Foreign press feels the heat of hostility -- and wiretaps -- in El Salvador

Hostility by the Salvadorean military toward the foreign press corps over the past two months has the United States Embassy worried enough to voice its concern to the Salvador government.

Not since four Dutch reporters were killed last year before the March elections has the foreign press here felt so antagonized.

The most serious recent example of hostility was the Army's denouncement of a US photojournalist as ''playing the Marxist-Leninist game . . . to disparage the armed forces.''

COPREFA, the Army's press office, called a press conference in mid-March to denounce John Hoagland, a photographer for Newsweek and the Gamma-Liaison agency , because a photo of Salvadorean armed forces was incorrectly labeled in a New York Times Magazine article as Salvadorean guerrillas. Mr. Hoagland's name and the photo also were published in a local newspaper with an official denunciation.

The publicity brought Mr. Hoagland a series of threatening phone calls. ''It was the most direct heat I've ever felt,'' said Mr. Hoagland, who has been working in El Salvador since August 1980. The US Embassy intervened in his behalf.

Shortly thereafter, two radio reporters were arrested on charges of arms trafficking. T.J. Western, a radio correspondent who files stories for a PBS station in San Diego, and Joan Ambrose Newton, an NBC radio reporter, were seized in Western's San Salvador apartment after Western filed a report by telephone. The incident marked the first time Salvadorean authorities have acknowledged using phone taps on journalists. The Army later released both reporters, calling the arrests a case of mistaken identity.

''Hostility (toward the press) seems to have been stepped up, and we've made our concerns known to the government,'' said Greg Lagana, one of two press officers at the US Embassy in San Salvador.

Mr. Lagana says some of the increased hostility may arise from the Salvadorean Army belief that it is often betrayed by the foreign press. ''Many Salvadoreans feel powerless before the Western media. They feel like it's (the story) oversimplified, not enough of the good news is reported.''

Some local press reports portray the foreign press as communist conspirators trying to misinform the public. ''Certainly there are many corrupt journalists financed by the subversive left wing - unfortunately they are the majority,'' said one recent article.

The negative attitude toward foreign reporters also results from a lack of understanding of a free press, Mr. Lagana says. ''They don't understand when journalists quote Radio Venceremos (the guerrilla radio station).''

Reporters also complain about a lack of access to and raging inefficiency in the government press office. If an evening broadcast on the rebel radio station reports a battle, reporters will call the Army press office for a response. But the COPREFA staff closes shop at 5 p.m. Therefore government responses often don't reach the papers.

''We have been rather slow in disseminating information sometimes,'' admits Carlos Angel Aviles, a spokesman for COPREFA.

Another cause of misunderstanding between foreign reporters and COPREFA is that the COPREFA staff are trained in Army rather than media tactics. The Army press office's four-person staff consists of three Army colonels and one captain rather than public relations men.

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