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University of Wisconsin–Madison

After September 11 . . . 1973: Chilean Journalism at the Crossroads


Radio Maganalles will surely soon be silenced, and the calm metal of my voice will no longer reach you. It does not matter. You shall continue to hear it. I shall always be at your side, and you will remember me at least as a dignified man who was loyal to his country.

–  President Salvador Allende’s last words to the Chilean people, September 11, 1973


On the morning of September 11, 1973, as the jet fighters completed their bombing runs, a column of thick black smoke rose from “La Moneda,” Chile’s presidential palace. Tanks and infantry closed in on the rubble-strewn building in preparation for the final assault.

The attackers were Chilean military personnel lead by General Augusto Pinochet, the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the army, Admiral Jose Toribio Merino, the head of the Navy, and General Gustavo Leigh, the head of the Air Force. Their aim was to capture and kill the nation’s 65-year-old physician turned president, Salvador Allende Gossens, the world’s first Marxist ever elected in an open and democratic election, and in a country which had been, until then, one of South America’s most durable democracies.

Inside the palace ruins, on the second floor, in a large room known as the Independence Hall, Allende waited holding an assault rifle. As the invading soldiers climbed the stairs, they were met by a hail of gun fire. The firefight raged on. Finally a little after 2 p.m. that afternoon, the soldiers reached Independence Hall.  Shortly after, Allende’s bullet-ridden body was carried out on a stretcher and later dumped in an unmarked grave. He had committed suicide using an AK-47 his friend, Fidel Castro, had gifted him a few years earlier.

statue of Salvadore AllendeToday, La Moneda palace has been vastly renovated; there are guards at every gate including gate number 80 from where Allende’s body was carried out in full view of the waiting media. In an adjacent park stands a bronze statue of the President, perhaps a reminder not only of his untimely death but also of Chile’s bloody tryst with democracy.

Decades of Censorship

Following the September 11 coup, the military junta suspended the Constitution and the elected Congress, outlawed left-wing parties, banned unions, and purged universities.  General Pinochet assumed leadership and would be named president in December 1974. He instituted broad policy reforms, reshaping the economy to adhere to free-market principles and cutting trade barriers to spur foreign imports. In contrast to Allende’s socialist rule, it was Pinochet’s stated goal to make Chile “not a nation of proletarians, but a nation of entrepreneurs.”

The first order of business for the regime was to impose the State Security Law (Ley de Seguridad Interior del Estado) which was the prime legislation that shackled the press. In 1970, President Allende had signed the progressive Estatuto de Garantias Democratitas (Statute of Democratic Guarantees). It was to be a key legislation which prevented the government from curtailing freedom of expression and freedom of press. In contrast, the Article 6(b) of the State Security Law, imposed harsh sanctions on “those who defame, slander, or libel the President of the Republic, Ministers of State, Senators or Deputies, members of the superior courts, Commanders-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, or the Director General of the National Police”.

Censorship offices were run by military personnel who were often brutal in their imposition of the said law. The press was unable to report on arrests, disappearances, killings and torture. The Caravana de la Muerte or “Caravan of Death” (death squads who executed anti-Pinochet journalists, activists and politicians) existed only in hushed rumors and among families of victims.

“[The] arbitrariness was absolute, that they could do anything they want with you,” says Juan Lagos, a retired journalist who was jailed for 29 days without charge in a crackdown that followed the coup, and had to flee to the Netherlands to avoid torture. “We were at the mercy of [the] secret police.”

As the years passed and the wave of killings subsided, the government began to ease some of the restrictions, resulting in news reports about the past, of disappearances and execution, though the press could still not openly discuss the abuses of the 1970s.

Transition to Democracy

The end of the Cold War in the 1990s precipitated the process of democratic reform for Chile.  The transition, however, was not easy. Weakened by years of political repression, political parties had to concern themselves with rebuilding their ties to a Chilean society that itself had undergone important changes as a result of the military regime’s socioeconomic policies. Communists, Socialists and the centrist Christian Democrats had to create a consensus to move towards true democratic transition. In contrast to the 1970s, the party elites in the new coalition or Concertacion de los Partidos por la Democracia now endeavored to portray an image of moderation, conciliation and pragmatism.

The gradual easing of military rule and attempts at reforming the Constitution resulted in the plebiscite of 1988. The “NO”(Concertacion por el No)  to a military government won with 55% of the votes.

By 2005, the coalition government, led by the left-leaning President Ricardo Lagos, made significant reforms to the military-mandated Constitution, ones which eliminated the most undemocratic areas of laws, such as the existence of non-elected Senators and the inability of the President to remove the Commander-in-Chief of the army.

But electoral politics and democracy was a completely new experience for many of the leaders, either because they were too young to have participated in Chile’s previous democratic regime or they had avoided politics until becoming involved after the military government was beginning to weaken. The transition, thus, to a free and independent media system has continued to be an elusive goal. Post-dictatorship governments, instead of dismantling the neoliberal media model left in place by Pinochet, adopted it.

“This model has brought about a media system that has been highly consolidated where the logic of the market is winning over quality of content,” says Antonio Castillo, Chilean journalist and professor of journalism at University of Sydney, Australia.

