Listen to a narrated version of this essay:
This past spring semester was the first in which I had a few undergraduate students who didn’t seem to understand the role and importance of a free press. Perhaps the problem was that only one of my students had even visited a place that had suffered under authoritarian rule, and she had grown up in a Mexican border town. Mexico is technically a democracy, but for years her town had been ruled by a drug cartel. So she knew how it must feel to live under a dictatorship and what it was like to watch a free press disappear. More journalists are being killed in Mexico than in almost any other country on earth.
We Americans have been lucky. We’ve lived in a democracy for more than 240 years, but that’s no guarantee that a president much like our current one would not, or could not, assume dictatorial powers. How close are we to that? I don’t know, but I fear we’re getting very close, because the first things to go in a dictatorship are freedom of the press and freedom of speech, and our president doesn’t seem to have much respect for either of them. He seems not to understand that these two protections are the first, and most important, of our constitutionally guaranteed rights. Without them, the other rights are inconsequential.
Over the years, I’ve seen dictatorships at work first-hand in a number of countries. There was El Salvador during the 1970s and ’80s, when a military regime, at the behest of the landed oligarchy, sought out and murdered journalists to keep them quiet. Most of these journalists were Salvadoran. But there were also foreign journalists like American freelancer John J. Sullivan, who was kidnapped from his hotel room in 1980. Part of his body was discovered buried on a dirt road; his head and hands were said to have been found cemented into a stone wall.
In 1982, four members of a Dutch television crew were tracked down by Salvadoran soldiers and shot to death like wild game.
The circumstances of the death in 1984 of American photographer John Hoagland were not quite so clear. We knew that he was killed during a firefight on the road to Suchitoto in a no man’s land between government troops and guerrillas. By which side, though, we couldn’t be sure. But there was another thing of which we could be sure: Hoagland’s name had appeared on a list of 35 international journalists marked for death by a paramilitary group tied to the Salvadoran armed forces.
All of us journalists had gotten messages like this in one form or another. Mine came from a guy who walked up behind me while I was sitting in a restaurant talking to American contractors. The guy whispered that I was a communist foreign journalist and then said that he wanted me to go outside with him. He added that he had a gun in his back pocket, and if I didn’t come with him, he’d shoot me in the head.
Fortunately, one of the American contractors, pretending not to understand Spanish, excused himself to go to the bathroom. In route, he found a security guard who pointed a pistol at the guy behind me and frisked him. The thing in the guy’s back pocket was a paperback novel.
But he’d delivered the message, hadn’t he?
When I’d first arrived in El Salvador in 1983, I discovered the government didn’t recognize press credentials from international news organizations. We journalists had to make up our own organization—the Salvadoran Press Corps Association—and we got a kick out of the fact that the acronym on our cards resembled the acronym of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But our homemade press cards didn’t help us much. Neither did the official ones we were finally able to get from the Salvadoran military.
One morning in 1984, photographer Jim Neel and I were drinking coffee and reading the newspaper in the lobby of our hotel. The day before, we had survived an ambush by government soldiers while we were trying to interview a band of guerrillas in northern Chalatenango Province, and we were still luxuriating in an adrenaline high. We’d gotten the story, and we’d survived. We were giggling as I read letters aloud from a local advice column—What rational person would fret about appropriate dinner place settings during a civil war? But then a serious article caught my eye. A high-ranking officer in the Salvadoran Army was quoted as saying that any foreign journalists caught interviewing guerrillas should be considered enemy combatants and dealt with accordingly.
There’s nothing like that kind of news to bring you back to earth.
Like other journalists, we’d been interviewing people on both sides of the conflict, but because El Salvador was a dictatorship, we were being treated like enemies of the state. When our current president calls the press “the enemy of the people,” a phrase made famous by Hitler, Stalin, and other notorious dictators, I know from experience what he’s saying: he’s rhetorically threatening the press with censorship, imprisonment, or death. It’s nothing new. It happens all the time in dictatorships.
But without a free press, we’d never have known about the death squads that left the bodies of headless civilians in the gutters of San Salvador at dawn. We’d never have known about the rape and murder of four American churchwomen by Salvadoran National Guardsmen. We never would have heard that six Catholic priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter had been tortured and shot to death by Salvadoran soldiers on the campus of the Central American University. We’d never have known that nearly 80,000 people had died during this war in a country the size of Massachusetts with a population of only 5 million.
