Truth Commission Report on El Salvador p.

By: Mark Fitzgerald United Nations-sponsored report on the country's 12-year civil war documents government's sabotage of the international press
THE RECENT RELEASE of the United Nations-sponsored ""Truth Commission"" report on El Salvador's bloody 12-year civil war documents how the government waged war against the international press, as well as the leftist guerrillas.
The report has also revived memories of a war in which American journalists were under sometimes literal attack from the Salvadoran government, and worked under more subtle pressure from a U.S. administration that tried to discredit much of their reporting back at home.
""It's obviously triggered a lot of thought in my mind,"" said Ann Nelson, now executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
""I've wondered what things would be like if reporters writing from Bosnia were constantly challenged about their reporting. How much of the truth of Bosnia would be coming out now?"" she said.
An especially harrowing chapter in the U.N. commission report details how the Salvadoran Army targeted, ambushed and killed all four members of a Dutch television news crew ? and how the killings were covered up at all levels of the Salvadoran judiciary, including the president of the Supreme Court.
The four were killed in March 1982 while being escorted by rebel guerrillas to an encampment of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
The ambush of the Dutch journalists served a purpose even beyond silencing a tv reporter who had been outspoken in his sympathy for the rebels, said Douglass W. Cassel Jr., counsel for the Truth Commission.
""It was a time when [the El Salvador military] was reeling under pressure from the international press, and they wanted to send a message, send a message in a deniable way,"" said Cassel, who is executive director of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University in Chicago.
That was made obvious to foreign journalists in El Salvador at the time, said Ann Nelson, now executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Journalists were brought to the ambush site to ""view the bodies in a degraded and mutilated state, stripped of their clothing,"" recalled Nelson, who at the time was covering the El Salvador war for the Los Angeles Times and Macleans, the Canadian magazine.
""Most of us felt there was a clear message by the commandant, which was, Don't cover the guerrillas,"" Nelson said.
Did the pressure work? Nelson noted that a media study showed that within a few months of the ambush the percentage of television reports from El Salvador devoted to the rebels dropped from 30% to under 5%.
""From both a subjective and an objective viewpoint, it was extremely effective,"" Nelson added. ""A lot of people in the international press corps had a sense of immunity until that point.""

Ignoring warnings

Indeed, the narrative of the Truth Commission's report portrays the leader of the Dutch news team, Koos Jacobus Andries Koster, as repeatedly brushing off danger signals as he arranged the ill-fated encounter with the rebels.
When Koster returned to El Salvador in early March of 1982, he was already a loathed figure among the military and police. A documentary he prepared in 1980 had been, in the view of the government, quite sympathetic to the FMLN.
On his second trip, Koster made contact with a guerrilla figure who after leaving the meeting was attacked by unknown men. The FMLN member escaped, but dropped his identity card, on which Koster had written his local address and phone number.
Koster was called in for questioning by the Treasury Police, the corps notorious for its human rights violations. Koster denied the contact and was warned to be careful.
The following day, one of the right-wing newspapers published a photograph of Koster alongside an article accusing him of having contact with ""subversives.""
According to the commission's Cassel and others, this technique of using the local press to intimidate foreign reporters was fairly typical.
""There's this pattern of using the Salvadoran press for propaganda . . . . [The police or military] would get their buddies in [the daily tabloid] Diario De Hoy to print a threat,"" Cassel said.
Despite the warnings of other journalists ? and even FMLN contacts, who urged him to leave the country until things cooled off ? Koster went ahead with arrangements for the trip into the rebel war zone.
Even when the crew discovered their hotel rooms had been searched, they headed out for Chalatenango province the next morning, March 17.
Along the way, Koster and his crew ignored yet another ominous development: a Cherokee Chief pickup truck with darkened windshields began to follow the crew's microbus, speeding up when the crew did and refusing to pass when the microbus slowed.
About a half-mile from the rendezvous site, the mysterious pickup truck disappeared from view.
Koster and his IKON-tv crew ? producer/editor Jan Cornelius Kuiper Joop, soundman Hans Lodewijk ter Laag and cameraman Johannes Jan Willemsen ? joined up with the rebels, walked off into the countryside and not long after they were gunned down in an ambush that left only one rebel survivor.

