Press: War as a Media Event

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In El Salvador, truth is elusive, danger too dose

At the Camino Real hotel in San Salvador, where most of them stay, the 200-odd foreign journalists in El Salvador daily swap stories of near misses and miraculous escapes. In one episode a photographer rolled under his car just in time to elude bullets blasting from a helicopter gunship overhead. In another, a van carrying an NBC crew had its windows blown out; the passengers got away unhurt save for cuts from flying glass. Such adventures are often recounted with black humor, and justified on the grounds of competitive pressure. Says one U.S. newsman: "If another network gets a story and gets out alive, then it was safe to go, and I should have."

But last week brought a frightening reminder of what every journalist in El Salvador knows beneath the bravado: that danger is more than barroom folklore. Four Dutch TV newsmen set out to film rebel encampments near the dusty village of Santa Rita in northern Chalatenango Department. They arrived to meet guerrilla contacts at 5 p.m. Ten minutes later, villagers heard prolonged shooting. Eight people died. The four Dutchmen were shot repeatedly at close range, and their bodies were quickly removed to the capital by Salvadoran soldiers. The army claimed that they died in a firefight, but most reporters suspected that instead the Dutchmen were followed by the army to the rebels, then murdered. A week before their deaths the four Dutchmen had been called in for five hours of questioning by the Hacienda, or treasury, police because the name of one of them, Jacobus Andries Koster, 46, had been on a piece of paper allegedly found on the body of a slain guerrilla. Koster and Jan Kuiper, 39, had a reputation in The Netherlands for deep emotional commitment to Latin American revolutionary movements.

The Dutchmen were killed on the same day that a "hit list" surfaced naming 35 people, mostly journalists, as targets of right-wing death squads. Most correspondents felt the list was probably a hoax and tried to dismiss it with sarcastic remarks. Some of the people named had long since left the country—although at least one,

Alan Riding of the New York Times, went because of repeated warnings from Salvadoran friends. At week's end eight journalists who drove up to inspect the site where the Dutch died had a scare that suggested the list could be taken more seriously. Armed men jumped out of a cattle truck, demanded identification and acted menacing. Said Photographer Susan Meiselas: "We all thought this was it."

The sudden specter of violent death—the first of a foreign journalist in El Salvador since early last year when Photographer Olivier Rebbot was shot—heightened the pressures of covering a war that is in some measure a staged media event. Both Secretary of State Alexander Haig and El Salvador's Marxist-dominated rebels say that the government of President José Napoleón Duarte cannot last without U.S. military aid. Thus both sides are fighting partly to influence American opinion. When New York Times Executive Editor A.M. Rosenthal returned this month from a tour to "get the feeling" of the situation, he said he had never seen a place "where journalism was more part of the process ... Everybody is trying to manipulate the press, not only Salvadorans but Haig."

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