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The Burning of El Mercurio in Chile and Freedom of the Press

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

23 October 2019

In the midst of the popular uprising in Chile, on the 19th of October in offices of the newspaper El Mercurio in Valparaíso was burned to the ground.  The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) condemned the attack as "Serious attack on press freedom in Chile".(1)   It was nothing of the sort for reasons that will be explained, but first it is incumbent on us to deal with some aspects of freedom of the press before looking at the nature of the burning of El Mercurio's offices in the enchanting port of Valparaíso and the role played by that publishing house in Chile.

We should be clear about who the IAPA is: it is the organisation that represents the owners of the media in Latin America and El Mercurio, whose offices were burned down is one of its affiliates.  The IAPA has a long and slanted history in defence of what it terms freedom of the press.  When Rafael Correa filed criminal charges against the El Universo newspaper for trying to foment a coup d’état publishing articles accusing him of having given the order to open fire on a hospital and of having committed crimes against humanity, the IAPA mourned for press freedom, i.e. the freedom to tell any lie in order to overthrow a government.(2)  The IAPA misleads and deliberately mixes various different items when it talks of press freedom.

It mixes issues of freedom of enterprise, freedom of expression and the exercise of the journalistic profession under the banner of press freedom.  None of these freedoms are fully enjoyed without any restrictions in any country in the world, they are all regulated in capitalist societies.  When the IAPA talks of press freedom they mean the freedom of companies to sell the "information" they want free from any restrictions of any type and with few or ineffective rights to demand they rectify their lies.  This freedom of the press is for the bourgeoisie; it is not for the oppressed.

When they talk of freedom of expression, they talk of the freedom to lie at will.  El Mercurio supported the Pinochet dictatorship, to vindicate the freedom of expression of those that supported its complete suppression for years is a cruel mockery of Pinochet's victims and an insult to our intelligence.

Journalism, understood as the professional activity of workers in the media, is a little more complicated as many are just simple employees, when they are not outsourced contractors of those same companies.  However, and without justifying attacks on journalists, reporters, photographers etc. in the midst of a popular uprising no one is under any obligation to cooperate with the media, nor allow functionaries from newspapers such as El Mercurio access to their spaces, to film and take notes of what takes place.  Such a newspaper is not going to defend the people and if the state seeks the photos to put the demonstrators on trial, it will pass them on without any need for a court order, either openly or underhandedly.

Press freedom in the abstract, is like its supposed neutrality, it is not real and has never existed.  Sometimes the journalist trade unions talk in the abstract as if journalists were removed from the society in which we live.  Journalists also have political positions and there are those who through the reporting and analysis favour the grassroots movements and there are those who openly take the side of the enemy of the people.  Just because we are journalists we don't get a free pass to do whatever occurs to us.  There are those who took part in conflicts on the side of the oppressed and they are praised in the journalistic mythology as the greatest expressions of the profession.  Many times it is deliberately ignored that these legendary journalists were a minority and remain so today.  It is not true that we only inform or report, nor that our work is always dignified.  Throughout history journalists have justified wars, invasions, torture, racism, sexism famine and all sorts of atrocities.

El Mercurio is a good example of this.  This newspaper played a very important role in fomenting an atmosphere favourable disposed to the 1973 coup.  For its efforts it received 1.5 million dollars from the CIA, an organism that even lent a hand when it came to writing editorials, according to declassified documents.  Following the coup El Mercurio was one of two newspapers authorised by Pinochet to continue publishing and functioned as a semi-official organ of the dictatorship.  The reason is straightforward, without El Mercurio, the coup might never have come to be, the coup was as much due to the Edwards family and its newspaper as Pinochet.  I recently had the opportunity to visit the Memory Museum in Santiago where they exhibit samples of the press from the period and it is shocking to read the headlines and the articles and how they treated Allende and language used by the Edwards family and its newspapers.  Without them, there is no coup.

Thus, the dead, the disappeared, the tortured, exiles and other victims of the dictatorship are also victims of the Edwards family and El Mercurio.  They bear not only an ethical and moral responsibility for the violence unleashed on the Chilean people, but also a criminal responsibility.  But as Pinochet could never be tried due to the nature of the so called "transition to democracy", neither could the businesspeople, those who benefitted from the regime and less still those who acted as the propaganda wing of death.

Thus the burning of the offices in Valparaíso is everything but an attack on press freedom.  It was surely and act of rage, but who taking into account their role in the dictatorship, who could deny a Chilean a moment of rage?  Those who lit the fuse that night, achieved for themselves, perhaps, a moment of catharsis and for the Chilean people they carried out an act of Historic Memory and Justice, a sweet revenge for their dead.  In a real transition the assets of all those accomplices of death would have been confiscated and they would have been jailed.  This was impossible in the Chilean case.  Now in the midst of a popular uprising someone took advantage of the moment to do what the state never could or wanted to do: deliver justice and historic memory.  An action that surely horrifies the academics, NGOs and professionals in peace and conflict resolution departments that publish rubbish demanding that victims seek reconciliation with their tormentors.

The IAPA as an association of many newspapers that remained silent during the dictatorships or where accomplices of them, as is the case with El Mercurio, has no moral authority to speak of freedom of the press, they have a voice precisely because they helped silenced hundreds of thousands if not millions of voices throughout Latin America in the second half of the 20th Century in the name of free enterprise.  As a journalist, I can say that it was heart warming to see the flames consume El Mercurio just like the dictatorships consumed human lives.  It is not by any means a reprehensible action, but rather a delayed act of justice at the hands of a people tired of injustice.  Their freedom of the press is our silence.  The flames are our voice.


(1) IAPA Communiqué (21/10/2019) Serious attack on press freedom in Chile

(2) Atilio Borón (29/02/2012) Rafael Correa y la libertad de prensa

(3) Punto Final (24/01/2001) Chile: "El Mercurio" ya la CIA

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