For most of the U.S. media, there was only one “South America story” last winter and well into the spring: the four-month stand-off in Lima between the hostage-holding Tupac Amaru guerrillas and the government of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori. The media’s focus on Peru obscured an important story that galvanized public opinion in another major country in the region–the brutal execution-style slaying of a photojournalist in Argentina.
The murder of José Luis Cabezas, strongly resonant of the death-squad killings that in the late 1970s and early 1980s were the hallmark of Argentina’s “dirty war”, jolted the entire country and catalyzed demands for a de-escalation of the mounting government antagonism toward the press. But while the killing reminded Argentines of the frightening era in which a weak and demoralized press fell victim to official terrorism, the vigorous response of the current government, press organizations, and the citizenry, all intent upon bringing the killers to justice, may signal a new era for press freedom in Argentina.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 25, a fisherman discovered Cabezas’ charred, handcuffed body inside his burnt rental car, parked off a rural road outside the fashionable coastal resort city of Pinamar. A photographer for the Buenos Aires-based weekly news magazine Noticias, Cabezas had been covering a crime wave in Pinamar, a favored vacation spot of Argentine politicos and power brokers. Cabezas, whose photographs had illustrated many investigative articles on corruption among the Pinamar elite, was last seen leaving a party attended by hundreds of business executives, politicians, and celebrities. Police believe he was kidnapped and murdered just before dawn.
Cabezas’ brutal assassination was the first such killing of a journalist in Argentina since the military dictatorship used its anti-communist “Triple A paramilitary death squads against suspected “subversives” and the citizenry at large. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, an estimated 98 journalists were among the more than 9,000 and possibly as many as 30,000 people who disappeared after being abducted and tortured. Even the details of the crime–the handcuffing and the grisly method for disposing of the body–were signatures of that era.
The murder caused widespread indignation among Argentine journalists and the larger society, which in recent years has turned to the press to safeguard the freedoms that were anticipated in the country’s transition to democratic rule in 1983. And at the highest levels of government, the response to the murder was swift and unequivocal. President Carlos Menem, decrying the murder, launched a full-scale investigation, even calling on the United States to lend the FBI’s assistance. In a news conference shortly after the murder, Buenos Aires Gov. Eduardo Duhalde, a leading opposition figure, said the slaying was “a direct attack on journalism … something that propels us back to the sad era of the 1970s.
On a sweltering January day, a thousand people took to the streets, carrying signs that proclaimed “The Worst Opinion is Silence and “No to Impunity. During a soccer match a few weeks after the murder, 50,000 people held a moment of silence to remember the crime. Posters sprang up along the streets of Buenos Aires demanding to know “Who killed the Journalist José Luis Cabezas?
For months afterward, the murder was front-page news in the Buenos Aires press and highlighted in television news reports almost daily. Although it is widely recognized as a potential watershed for a country still healing from the wounds of its past, however, the story received little coverage in the foreign press. Most Buenos Aires-based correspondents missed the initial story: They were covering the Peru crisis, which all along, as demonstrated by its dramatic denouement in late April, held the prospect of a violent outcome.
“Basically, the bureau was moved from Argentina to Lima at that point, said Calvin Sims, Buenos Aires bureau chief for The New York Times. “The story had been in Lima, where there was a threat of a bloodbath.
Thus, the dilemma for foreign correspondents, who concede the significance of the Cabezas murder story, is how to pick up the thread weeks later in the absence of a break in the case or even a major development in the investigation.
The murder came at a time when the Argentine press had become more inquisitive and aggressive in its pursuit of accountability by government officials. For their part, officials, most notably President Menem, have been visibly irritated by the press’s reporting on government corruption. The police are also at odds with the press because of reports that have linked law-enforcement officials in the province of Buenos Aires–where Pinamar is located–with drug traffickers. Noticias is one of the publications that aggressively reports on police corruption in this region, and Cabezas’ photographs were used in those articles. Despite mounting pressures on the press, the Association for the Defense of Independent Journalists known as “Periodistas, formed more than a year ago, has argued vigorously that attacks against the press are attacks against society. And the degree to which José Luis Cabezas’ death has sparked national outrage makes it clear that Argentines support that view.