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Journalist Robert Cox Recalls Work During Argentina's Dirty War

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Argentines are marking the 40th anniversary of the military coup that set off the Dirty War, a seven-year-long wave of political oppression that claimed thousands of lives. President Obama, who's just returned from a visit to Argentina, acknowledged the victims of the Dirty War there earlier this week. And he also acknowledged some of those who stood beside them.

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BARACK OBAMA: The journalists, like Bob Cox, who bravely reported on human rights abuses despite threats to them and their families.

SIEGEL: Robert Cox edited the English-language Buenos Aires Herald. He ultimately had to leave Argentina. He moved to Charleston, S.C. But at age 82, he now returns regularly to Buenos Aires, and he was with the president there this week. He joins us now from Argentina. Welcome to the program.

BOB COX: Thank you. It's a great pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: Take us back those days 40 years ago. Political dissidents were, in the phrase of the day, being disappeared. You were a newspaper editor. You faced a choice about how to cover what was going on. What led you to act as you did?

COX: What I realized was is that we could save lives. That sounds extraordinary, but it is what happened. And we had to just find the ways to do it in such ways that the government wouldn't deal with us as they dealt with other people. The point was to get the story out, too, because, with that, we were able to occasionally - well, fairly frequently, really - get the government to release people. I have friends now who survived the torture chambers there because I wrote a story about them. It's an incredible - so many incredible stories like that.

SIEGEL: The way that the Buenos Aires Harold managed to do this was actually quite fascinating. The idea was, if the families of people who had been disappeared filed a writ of habeas corpus, then you could cover a legal action in court - the filing of the writ and report on the content of it- and get away with it.

COX: We decided that's what we would do, and we did get away with it. It was chaos in that time. It was like some vortex of horror in Argentina, but most people managed to not see what was happening. One of the things that I take away with it is the ability of people to compartmentalize everything according to how they want to feel most comfortable.

SIEGEL: You married into an Argentine family.

COX: Yes.

SIEGEL: Clearly you must've known a lot of people or been in-laws to a lot of people who thought what was going on was OK.

COX: Yes, of course they did. And they dropped us. I'd be walking in the street, and they'd cross to the other side of the road so they wouldn't have anything to do with us. We had that problem, and then we had wonderful, dear friends who remained with us and around us. Social events were very difficult sometimes. And my wife used to try and bring it up. We tried to tell people what was going on. They didn't want to know. My wife says that she would say, do you know that people are being taken out at 3 o'clock in the morning and not coming home? And they'd say, what nice shoes you have. And, you know, it was that - it was a very strange time in every way. And I never got the right word to describe everything. You know, perhaps I will get it one day.

SIEGEL: There had been a dictatorship in Argentina - the Peronist regime - before all this. And the coup that led to the Dirty War was - well, it was targeted, I guess, at supporters of the old regime, leftists, Jews. Who else was - who was on the list that the generals had?

COX: Jews got worse treatment than anybody else. I was - yesterday, I was at the Jewish social center, and we were talking about that. It's possible to use the word genocide in that it was a political genocide. It was a genocide that sought certain people they thought were not proper Argentines, which of course would include Jews, include people like me, include all kinds of people. And so you would have to be a good Catholic, and you would have to be extremely right wing, and then you were OK. And then you could live very happily under that regime.

SIEGEL: For younger journalists who might find their countries, or their communities for that matter, violating norms of civil and legal behavior and might find some of their friends being OK with that, what's your advice?

COX: Never, never, never, never, never, never, never. One has to absolutely be totally principled about this and not accept it in any form.

SIEGEL: Well, Bob Cox, thanks a lot for talking with us.

COX: No, thank you very much. It's an enormous pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much for NPR. What we need here in Argentina is NPR.

SIEGEL: Thank you. That's Robert Cox, who was, 40 years ago, editor of the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, a newspaper that came to the aid of the victims of the Dirty War. He spoke to us from Buenos Aires. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.