We never would have known the truth.
Nicaragua was another Central American country where dictatorial power had been directed toward journalists. In 1978, Nicaragua’s dictator, Anastasio Somoza, ordered his henchmen to assassinate Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the editor of La Prensa, Nicaragua’s leading opposition newspaper. That brutal murder was one of the galvanizing events that culminated in the popular uprising that overthrew Somoza. A revolutionary junta took the dictator’s place. Composed primarily of Marxist Sandinistas led by Fidel Castro’s buddy Daniel Ortega, it also included moderates like Violeta Chamorro, widow of the martyred newspaper editor.
But here’s where the story took a turn. When Chamorro realized that Ortega was not interested in democracy and simply wanted to rule the country on his own terms, she resigned from the junta and took her husband’s place as editor of La Prensa. What did Ortega and the Sandinistas do then? They shut it down, of course. That’s what happens to a free press under a dictatorship.
I first went to Nicaragua in 1986, the year Ortega closed La Prensa. The outside walls of the newspaper were covered with Marxist slogans and threats against reporters and staff. When I entered the building, I was surprised to find a secretary still at her desk. I asked if Violeta Chamorro was there and whether I could talk to her for a moment. The secretary disappeared into the back, and out came Chamorro. She invited me into her office, served me coffee, and talked about those freedoms of press and speech for which her husband had been murdered.
Despite his death, not only had she persevered as a public figure in the fight for press freedom, but soon after our talk, she ran for president of Nicaragua against Ortega. In a vote monitored by hundreds of international observers, Chamorro won in a stunning upset—making her the first woman to be elected president of a Central American country.
Before Chamorro’s inauguration in 1990, I spent many hours interviewing her at her home for an article that would appear in Vogue magazine. She was a gracious hostess and told me the whole story of her life, from childhood to falling in love with her journalist husband to the day he was assassinated. Chamorro also talked about the election, how grateful she was to the people of Nicaragua, and how humbled she was to be their president-elect. She knew how much the voters, particularly the women in the poor villages she’d visited, were counting on her. She finished our interview by saying, “Mother of God, don’t let me fail.”
After her inauguration, the first thing Chamorro did was bring peace to her country, which had been wracked by civil war between the Sandinistas and the contras, an army of freedom fighters, or U.S.-backed mercenaries, or both.
In any case, Nicaragua had been freed now from both dictatorship and war. But the country’s experience with democracy was short-lived. Its constitution originally allowed for only one presidential term, so after Chamorro won hers, there were three other free elections. Ortega won the third of these, but he and his Sandinista cronies then changed the constitution so that he could run for a second term. After he won, the Sandinistas changed the constitution yet again, eliminating presidential term limits altogether.
Not only has Ortega recently been re-elected in a vote that international monitors were again not permitted to observe, but his wife has been elected vice president. Political parties other than that of the Ortegas have effectively been eliminated, and during Ortega’s recent inaugural parade, 50 Russian-made tanks rumbled down the streets of Managua.
A final Central American example of dictatorship occurred in Panama, which, when Jim Neel and I visited in 1988, was being ruled by Manuel Noriega, a notorious drug kingpin who accused both the national and international press of spreading “false news” about him and his regime.
Noriega shut down print publications and radio and television stations that he decided were unfavorable to his rule. Both national and international journalists were jailed or attacked by his police or military. An American reporter was so severely beaten in his hotel that he had to be airlifted to Miami for life-saving emergency treatment.
Animosity toward other American journalists was palpable, especially in a slum called El Chorrillo, where Jim and I drove past innumerable buildings covered with crudely painted slogans urging residents to kill people like us.
We heard rumors in Panama City that journalists and political opponents to Noriega were being jailed and then fed to the sharks, literally. Other reporters told us that taxi drivers who hung out in front of hotels frequented by international journalists were often Noriega intelligence operatives, so we paid particular attention when our taxi driver said we needed to be careful about what we wrote. Unflattering news reports about Noriega might result in what he called a “vest cut.” When we asked what that meant, the driver smiled and used his hands to pantomime the cutting off of arms and legs.
Out of stupidity one night, we stopped along the road and asked two Panamanian national policemen for directions. One of them motioned me to follow him into the darkness underneath a highway overpass. There, he ordered me to cough it up. I emptied my pockets and the bills from my wallet. He had apparently never seen a credit card before, and my passport, thank heavens, was strapped under my shirt.
