Reporting Argentina's Dirty War: 1 editor's story
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Journalist Robert Cox risked his life chronicling the fierce first years of Argentina's "Dirty War," the 1976-83 dictatorship that left thousands missing. Yet even decades later, he couldn't bear to write his own story of confronting a deadly junta.
Now his son has told the story for him, giving readers the scoop on an editor at a small English-language daily in South America - the Buenos Aires Herald - who dared to write about kidnappings and killings at a time when most colleagues kept silent.
"Dirty Secrets, Dirty War - The Exile of Editor Robert J. Cox" is a 221-page account by CNN Web producer David Cox of his father's dangerous life and times covering the violent run-up to Argentina's 1976 military coup and what ensued.
Published by Evening Post Publishing with Joggling Board Press, the book tells how his father dared to write about atrocities when others would not.
"This is the book that I could not write," the elder Cox, 75, says in the foreword. "I still find it too painful to relive those malevolent times by writing about them."
A state-backed plan to silence real or perceived foes swept thousands, many innocent, into clandestine torture centers. Official records put the number of disappeared at 13,000; human rights groups say some 30,000 were slain.
"Within the whole family we have been dealing with this for many years," said David Cox, 42, who spent his early years in Argentina. "We all wanted my father to write the story of what happened to us and to him."
Cox raised early alarms about the junta and drew warnings.
"They warned him and tried to keep him in bounds, but he would publish lists of those who disappeared," recalled F. Allen "Tex" Harris, a one-time U.S. diplomat based in Argentina during the Jimmy Carter administration.
Argentines began visiting the Herald when authorities wouldn't give them information about missing loved ones, Robert Cox explained.
"People would go to the military and the judges and they would know nothing. The Argentine newspapers would say 'We don't report those kinds of things,'" he said. "The Herald became like a doctor's surgery (ward) with people turning up to tell us about disappearances."
"On the newsstand, the only voice was Cox," Harris said. "My stuff went back in the classified pouches to Washington. He's a hero. There were so few people in the country speaking out."
Cox said he sought to bring pressure.
"I'd go to the government and would give them a list of names of people they had under arrest," he said. "I would say if these people reappear, there is no reason to put it in print."
Cox' accounts began to gain world attention and he became a stringer for such outlets as The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Herald, meanwhile, was allowed to continue reporting on the disappearances - for a time.
"He printed in English and so few people in Argentina read English that it just wasn't that important," to the military, Harris said. "Whenever anybody said there was no freedom of the press, they could point to Cox."
But Cox himself was arrested after writing editorials appealing for the release of an imprisoned journalist, material the government said was censored. He spent 24 hours in jail, then was released after an international outcry.
Finally, in 1979, he fled Argentina after death threats to his young family.
David Cox, only 13 when the family fled, remembers body guards outside the house, police trailing his school bus and even how someone killed the family rabbits and tossed their remains into the garden.
Until those years of fear, he said, he and his sister and two brothers had an idyllic childhood.
"Suddenly everything stopped," he said. "It was like one of those clocks by Dali which just melts away and time just stops and we completely became adults."
Robert Cox, whose journalism career spanned six decades, retired last year after 26 years as assistant editor of The Post and Courier in Charleston, whose parent company owned the Herald until late 2007.
The younger Cox says his father is a "tremendously humble man" who simply reported what was happening in Argentina when others refused: "He would say his was doing his job as a journalist."
Robert Cox says his story shows what a free press can do: "In this day and age, when you see what has happened to newspapers, you realize just how important a newspaper is."