With the daily bustle of writing news roundups and reviews, it is often easy to forget people have died for journalism.
But thirty years ago, on 25th March 1977, journalist Rodolfo Walsh was shot dead in the street a day after he had penned the ‘Open Letter to the Military Junta’.
The letter began: “The gagging of the press, the persecution of intellectuals, the razing of my home in Tigre, the murder of dear friends and the loss of a daughter fighting you are some of the facts that have forced me into this kind of clandestine expression, after having spoken freely as a writer and journalist for almost 30 years.”
In the letter, written on the first anniversary of the coup, Walsh accused the dictatorship of installing the worst reign of terror ever known in Argentina, imprisoning thousands of people without due process, brutally torturing them using Medieval methods and summarily executing them. This came at a time when Argentines were on the whole unaware of the activities being carried out by the military regime.
He perhaps realised the potential consequences of his actions, ending the letter: “Without hope of being listened to, I know I will be hunted down, but I am faithful to the commitment I assumed to give testimony in times of difficulty.” These words have been immortalised as the last ones he wrote.
Walsh did not consider himself a natural writer – his friends talk of him being tormented by ‘Rilke’s stupid joke’, in which the Czech poet said that people should not write if they felt they could live without doing so. And Walsh could do so. In fact, there were large parts of his life in which he turned away from writing.
He was always drawn back to it though, as he saw it as a way of doing ‘something more’, of actually making a difference, by speaking out on behalf of the voiceless and those who were ignored by mainstream media.
Yet by 1976, when the dictatorship came into power, Walsh had not been writing regularly for a while, being more involved in the Montoneros, the left-wing Peronist guerrilla movement. However, realising that freedom of speech had been removed by the dictatorship, in June 1976 he formed ‘ANCLA’, an underground news agency, with other journalists.
ANCLA became the first agency to report the atrocities that were happening under the junta, syndicating a large amount of information. Their journalists reported things that the mainstream media chose to ignore.
But, being largely a Montonero organisation, it became harder and harder to maintain as writers and their sources were repeatedly ‘disappeared’, targetedby the dictatorship.
In September 1976 Walsh’s oldest daughter, María Victoria, also a journalist and member of the Montoneros, was shot dead in a confrontation with the forces. This devastated Walsh, but true to the philosophy of ‘that which does not break you will only make you stronger’, he founded ‘Cadena Informativa’, a two-page newsletter.
It was typed and circulated by Walsh himself, and always ended telling readers: “Terror is based on the absence of communication, defeat it by breaking the isolation, so copy and circulate this information and rest assured tinhorn dictators surrounded by bayonets and truncheons are terrified by spoken words and stirring thoughts.”
Cadena Informativa acted as a precursor to the Open Letter to the Military Junta, and the method of circulation was simplistic. It was sent from a variety of post boxes around Buenos Aires to people chosen at random from the phone book. The recipients were encouraged to copy the letter and send it on, in the style of a chain letter.
Walsh was by then very much a marked man.
By the time he penned the Open Letter he would only leave the house in full disguise and would carry a gun with him at all times. On the day he was killed he realised he had been recognised and rather than be taken alive by the military death squad, he chose to fire a shot, knowing fire would be returned. Walsh was killed instantly.
Since his death, there has been much debate as to whether the writing of the letter was an act of heroism or actually something closer to a suicide note. While the debate remains open, one thing is certain: Walsh maintained his beliefs until the end.