Governments and the press: image is all

IN searching for ways to clean up their images if not their acts, governments of all stripes have hit on a simple solution: Silence those who feel compelled to squawk. Muzzling the press is nothing new. When journalists ventured out to the Cambodian countryside in 1973 and 1974 to cover the advancing Khmer Rouge, the rebels, shunning the spotlight, just killed them. Twenty-six, to be exact. In Argentina, during the 1976-78 ``dirty war,'' at least 70 of the journalists reporting disappearances disappeared themselves. Few of the bodies were ever found. In Guatemala, military or paramilitary forces have murdered more than 30 since 1979; in El Salvador, at least 20.

The style varies from country to country, and sometimes the offenders are merely sent packing. Such was the case in Haiti last week when Fr. Hugo Triest, a Belgian priest and director of a Roman Catholic Church station, Radio Soleil, was expelled. He ran a half-hour daily program for several weeks, discussing the laws approved in the July 22 referendum in which 99.9 percent of those who went to the polls voted to give unlimited power to President-for-Life Jean-Claude Duvalier. The day after the vote, Ra dio Soleil broadcast interviews with Haitians who admitted voting 7, 21, or even 50 times.

Often, a heavy scare is enough to muzzle reporters or critics. In El Salvador, when two United States correspondents and one photographer traveled to the countryside in July to verify peasants' accounts of Army bombings and forced evacuations, Salvadorean troops fired at them with mortars, although the journalists were clearly unarmed, ran for cover with their arms outstretched, and yelled (in Spanish), ``We're journalists.''

The event was a repeat of an April incident when four US journalists, after interviewing guerrillas patrolling a road outside the capital, were repeatedly fired on by a helicopter, even as they drove away. And last November Mary Jo McConahay of Pacifica News Service, one of the three attacked this July, was riding in a car plainly marked press when it was fired upon. ``We jumped out and waved a press flag, but the rockets continued,'' she said.

The increasing attacks make it harder and harder to cover the war in the countryside -- and that, says Ms. McConahay, is just what the government wants.

``After each incident, journalists get gun-shy and stop going out. It lasts awhile, and then you go again. No one's been killed yet, but sooner or later someone's going to get it.''

Though it is often held that repressive governments are immune to international criticism, their heavy-handed moves to stifle unflattering news prove just the opposite. In fact, despite affected unconcern, few governments can afford to torture, murder, or bomb their populations out front: Too much aid and trade hang in the balance. Thus the obsession with image.

What's so troubling is that, as a strategy, silencing the press is generally effective: Without reports to the contrary, authorities can claim what they will and there is little information available to refute them. In El Salvador, for example, the last of the opposition press was silenced in 1980 and '81, and the US now relies on newspapers linked to the far right for its official count of disappearances and murders. More recently, with the movement of foreign correspondents severely limited, the Salva dorean Army's bombings go unreported.

When informed of the July assault on the journalists, Richard Melton, director of the US State Department Office of Central American Affairs, would say only that the department warns that travel in that part of El Salvador ``should be avoided.'' He suggests that journalists contact the embassy about ``the advisability of traveling outside urban areas to avoid the dangers inherent in a war zone.''

What he ignoned completely was that the journalists insisted they were not caught in cross fire; rather, they were attacked directly.

Despite a law that forbids US military aid to countries with gross human rights violations, the aid continues to flow and grow, even to some of the worst offenders. In Haiti, although the opposition press is essentially stifled; the one independent radio station is forbidden to broadcast; the station loses it director; and one independent weekly must heavily censor itself, US aid (in this case, largely economic) totals about $50 million a year. In El Salvador, where flagrant threats force US journalist s to use a ``safe house'' provided by an American embassy staff member, aid this year topped $450 million and the administration requested $50 million more.

Dispensing thus with the ``bad press,'' governments can focus fully on image: To satisfy critics and funders, for example, countries like Guatemala, Haiti, and El Salvador call elections or referendums and declare democracy to be alive and well.

Do such transparent schemes work? Obviously they do. Image, it seems, is a powerful reality.

Barbara Koeppel is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, New York.

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