The year after our visit to Panama, the United States attacked that country in what at the time was the largest American military operation since Vietnam. Hardest hit was the slum of El Chorrillo. Noriega took refuge in the Vatican embassy in Panama City, but surrendered after 10 days. Taken to the United States as a prisoner of war, he was convicted in a federal court of drug smuggling and racketeering, and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Later, he would also be convicted of money laundering in France, after which he returned to Panama, where he was convicted of murder and died last May at the age of 83.
What they’re like now:
In contrast to the horrors of the dictatorship in the 1970s and ’80s, El Salvador is a fully functioning democracy. It has its problems (notably the horrendous drug violence), but after 23 years of free and fair presidential elections it also has a lively press espousing a cacophony of views. The press and the government continue to wrestle with one another, but that wrestling appears metaphorical rather than actual, and the constitutional provisions for freedom of speech and press seem secure.
Panama, too, now has a free press. The only complaint I’ve seen online is that the government keeps a lid on some information that the press feels it has a right to see. But nobody’s being thrown to the sharks or having their heads beaten in, or, to my knowledge, being incessantly accused of peddling “false news.”
The future of a free press in Nicaragua, though, looks different. As long as it remains a dictatorship, and a friend of Russia, which poisons and otherwise does away with its own journalists, I doubt much will change for the better. The Nicaraguan dictator who once shut down La Prensa is firmly in power for the foreseeable future. Free and fair elections are once again just a dream.
Right now, except for Mexico, the Middle East appears to be the place where journalists and freedom of the press are most at risk. You’ve probably read about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s relentless steps toward dictatorship. This has put the United States in a bind because Turkey is a member of NATO. It has also alarmed journalists. Turkey holds more journalists in prison than any other country on earth. Erdogan’s government has taken over most opposition newspapers, and fear has gripped the country.
A Turkish journalist I befriended there in 2013 told me that in years past, he had done extensive research on annual expenditures by the Turkish government. He’d found that the government budgeted more money on the salaries of imams (who lead prayers in Islamic mosques) than it did on education and health care combined. Turkish newspapers were hesitant to publish his findings for fear of the government’s response.
Finally, the editor of one small newspaper agreed to print the article, but only on one of its back pages. My friend showed me the article. It would have made banner headlines anywhere else. But the day after the article appeared on the back pages of that small Turkish newspaper, the editor was found shot dead at his desk.
Across the border in Syria, the situation has been a quantum leap worse.
During my trips to the border region from 2012 to 2014, including three times into Syria itself, I witnessed a mostly peaceful movement against a brutal dictatorship morph into the worst war of the 21st century. Bashar al-Assad has imprisoned, tortured, and hanged uncounted numbers of Syrian journalists and editors. Assads’s paramilitary group, the shabiha, was probably behind the kidnapping of American journalist Austin Tice in 2012. He has not been heard from since. And we know Assad personally ordered the targeted killing of American journalist Marie Colvin, who wrote for a British newspaper and died under an artillery barrage in the city of Homs in 2012.
But Assad’s most ambitious criminal act against American journalists and other Westerners was to turn his back on the rise of ISIS, which allowed him to focus his attention on what he thought was his true threat—the moderate, largely democratic Free Syrian Army. He even released ISIS prisoners from his jails so that they could take up the fight against the opposition to his rule.
We know what ISIS did to American journalists and aid workers. They beheaded at least three: James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig, along with British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning, and Japanese citizens Haruna Yukawa and Kenji Goto. They also tortured, raped, and murdered Kayla Mueller, a 26-year-old aid worker from Arizona.
Journalists, in peace or war, have a particular purpose: to let us know what has happened, what is happening, and what will, or might happen to us. That’s why the dictators—when they torture or kill us, ridicule or defeat journalists—are stealing our lives, the story of who we were, and the proof that we once lived here. Dictators destroy everything, even memory.
On World Press Freedom Day last May, American Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said, “We honor those men and women who work tirelessly, often at great personal risk, to tell the stories we would not otherwise hear. They are the guardians of democratic values and ideals.” Fine words, sure. A little too pedestrian for my taste. But what a blessing it would be if our president had the courage to say those same words and perhaps something more. I’ll believe it when I hear it, though. If an American president talks like a dictator and tweets like a dictator, he’s probably on his way to becoming one.
Read more Dennis Covington on his new blog, Deep in the Heart, each Friday.