Deep coverup

""The whole thing was a setup from the beginning,"" the commission's Cassel said. ""They got [the journalists] ? and it worked. It worked for 11 years. Had it not been for the U.N. commission, the truth might never have come out.""
Cassel says the commission itself quickly realized the official story ? that Salvadoran troops had encountered the journalists and rebels only because they were looking for a rebel patrol that had attacked them a day before ? was a lie.
However, it was able to learn the truth only after locating two sources who attended a meeting of high-level infantry officers in which the attack was planned and ordered.
Almost immediately after the ambush occurred, it was used to intimidate journalists, the report says.
For instance, another Dutch journalist, Jan Pierre Lucien Schmeitz, received a phone call at his hotel the day after the ambush was made public.
Stop embarrassing the military and leave the country, the voice said, ""because there is a fifth coffin and it's for you."" Schmeitz left the next day.

No surprises

For journalists who covered El Salvador, the U.N. commission report ? ""From Madness to Hope"" ? contains no surprises.
""I think it's wonderful they did this report, but . . . from the perspective of someone who was there at the time there is nothing surprising or novel in it,"" said Arthur Allen, Associated Press bureau chief in El Salvador in 1982-83.
El Salvador was an especially dangerous dateline.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 40 journalists were killed during the years from 1980 to 1990.
One still-mysterious killing of an American journalist is not mentioned in the report.
John Sullivan was a free-lance writer who disappeared within a matter of hours of arriving in El Salvador in December 1980.
""That certainly is a case that deserves to be looked into,"" said the commission's Cassel.
In the weeks after Sullivan's death, his family in New Jersey received anonymous letters prompted by the ads they had placed in San Salvador newspapers asking for information about his disappearance, Nelson said.
The letters, she said, suggested that Sullivan had been detained, tortured, placed under a tree and dynamited by Treasury Police personnel. The letters stopped as mysteriously as they started.
Then in 1983, the remains of Sullivan were found ""under circumstances that jibed with the letters,"" Nelson said.
The few remains fit in a child's coffin for repatriation to the United States, Nelson said.
""It would be great if they used [the U.N. Truth Commission report] as a starting point rather than a wrap-up operation,"" Nelson said.

Elusive truth

Relatively few foreign journalists suffered the fates of Sullivan and the Dutch reporters.
Many faced death threats ? sometimes published in the right-wing papers ? at the hands of death squad killers who conveniently allowed their target lists to be found.
Mostly, foreign journalists faced the more subtle pressures of having their reporting aggressively challenged by both the military-controlled Salvadoran government and the Reagan and Bush administrations.
""The foreign press were considered Communists. Institutionally, the military considered us enemies,"" said Arthur Allen, who covered the country for the Associated Press from 1982-83.
Allen's reporting was attacked ""pretty frequently"" by the local newspapers, he said.
""That in itself created a climate of tension,"" he said.
The ambush of the Dutch journalists created a new sort of guideline, Allen said.
""They couldn't go around bumping off foreign journalists, but if the Army caught you going into a guerrilla zone, you might be fair game depending on what officer . . . you happened to run into. That was a situation where you were kind of beyond the human rights equation,"" he said.
Allen himself left El Salvador at the urging of the U.S. Embassy after becoming embroiled in a dispute with a Treasury Police officer over Allen's reporting of the 1983 murder of a U.S. Army military adviser.
The seemingly innocuous dispute?which centered on whether or not a rebel radio had claimed a suspect in the killing had not been an FMLN member ? escalated to the point American officials warned Allen that his life was in danger.
Recalling the incident a decade later, as he prepared to be posted to AP's bureau in Bonn, Germany, Allen's comments could symbolize the difficult task facing the U.N. Truth Commission.
""My case was actually typical of what happened to a lot of people.""
Then he added, ""I don't know the whole truth of what happened to me, to tell you the truth."nE&P
? ""I've wondered what things would be like if reporters writing from Bosnia were constantly challenged about their reporting. How much of the truth of Bosnia would be coming out now?""
? Newspaper cartoonists, including Ed Stein of the Rocky Mountain News, used the report as the basis for editorial commentary.
? Mostly, foreign journalists faced the more subtle pressures of having their reporting aggressively challenged by both the military-controlled Salvadoran government and the Reagan and Bush administrations.


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