On July 24, 1975 Chile’s afternoon tabloid La Segunda published a front page story headlined “Exterminated like mice.” The article described a shootout between rival factions of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left and other Chilean leftist groups who had fled to Argentina after the 1973 military coup in which dozens of people were killed.
La Segunda is part of the El Mercurio newspaper chain, whose publisher, Augustin Edwards, died at his estate south of Santiago this week. The supposed shootout never took place and the newspaper report was part of an elaborate disinformation campaign by the Pinochet regime’s security agency, the DINA, aimed at discrediting victims of forced disappearances and their families. The Chilean National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation later described the report as “the high point of manipulating disinformation.” And Edwards’ newspapers were often willing participants in these operations.
According to the Commission, the DINA published two lists totalling 119 Chileans who had disappeared after their arrest via two obscure publications, the Argentine magazine Lea and the Brazilian newspaper Novo O Dia.
“Subsequent investigation revealed that Lea was the first issue of a magazine that did not legally exist and provided no names of anyone involved in it and that Novo O Dia was published irregularly in the city of Curitiba, Brazil. Further investigation into the source of the single issue of Lea led to a print shop linked to ultraright groups in the Argentinean government at that time. It also became clear that such unusual publications were used because despite considerable efforts the more serious media refused to publish the news.”
But Edwards’ El Mercurio newspaper chain was quick to pick up and republish this disinformation, with sensational headlines and additional material of questionable origin about Chilean subversives operating in other countries. The result, the Commission report noted, was “confusion within public opinion, and humiliation and isolation for the relatives of victim and those circles involved in defending human rights.” And throughout the Pinochet dictatorship’s 17 years in power, Edwards’ newspapers routinely helped cover up human rights abuses, maligning the victims and casting doubt on the credibility of witnesses to such crimes.
The Chilean Journalists Association finally expelled Edwards two years ago. And last year his name appeared in the Panama Papers as one of the clients served by the Panama City law firm Mossack, which had helped wealthy individuals from around the world establish offshore bank accounts.