Media as Insurgent Art

Pro-FMLN election slogans in the town of El Mozote, El Salvador. Photo by Chris Webb

Last July I visited the Pueblo of El Mozote in the highlands of El Salvador. The village is wedged between rolling hills amidst some of the most pristine wilderness in all of Central America. Beside the town square the midday sun falls on the back of a campesino in a characteristically wide-brimmed hat shovelling soil – two children stare at him through a barbed wire fence. Dogs lie panting in the shade of the village’s small store, and the tranquil scene could easily exist in any quiet Salvadoran village.

Our guide, Serafin Gomez – a former guerilla with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front – points to the church across the square. “That’s where they took the children. They cut off some of their limbs and tortured them. The babies were caught on soldier’s bayonets.”

Twenty-eight years ago the Atlacatl battalion – a U.S. trained and financed squad of Salvadoran soldiers – entered El Mozote and told men, women, and children they were guilty of supporting guerillas and communism. They proceeded to kill every last person and razed the village to the ground. A year later Reagan testified before congress that President Duarte’s government in El Salvador was improving the country’s human right’s record. His testimony cleared the way for an additional $65 million in economic and military aid.

The ravages of the Reagan years are well documented. What makes the massacre at El Mozote all the more tragic is the media war and cover up it spurred. The largest massacre in Latin America remains, to most, largely unknown and its victims have been exiled to the rubbish bin of history.

The first reporters to break the story of El Mozote were Raymond Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post. “In some 20 mud brick huts here, this reporter saw charred skulls and bones of dozens of bodies buried under burned out roofs, beams and shattered tiles,” Bonner wrote in the breaking Times article. Articles by both reporters immediately raised serious questions in congress regarding the huge flows of money from Washington to San Salvador. President Duarte claimed he was losing the propaganda war in the U.S. press, and what ensued can only be described as a media witch hunt reminiscent of McCarthyist purges.

In July 1982, the conservative press watch organization Accuracy in Media (AIM) published a report insinuating that Bonner’s article was motivated by political sympathies. Reed Irvine, an AIM editor, declared that Mr. Bonner was “worth a division to the communists in Central America.” Thomas Enders, then Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs attacked Bonner and Guillermoprieto before a congressional committee, saying “no evidence can be found that government forces systematically massacred civilians.” The Wall Street Journal jumped on the bandwagon in a lengthy editorial titled “The Media’s War.” They singled out Bonner as being “overly credulous” and called his guerilla escort to El Mozote evidence of a “propaganda exercise.” Bonner went on to publish a book on the massacre in 1984, but both the New York Times and Washington Post had long since buried the story. Both reporters had to wait 10 years before a Times article read: “at least 794 people were killed, the bones have emerged as stark evidence that the claims of peasant survivors and the reports of a couple of American journalists were true.”

Today, not all nosy journalists are lucky enough to receive a full-scale attack by state and media interest groups. But perhaps the suppression of information, particularly dissenting opinion isn’t as Orwellian as before. Today a barrage of official sources, experts, and press releases dominates media coverage. Nowhere is this more acute than in embedded war journalism. Reports by Anderson Cooper and Christie Blatchford are still deemed as “from the front lines” albeit protected by our guns and from our perspective. Few doubt reports of military casualties because there is an official press release to accompany it. It’s the stickiness of civilian casualties that remains trepidatious ground for reporters. No case illustrates this better than El Mozote, where the U.S. supposedly found that no more than 300 people lived in El Mozote. So who counted the dead at El Mozote, and who was right?

Illiterate peasants presented the two reporters with a list of more than 700 names that they had gathered from relatives and friends. The Salvadoran government dismissed these body-counters as subversives. Do we count the dead as recorded by their families and community or do reporters have to wait for state confirmation? If political modernity entails the state’s monopoly on violence, then post-modern journalism is built upon a monopolization of information by state and official sources.

The coverage of El Mozote marks a truly lamentable era in reporting of human rights disasters. The continuation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the slow slaughter of Palestinians demand independent investigations by reporters. The next generation of war reporters must move beyond official body counts and not be afraid to use civilian testimony. In the Salvadoran civil war the U.S. embassy counted casualties based on newspaper reports, while Human Rights Watch gathered their numbers from peasants, media, the church, and guerillas.

Scholar Mahmood Mamdani writes of the twentieth century’s wars: “although the magnitude of this violence is staggering, it does not surprise us.” Media reports detailing the most shocking atrocities may fail to surprise us, but, as El Mozote proves, they can still affect foreign policy.

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