Falklands fallout: how to manage media in wartime

In this highly literate country, reading between the lines has become a favorite pastime.

Since Juan Domingo Peron's presidency in the late 1940s, Argentines have had to play a newspaper-reading game to keep up with what is actually taking place.

The recent war with Britain over the Falkland Islands, which produced an Argentine defeat 10 days ago, is the latest case in point.

There is little doubt that both Buenos Aires and London manipulated news about the war. Here in Buenos Aires, you could not simply rely on government communiques or newspaper headlines.

The communiques, emanating from joint command headquarters, were often vague, frequently misleading, and sometimes totally inaccurate. Even military spokesmen admitted that the communiques left much to be desired.

This week a number of Argentines have been openly criticizing those communiques and the overall government handling of information during the war. Now that the war is over, newspapers here appear to be providing more realistic coverage of events. But for the ten weeks or so of fighting, the newspaper reader had to read carefully between the lines to get glimmers of what was happening in the South Atlantic.

Among those critical of government handling of the news during the war, Francisco Manrique is one of the most prominent. A former Navy officer and now head of the Partido Federal, he scathingly attacked the government for providing ''scant infomation'' about the fighting.

Moreover, he said, ''The country still doesn't know the truth - and the only truth is the pain, the shame, of not understanding.''

He took particular umbrage at Argentine government claims that the British luxury liner Canberra had been sunk. He noted that Argentine ''prisoners'' were brought back last weekend on the Canberra.

Much is also being made of another famous British ship that was supposed to have been sunk in the battle, but now turns out to be very much afloat.

Toward the end of May several Argentine communiques said the British aircraft carrier Invincible was either sunk or damaged beyond repair by Exocet missiles and bombs. Newspapers, radio, and television assured Argentines that the aircraft carrier would never again launch aircraft against Argentine positions on the Falklands.

London repeatedly denied that the Invincible had sunk, each time more vehemently than before.

But the Argentine news magazine Diez published a cover photo showing smoke billowing out of the Invincible's flight deck. Specialists in photography, including some international photo editors here, dismissed the picture as a hoax. But both Diez and the government stuck to their guns - the Invincible was down.

The English-language Buenos Aires Herald, which over the years earned a reputation for being bold in its reporting of events and commenting on them, editorially addressed the issue of the Diez cover photo. It began by saying that ''if'' the photo was genuine, the Invincible had indeed been ''definitely damaged.''

The Herald went on to say that ''several high-ranking armed forces sources . . . claimed they had not yet seen the magazine and knew nothing about the photograph.'' Diez vouched for the photograph, the Herald said, but ''of course'' refused to divulge its sources.

The Herald editorial avoided the obvious conclusion - that the photo was a hoax, although it spoke of its ''fruitless search'' for the facts in the case. It chided the government for giving the photo exclusively to Diez. Since all photos must go through military hands before publication, the Herald concluded, ''exclusivity should be nonexistent.''

The reader was left to draw his own conclusions.

Then the next day, the morning tabloid Clarin carried a news agency dispatch from Canberra, Australia, quoting Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser as having told British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that Britain did not need to sell the Invincible to Australia as planned next year.

The dispatch said Mr. Fraser indicated that in light of British losses in the Falklands campaign, Britain would probably need all its remaining ships in the foreseeable future.

That dispatch, of course, went along with the official Argentine claim of heavy British ship losses - and Britain has acknowledged losing many ships - but it also tended to confirm that the Invincible was still in action, as was later proven. But to date Argentines have never been told that the earlier communiques and government statements on the Invincible were wrong.

Another example of this ''misinformation,'' as it has been called, centers on the British recapture of the South Georgia Islands at the end of April. For three days, Argentine communiques spoke of stiff resistance on the part of Argentine forces on the islands. They indicated that special commando units had eluded the British landing party - and had taken to the hills where they were continuing to harass the British forces.

Then the communiques fell silent on South Georgia. Argentines were never officially told that the fighting had stopped - much less that there had been little Argentine resistance.

The British, it turned out, not only landed without much opposition, but also quickly captured all the Argentine garrisons and the crew of the scuttled submarine Santa Fe.

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