Jailed US reporter: Congress should encourage Salvador to respect press

In her recent book on El Salvador, US writer Joan Didion notes that to arrive here ''is to plunge directly into a state in which no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse.''

The strange tale of T.J. Western, the young free-lance journalist from Minneapolis who was released from prison here Wednesday, confirms her point. It also suggests a direction in which the US Congress might move to help bring clarity to this strife-torn nation.

In a long interview with the Monitor the evening of his release, the lanky, thoughtful Mr. Western recounted his experiences with the Salvadorean Treasury police of this US-supported government.

Saturday afternoon, March 26, he and fellow US journalist Joan Ambrose Newton were at his apartment when, he said, a knock came at the door. Three men in street clothes introduced themselves as police from the Hacienda, or Treasury, known as one of the toughest of the government's various military organizations. Two of the men, he recalled, had no identification. The third had an ID from the Hacienda that had expired two years ago.

While Mr. Western talked with them, Miss Newton called the US Embassy, which promptly sent around two senior officials. Miss Newton was placed under ''house arrest.'' Mr. Western was taken to the Hacienda.

Western says he was not tortured. He was not even subjected to exhausting interrogation. Instead, he was kept in a 12- by 4-foot room - with a shower (but no towel), a toilet, a bare and filthy mattress, and a single slot high in the door letting in light from the courtyard. The lock worked only sporadically.

''It was more like a low-budget hotel room than a prison,'' he recalls, except for the guard outside with an M-16 rifle.

Why was he being held?

''The charges changed from day to day,'' he says. Essentially, however, his interrogators wanted to know about an hour-long telephone interview he had given several days before on a Spanish-language radio show on San Diego's KPBS radio. (Mr. Western files stories for National Public Radio, and KPBS is an NPR affiliate.)

Mr. Western had noticed problems with his phone. It had broken the day before the arrest and, after three repairmen arrived to fix it, he found he could no longer direct dial any international calls. During the interview, he could hear the operator break in several times.

His interrogators grilled him intensively about that interview. Had he discussed arms trafficking in El Salvador? Was the radio show's host, Sergio Pedroza, actually a Roman Catholic priest who was suspected of complicity with the guerrillas? Did Mr. Western have regular contact with guerrilla leaders in San Salvador? Had he ever visited Cuba or the Soviet Union?

No, he replied in each case.

''Western, help us,'' he says his interrogators would plead, ''tell us what guerrilla camps you visited.''

In fact, says Mr. Western, whose Spanish is only fair, and whose clean-cut Midwestern appearance does not allow him to melt into the local population: ''I never went any place where I had been prohibited by the authorities.''

Finally, on Monday, his keepers brought up a new charge: Marijuana had been found in his apartment. Mr. Western, well aware of the drug penalties here, says he never has used drugs in this country. He is sure the drugs were not his. His roommate, Brazilian journalist Paulo Teixera, among whose papers the drug packet was found, reportedly has told US Embassy officials that it was left in his apartment by ''a Frenchman.'' Mr. Teixera, at this writing, remains in refuge at the Brazilian Embassy.

Imagine Mr. Western's surprise, then, when on Monday morning (his beard fuzzy , his blue T-shirt now well beyond the point of politeness) he was taken across the courtyard to the air-conditioned offices of the police commanders and introduced to Rep. James Oberstar (D) from his home state of Minnesota.

At first, recalls Mr. Western, ''I thought he had jumped on a plane to come get me out.'' In fact, Mr. Oberstar had arrived Saturday, the day of the arrest, with a congressional delegation on a three-day fact-finding mission, a coincidence that still leaves observers here shaking their heads in awe.

Only from Mr. Oberstar, in fact, did Mr. Western learn the nature of the charges against him: gunrunning and drug possession. Yet even with pressure from the congressman and the embassy staff, it took several days to secure his release.

Minutes after he was set free, Mr. Western and Representative Oberstar talked to reporters . ''You're looking at a modern miracle,'' said Mr. Oberstar, well aware of the reputations on both sides of this conflict for arranging the ''disappearance'' of unwanted persons. ''From what I've seen so far,'' he added, ''there is absolutely no substance in any charge that could be held against him.''

So Mr. Western is free . . . almost. He cannot leave the country until the FBI supplies the Hacienda police with some unspecified information they are seeking - perhaps about Mr. Western, more probably about Mr. Pedroza, whose name they may be confusing with that of another suspect in their investigations. When the investigation will conclude, no one knows. Meanwhile, Mr. Western remains free to work as a journalist.

Where does that leave the press corps here? Uneasy, certainly, at what many see as an increasing pattern of harassment. The United Press International wire service has recently come under attack from the government for its reporting. So has photographer John Hoagland, whose pictures of Army units and guerrilla forces were recently published by the New York Times Magazine with captions inadvertently reversed, a mistake that incensed military commanders here.

And where should that leave those in Congress who are right now considering what sort of strings might be attached to US aid for El Salvador? Should they make it partly conditional on the right of US journalists to operate free of government harassment?

''I kind of think that's what this is about,'' muses Mr. Western, ''a stand on the part of our government and a congressman to ensure the ability of the press to report objectively.''

Congress, these days, is insisting on more and more information about El Salvador. Yet the international press here, says a US official, ''is a convenient scapegoat for all types of problems.'' To demand respect by the government for bona fide members of the press just might help make, in Miss Didion's words, the ground more solid and the perceptions more definite.

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