Jul 1 1988

The State Department Versus US Reporters in El Salvador

On May 5, 1988, the US Embassy in El Salvador published a collection of articles and leaflets in its Daily Press Digest under the heading “Leftist Propaganda in the US.” Included in the digest was a piece by freelancer Chris Norton, which described the plight of Salvadoran refugees returning from Honduras, and an article on human rights by Holly Burkhalter, Washington representative of Americas Watch. Both stories were published in the North American Congress on Latin America’s Report on the Americas (September-December 1987).

Norton, who is still based in San Salvador, wrote a letter to Secretary of State George Shultz, dated June 27, which expressed his dismay that US foreign service officials “would be so irresponsible as to unnecessarily put US journalists at risk by labelling their work ‘leftist propaganda’ in a widely distributed embassy publication that is sent to members of Salvadoran military and security forces.” Norton pointed out that “thousands of Salvadorans have been murdered by death squads and the Salvadoran military for the mere suspicion of being ‘leftists.’” Perhaps coincidentally, Norton was roughed up by Salvadoran police weeks later while covering a political demonstration.

On June 27–while Norton was writing Shultz to complain about being redlisted by the US embassy–a State Department official in Washington was taking aim at another American journalist who made a documentary on US policy in El Salvador. “Our Forgotten War,” co-produced by Marc Cooper, aired on PBS Frontline (6-14-88), much to the chagrin of Gregory Laguna, acting director of the State Department’s Office of Central American Affairs.

Laguna had been interviewed by Cooper for Christian Science Monitor Reports and some of this footage was later used in the Frontline documentary. When Laguna saw the Frontline program, he wrote a scathing letter to Christian Science Monitor manager John Hoagland, full of McCarthyesque smears and ad hominem attacks against Cooper. Charging that Cooper was morally complicit in civilian deaths from guerrilla actions, Laguna ended his five-page tirade by threatening not to cooperate with the Christian Science Monitor in the future.