Knight Center
Knight Center


In investigating the past, journalists rewrite collective memory of human rights violations in Latin America

Everyone wants to be masters of memory and omission, wrote French historian Jacques Le Goff in the early 1980s, about the disputes between different social groups for the collective memory of a society. In studying the relationship between communication and history, Brazilian communicator Marialva Barbosa took up the idea of Le Goff to affirm that journalists are also "masters of memory," since on a daily basis they select and determine what should be remembered and what can be forgotten.

Although journalism is especially associated with the narrative of the present, some journalists choose the past as the object of investigation. In Latin America, many professionals and initiatives have been engaged in retelling stories that have been muffled by a social context of repression and violence at the time they happened and which can now be brought to light, helping to rewrite the collective memory of countries and the region as a whole.

Graphic for the Journalism, Memory and Human Rights Award from the Chilean Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Used with permission)

In Chile, the years 1973 to 1990 –the period in which the country remained under the yoke of dictator Augusto Pinochet– have been the focus of these investigations. After leading a military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, Pinochet imposed a violent crackdown on opponents, arresting and torturing more than 40,000 people and killing more than 3,000, according to a presidential commission established in 2011.

The Journalism, Memory and Human Rights Award, organized by the Museum of Memory and Human Rights with the Chilean Journalists' Association every year since 2015, seeks to recognize the work of journalists dedicated to giving visibility to the human rights violations committed by the Chilean State during that time.

“There is a lot of awareness among journalists that memory and human rights are an important and relevant issue to address in their media outlets,” Paula Sánchez, director of communication at the Museum, told the Knight Center. “However, in Chile the media outlets are in the hands of economic groups that are uncomfortable touching these issues. They believe that there is a left political bias if you talk about an event that occurred between 1973 and 1990.”

Journalist Ivonne Toro, editor of site The Clinic, was the winner of the Chilean award in 2016 with the report “Marta Ugarte y el horror de los cuerpos lanzados al mar en dictadura” (Marta Ugarte and the horror of the bodies thrown into the sea during the dictatorship), which rescues the history of how agents of the government executed opponents –they threw them into the sea in what were called “flights of death.”

“A large part of the country believes that we must move forward without looking at the past,” Toro told the Knight Center. “There is a certain massive evasion regarding the issues that ‘divide us.’ In our media outlet, however, we consider it an ethical obligation to scrutinize what happened in the country, in the individual stories that show that enforced disappearance and torture were not isolated issues, but were part of a policy of state repression validated by civil society.”

Photo of Marta Ugarte from Ivonne Toro’s story about the “flights of death” during the dictatorship (Courtesy)

In the report that won the Journalism, Memory and Human Rights Award last year, Toro tells the story of Marta Ugarte, an opponent of Pinochet’s dictatorship whose body was found on a Chilean beach in 1976 with signs of torture, which confirmed the existence of "death flights" at the hands of oppressors. The journalist is especially concerned with the torment experienced Marta’s two sisters, who, nowadays, have had their lives marked by barbarism.

For Toro, when journalistic narrative brings forward personal stories told by those who lived the episodes, it helps to foster empathy and understanding of the real impact of state violence.

“It is different to say that thousands of people were abducted, tortured and disappeared than to tell what happened to a particular person, what was their life before their detention, what happened to those who never saw them again,” she said. “That personal history, which represents a collective history, is what generates the empathy necessary to understand that political persecution is not acceptable, that there is no justification for what happened in the country. When describing the level of cruelty of the oppressors, it is not from the morbid, it is to show what we are talking about when we charge with torture.”

Breaking the barrier of silence

Between 1964 and 1985, Brazil also underwent a military dictatorship that tortured and assassinated opponents. In the country, state repression had one of its most emblematic episodes the murder of a journalist. Vladimir Herzog, then-director of journalism for TV Cultura, a public network in the State of São Paulo, was arrested, tortured and killed by agents of the dictatorship on Oct. 25, 1975.

Four years later, still under dictatorial rule, a group of journalists and democracy activists held the first edition of the Vladimir Herzog Award. Like the Chilean initiative, the Brazilian award also celebrates journalistic works in defense of human rights. Already in its 39th edition, the award continues to recognize reports that turn to the dictatorship period to shine light on new versions of past episodes or to try to understand the country's present.

Someone who drew attention to this fact was journalist Lucas Figueiredo, who himself won the Vladimir Herzog award twice, in the category Book Report: in 2005, with "Ministério do Silêncio” (Ministry of Silence), about the Brazilian secret service, and in 2009 with “Olho por olho” (Eye for an Eye), about the secret books of the Brazilian dictatorial regime.