Chile has one of the highest concentrations of media ownership in the world. A 2011 report from Reporters without Borders labeled Chile as a country “suffering from the worst concentration of ownership in print and broadcast media.” For instance, 90% of newspaper ownership for the entire country is concentrated in the hands of two groups, El Mercurio S.A.P and Copesa. The report notes that there is a “lack of real media pluralism and the perception exists that the mainstream media are too supportive of the government.”

Prominent examples of alternative and non-mainstream newspapers that have gone out of business because of lack of funding and assistance are the state-owned La Nacion, shut down by the right-wing President Sebastian Pinera soon after he came to power in 2010; La Fortín Mapocho, a daily that played a key role in the fight against the dictatorship, ceased publication in 1991; and the progressive and opposition newspaper, La Época, which went out of business in 1998.

Democracy without Freedom of Press?

photo of La Moneda palace

La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chile

For Chilean journalists, especially those who carried out their work (often surreptitiously) in the alternative, pro-democracy and independent media during the dictatorship, the transition to democracy was a promise of better times. It was a promise for freedom of press and media diversity. This promise has remained unfulfilled.

Setbacks have brought about an unflattering assessment by several international agencies. For instance, in 2011, Chile fell 47 places in the “Press Freedom Index,” a dramatic fall for an emerging democracy.

According to the Index, “…media ownership is concentrated in very few hands; certain issues such as the situation of Chile’s indigenous Mapuche minority, environmental projects or [discussions of] human rights during the 1973-90 military dictatorship continue to be extremely sensitive.”

Some blame the situation directly on the election of right-wing President Pinera who had been the owner of Chilevision, one of the oldest television networks in Chile, and who is often referred to as “Chile’s Berlusconi”.

“The current regime is bent on suppression,” says Federico Subervi, Director for the Center of Latino Media and Markets at Texas State University, San Marcos, directly referring to Pinera’s presidency, “The future will be contingent on the election of a more progressive, liberal minded president in the next election cycle.”

“In the era of globalization, where there is concentration of economic power, and in the media particularly, the State has no good tools to ensure pluralism and to foster free speech,” says Claudia Lagos-Lira, Professor at the Institute of Communication and Image, University of Chile, who has conducted extensive research on freedom of expression and journalism practices in post-dictatorial Chile, “The last year [2011] was especially hard for journalists because they faced violence from the police in covering student protests and social disturbances.”

Research conducted by Lagos-Lira of Chilean print and broadcast journalists has shown that a majority of them believed that it was impossible to investigate the government, and they were often asked by their editors and superiors to soften the content of news when it comes to such reportage.

“And this is a society which is very politically conservative, in a lot of ways,” says Lagos-Lira. “It is not used to the idea of free speech. Just in past weeks, the government tried to pass a bill that would restrict freedom of expression in public debates and the right to unionize, for example.”

Others point to the fact that under three administrations, the Concertacion alliance also tacitly undercut freedom of press, leaving in place not only the enclave of concentration of media we see today but also, at times, cohabiting with media groups which had openly supported pro-authoritarian rule.

But some are hopeful.

“I think democracy in Chile is strong and stable, and I believe the democracy will continue to thrive,” says Caroline Beer, Professor of Political Science and expert in Latin American politics at the University of Vermont. “Since Chile’s transition to democracy, the center-left coalition has won every presidential election until 2010. And I think the victory of the right-wing coalition is a natural part of consolidation of democracy.”

“Since Pinera was elected, his government has been weakened by massive student protests demanding serious reforms to the educational system. The education system was mostly privatized during the Pinochet era, and [that system] is finally being challenged in the new democracy. Better access to education for low income students is the next issue the government needs to tackle and the student protestors are demanding changes,” says Beer.

For Beer, the large-scale protests are a natural part of the maturation of Chilean democracy.

“While Pinera has lately been quite aggressive in confronting the students and, this I believe is the reason press freedom ratings for Chile have declined,” Beer says. “He has also lost a lot of support because of the way he has dealt with the students, and it’s hard to imagine the right-wing coalition will win the next presidential elections.”

Journalism at the Crossroads

It remains to be seen what path Chile’s democracy – and press – will take in the next few years as the society continue to consolidate its democratic institutions.

All is not bleak. The Press Freedom Act of 2001 now protects journalists from any obligation to reveal their sources, and stops courts from gagging the press reporting on controversial criminal cases.

“The Chilean media today enjoys some level of freedom when compared to the Pinochet period,” says Castillo, “There are also a few independent media, for example, El Mostrador [an online daily based in Santiago]. At least journalists are not taken away and killed. In this sense, things have changed and the work environment is safer.”

Yet journalists are unable to set the news agenda, which continues to be driven by commercial and corporate interests. Exacerbating the situation is that journalists are badly paid and poorly treated by their employers. “The media in Chile is heavily subject to commercial interest and this won’t allow a free and independent media [to evolve] and has led to the general decline of quality journalism,” concludes Castillo.

One fact is clear: Chilean journalism needs to work through the conflicting and difficult process of redefining its identity and democratic purpose.


photo of Shakuntala Rao

Shakuntala Rao

Shakuntala Rao is Professor of Communication Studies at State University
of New York, Plattsburgh, New York, USA. She received her Ph.D. from
University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her research and teaching interests
are in global journalism practices, ethics & popular culture.

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