shots of anonymous army exercises.
''I always try and tune in to the BBC whenever possible, otherwise I just don't know what is really going on.''
These words of a senior foreign diplomat reflect the difficulties faced by anyone living in Argentina who wants to get a reasonably objective look at the war in the Falklands. For most ordinary Argentines, who do not listen in on the BBC, the difficulties are considerable.
Argentina is a country rich in newspapers and a healthy amount of well-informed, intelligent journalists, but the junta has allowed only one war correspondent onto the Falklands. Since he happens to work for the government-controlled TV network, the journalist's output is heavily censored.
Newspapers are still subject to rules laid down by the Army chiefs of staff soon after the British task force first appeared in Falkland waters. Journalists are advised to refrain from publishing any material that ''attacks national unity,'' ''provokes panic,'' ''helps the psychological objectives of the enemy, '' or ''gives information on military operations other than that described in official communiques.''
It has never been quite clear whether the rules apply as much to foreign correspondents as to local journalists. However, a reporter of the French newspaper Le Figaro, Jacques Lesigne, has become the latest victim of government pressure. He was expelled from Argentina June 3 after being accused of contravening the country's security laws.
The rules laid down by the military can mean all things to all men and that, of course, is the intention of the junta. Most Argentine journalists continue to be far more cautious than their foreign colleagues, and prefer to play safe rather than sorry. The emphasis is on self-censorship without any official censor sitting in on the papers. Most Argentine journalists check out anything that might be judged as sensitive with military contacts before deciding whether or not to publish it.
But there are some subtle signals that the Argentine may now be starting to prepare the public for some sort of honorable defeat. Most Argentine newspapers, for instance, are beginning to supplement news gathered from Argentine government communiques with international agency reports out of London and elsewhere in the world giving the official British military version of events. One aspect of the war, however, has been faithfully excluded. There is no sense, whatsoever, in the Argentine media of the sad and gruesome details of mutilation and death that have become an increasing feature of the Falkland crisis as the war between Britain and Argentina has escalated.
Only on June 3 did one local newspaper, the usually courageous English-language Buenos Aires Herald, dare for the first time to publish a small report of the horror. The account, buried deep in one of its back pages, quoted an eyewitness version of events as reported by a British TV reporter.
The reporter wrote of the ''horrendous extent of the Argentine casualties'' suffered during last week's battle for Goose Green. ''I found bodies lying in the thick gorse, the wounded waiting in agony and shock, and frightened, beaten soldiers moving out to be taken prisoner,'' wrote Jeremy Hands in a dispatch quoted by UPI.
That such reports are the exception to the rule in Argentine newspapers is hardly surprising given that the team of local ''war correspondents'' are hundreds of miles away from the Falklands and based in Patagonia. These correspondents have been screened by the Argentine government if not directly picked by the military and have been carefully trained in the art of government propaganda. ''Most of them have done their military training, but few of them had written a word before the war,'' admitted a local editor.
In Patagonia, the ''war correspondents'' have specially arranged ''war shows'' put on by troops stationed there - set battle shows, which are photographed and appear next day in the newspapers, usually in substitution of scenes from the Falklands. The pictures, in the classic tradition of war progaganda shots, are again of clean-cut young men facing an unseen enemy, and looking remarkably unruffled by their experience.