"In the dictatorship, the academy was violently curtailed, but in the newsrooms, despite the censorship, journalists continued to be able to circulate, talk to sources, including in the military area," he told the Knight Center. "Even if they could not publish everything they saw, all the documents they had, the journalists won a place of excellence in the investigation of the crimes committed in the dictatorship. So much so that to this day the main revelations of the period are made by journalists."

Denise Assis is one of the Brazilian journalists who was dedicated to investigating episodes of the dictatorship when it was still in force, and many of her investigations only came to light after 1985, considered the year of transition to democracy in Brazil.

A sculpture in honor of slain journalist Vladimir Herzog at the São Paulo city hall. (By Agência Brasil Fotografias [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

"I came to the field in 1977, when there was still repression and we began to sketch the first surveys of what happened and the relatives started meetings to exchange information about the disappeared," she told the Knight Center.

Assis and Figueiredo were part of the research team of the National Truth Commission (CNV for its acronym in Portuguese), which between 2012 and 2014 investigated human rights violations by the Brazilian State that occurred between 1946 and 1988 and which was assisted by several journalists. Figueiredo's research into the secret archives of the dictatorship that the military refused to hand over to the CNV was not included in the Commission’s final report, but the journalist published it in 2015 in the book "“Lugar Nenhum - Militares e civis na ocultação de documentos da ditadura” (Nowhere - Military and civilians in concealment of documents of the dictatorship).

Assis said that her experience as a journalist really informed her work at the CNV. "We have the boldness to investigate," she said. "It takes a lot of willingness to keep asking, until at last the weary source admits or gives his version. Journalists need to be patient and determined. In an investigation, this counts a lot."

For her, this is the main challenge in the journalistic investigation of this past state repression: "breaking the barrier of silence," of the oppressors and especially the victims.

"They are people who have gone through unimaginable atrocities and situations. Most struggle to bring everything to light, but even then there are episodes that run counter to contradictory versions, or key pieces of testimony that are no longer possible because those involved have already died. In general, family members want to be very cooperative, but they would also need documents that the archives keep and do not come out public, even with the Transparency Law."

Figueiredo also commented on the difficulty in finding and checking files from that period.

"The biggest difficulty is getting documents. And when we do, we must prove that they are authentic,” he explained. “There is a lot of banana peel in this area."

Even with these challenges, it is impossible to compare the field of action of Brazilian journalists today to that of their colleagues under the military regime, he said.

"The journalists who acted in the dictatorship were not free, could not publish everything they knew and were at great risk when investigating. Today, we have the freedom to approach an ex-torturer, for example, without fear that he will alert the Army battalion," Figueiredo said.

Report in order to not repeat

Peruvian journalist Óscar Castilla, executive director of Ojo Público, has also dedicated himself in the last 17 years to the coverage of a past in his country more recent than that of his colleagues in Chile and Brazil. Between 1980 and 2000 in Peru were the most intense years of armed conflict between state forces and "subversive organizations," as Castilla describes.

The period of Peruvian terror affected at least 148,000 people, of which 70,000 were killed or disappeared, according to the Peruvian Truth Commission. The vast majority of them - 92 percent - were civilians, attacked by both sides in conflict. The Memory Project, an online platform from Ojo Público that looks at this period, seeks to "rescue from oblivion, stories, events and identities that would otherwise remain in perpetual anonymity," Castilla told the Knight Center. "The wounds that terror left in Peru have not yet fully closed."

Project from Peruvian site Ojo Público looking back at the country's internal conflict. (Screenshot)

To carry out this project, Castilla and his team also focused on coverage of the conflict carried out by his colleagues decades ago.

“To learn how the journalism of the '80s and' 90s faced and narrated these kind of stories changes your life,” Castilla said. “The journalist has the unique opportunity to reflect on the coverage in times of terror, avoid the mistakes that can be committed in times of extreme polarization and take the statement of direct witnesses (some perpetrators are in prison, some victims are still alive) of an era that marked the country traumatically.”

In this sense, "journalism is fundamental to prevent these harmful events from repeating themselves,” Castilla believes. Paula Sánchez of the Chilean Museum also said that "journalism is a key element in the rescue of collective memory" and that it is memory that can prevent a new dictatorship such as those experienced in the second half of the 20th century in Brazil and Chile, but also Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and many other countries in the region.

“Collective memory is a reason for journalists to fulfill the mission of relating, telling and explaining. This is because we have the tools and the capacity to generate trust between protagonists, witnesses and, also, connect with the new generations. We must be facilitators of the right of people to remember and repair their wounds,” Sánchez said.


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