Robert Cox: Keeping the Lights on In Argentina

Robert J. Cox says he isn't a moral crusader. But he is.

For the past ten years, as the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, Cox has been the last holdout--the only editor who will print information criticizing Argentina's military government--information about missing people, about a corrupt system of law, about senseless murders and violence, information about a society gone haywire in its attempt to erase its internal dissent. And he has done so with daily death threats to himself and his family--even threats to his 11-year-old son.

This year, Cox is in "paradise." As a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, he and his family of six reside in Cambridge, and for the first time his children can walk to school without fear. Cox himself is taking a course in "evil" in an effort to understand how and why societies break down. "It's nice to be in a place where you can discuss these things in an academic way," he says. "I'm hoping to go back reinforced...morally reinforced."

In 1959, Cox answered an "exotic" advertisement in the World Press News which sent him to Buenos Aires as a desk clerk. Working at odd jobs and stringing for many American and British papers for ten years after his arrival, Cox at times earned only $200 a month. Ten years ago, he became editor of the Buenos Aires Herald--an English-speaking daily journal--and was drawn into a position for which he feels both he and the paper are unsuited. Even so, and even after what will probably be an unusual year of peace and without fear, Cox will go back to Argentina.

He must. As he admits, The Herald is inappropriate for its job as the country's watchdog because it reaches only English-speaking Argentines, but by that token, the paper does not present as much of a threat to the Argentinian government. While The Herald is unable to convey news of violence and chaos to its native population, it can record the anarchy of terror ripping the South American nation. He occupies a tenuous position of privilege, but has a foothold nevertheless, and Cox and his staff feel they must take advantage of this opportunity to report.

"The government accuses us of being Communists and Marxists, of course, but with us, it was harder to prove," he says of The Herald's relative immunity from government attacks. "They've called us everything--cranks, religious idiots. But the paper, over its 100-year existence, was basically a conservative one. We could say, 'We've always been opposed to violence, we were critical when the left wing was killing policemen, kidnapping and murdering business executives, and we spoke out against it,' and in this way we were able to take the position to report the other side of the coin when the coin flipped over."

For the past few years, Cox has been reporting the other side of the coin--violence by the Argentinian government. Cox describes the current situation in medical terms: it's as if the government created a germ to wipe out left-wing violence and terrorism and to restore society to "normalcy." The germ proved effective, "destroying" every person and group capable of violence. But the germ itself used terror and it still exists, thriving today on even the most innocent citizens--the teacher who mentioned Marx to a class once, or siblings of those associated with leftists groups, and on journalists. "I think there are no other words for it but state terrorism against terrorism because we panicked in Argentina. Everything broke down," he says.

But while 20,000 have disappeared since the government started its war on terror, no Spanish-speaking newspaper reports the news. Cox is frustrated by the trend, but empathetic. "If you take a stand about disappearances, you immediately become associated with the terrorists themselves, you become a suspect person. Many people just couldn't take that stand, even though they probably had the principle and were opposed to what was going on," Cox explains. But he continues, "Rather worse were the people who made a point of not knowing what was going on. The majority of the newspapers didn't want to know what was going on in regards to the methods being used in terrorism."

Perhaps Cox empathizes because there are times when even The Herald cannot print information about missing people because it can endanger the lives of family members. "It's a very Kafka-like situation in which some people, although they are journalists, have come to the conclusion that the worst thing you can do is publish information. It sounds mad, but it's not. It's one of the symptoms of a society that's got sick," he says.

In turn, the job of the journalist in Argentina becomes difficult--if he decides to probe the plight of missing people. Cox explains that reporters at The Herald are under a great deal of pressure not to make mistakes, because any mistake could prove fatal. Fatal in what way? Cox says quietly the most innocuous thing would be the government deciding to close the paper and jail the editors. The violence in Argentina is so severe that an incorrect judgement on the part of a writer or editor could result in being "machine-gunned down in the street."

To live with this knowledge and yet continue to report. Cox has adopted an almost existential philosophy. "Once you've decided that the worse thing is that you could be killed, or tortured and killed, once you've accepted that, you can go on," Cox insists. "It's rather like when you're frightened to fly and you just decide, well, it's going to happen, one day I'm going to die, having done that you can go and fly."

The explanation is baffling at first, but Cox maintains that this alone is reason for reporting efforts that can only be described as courageous. Even as the highest ranking official on The Herald, Cox has gone out on the streets to report on mothers organized to find their mysteriously missing children--a story no other newspaper would touch.

"It's a job," he says, adding that he wished The Herald was not solely responsible for controversial coverage. But it remains that while all Spanish-speaking papers have abdicated responsibility, Cox and his staff operate as the last barrier to complete state control of the media. He sighs wearily as he expresses his belief that newspapers are the peoples' last resort. "When newspapers crack up, then the lights go out, and you know anything can be done in the dark," he says.

It's no wonder Cox continually punctuates his thoughts with "It's so hard to explain this in the United States," because the creed of the Argentine journalist is indeed foreign. "You don't think about getting scoops," Cox says, "but you want to use information in order to arouse people's consciences about this breakdown in society." Cox's paper also tries to avoid expressing a political ideology. To him, the left and the right in Argentina have become almost identical in their use of terror and torture; and both have equally been waging psychological warfare on him.

What finally propelled Cox to take this sojourn to the United States was a "particularly malicious" letter to his son, which contained a great deal of information about the Cox family--too much, in fact. Though Cox says he himself has grown accustomed to the threats, in this case the terrorists (probably from within the government's security forces') took too large an emotional toll on his son for the family to stay in Argentina.

But Cox insists that he and his family will return. "I don't want to give the impression that Argentina is such a black, dark place," he says, citing its physical and human resources. "But we couldn't remain because we simply didn't have the resources to surround ourselves with bodyguards." Cox will return not only because he feels The Herald must play out its role as the last bastion of a free press until another paper joins its ranks, but also because he loves Argentina and believes it can thrive as a modern, stable, pluralistic democracy. "We're on a very gradual curve and no one knows whether you're curving into a totalitarian government or curving out of it," he says, "but I have hope."