UO students get a ‘very real’ lesson in freedom of speech

This op-ed by Will Johnson, an adjunct instructor of international studies at the University of Oregon, and Crossings Institute co-director Dr. Peter Laufer was originally published in The Register-Guard of Eugene, Oregon. To view the original article, click here.


BUENOS AIRES, Argentina “They entered here, and they took our hard disks,” Javier Matías Borelli said as he showed us the ransacked offices of his newspaper, Tiempo Argentino, in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo.

It’s been over a week since the paper’s offices were invaded, shortly after midnight on July 4. Armed thugs kicked and threatened staffers. Along with taking the disks containing the newspaper’s archives, the invaders severed Tiempo’s Internet and telephone connections with wire cutters and turned the business office files upside down.

Nothing else was stolen. “It is an attempt to stifle our freedom of speech,” says Borelli, president of the cooperative that publishes Tiempo. “They were aiming to destroy our ability to publish.”

Despite the assault on its infrastructure, Tiempo Argentino managed to publish an extra the next day, a special edition detailing the attack, documenting it with photos of the destruction, and informing readers of difficult-to-believe details: Police called to the scene by Tiempo staffers just stood by watching; they did not intervene. The authorities arrested no one while they offered safe passage from the scene to the perpetrators.

For the last several weeks, 22 University of Oregon students have been studying with us in Argentina, working on both journalism and human rights issues.

The focus of their reading and research has been the recent past: The plight of the “desaparecidos” — the thousands of people who were kidnaped, tortured, and discarded without mercy by the Argentine military dictatorship, with complicity from Washington, in the 1970s and ’80s during the country’s so-called Dirty War. Students are immersed in the iconic imagery of the Madres la Plaza de Mayo, walking with the fearless women who for nearly 40 years have marched every week in cities across the country to demand answers about the fate of their children and grandchildren.

Argentina is an ideal place to study human rights and journalism. This country’s recent past teaches us how quickly so-called national security threats, along with the suspensions of civil and political rights, can devolve into state-sanctioned terrorism. It reminds us that the violation of anyone’s human rights — especially the right to think and speak freely — is an assault on us all, one that wounds society in sometimes unimaginable ways.

For example, during the Dirty War, disappeared journalists were forced to write propaganda for the dictatorship from a newsroom in a clandestine torture chamber.

Oregon students were sobered by such stories, but perhaps were lulled by Argentina’s tango and its tasty grilled hunks of meat into believing the had country learned from its sordid past, and that assaults on freedom of expression were things of the past. That illusion ended when a Tiempo reporter spoke to one of our classes a couple of days after the attack.

As a UO student later said, “History jumped off the book and became very real, very fast.”

“They had clear intentions of destroying our newspaper,” journalist María José Garcia Moreno told our students. And about the police response, or lack of response, she lamented, “The government is not doing anything. This is the saddest part.”

Yet she and the rest of the staff are energized, the editions of the paper since the crisis started are vibrant, sales are increasing, and international outrage is fueling solidarity from journalists far from Argentina.

We are convinced this experience reminds our students that their own human rights are vulnerable. We hope it teaches them the value and necessity of constantly demanding from governments the rights to which all citizens are entitled. We hope it strengthens their understanding of the interconnectedness of all peoples, of how their individual action has the potential to save lives and that inaction essentially condones human rights violations in far off places and at home.

We hope it prepares them to fight for all of our rights as they graduate from students to their professional lives.

These are reasons why we take our Oregon students far from Eugene in UO study abroad programs. International travel and education are life-changing experiences. This is especially true for programs that combine traditional tourist activities and language study with serious, emotionally and intellectually challenging excursions.

“I am not afraid,” reporter María José Garcia Moreno told our students as she worked on the next edition of Tiempo Argentino, “I am furious.”

The passion of such stoicism, especially without the type of police protection both Argentines and Oregonians expect when they call 911, is an urgent contemporaneous lesson and one hard to replicate without a passport and a ticket to a port far from the comforts of home.

Will Johnson teaches in the International Studies Department and the Law School at the University of Oregon. Peter Laufer is the James Wallace Chair Professor of Journalism at the UO. Both lead Global Education Oregon study abroad programs.

The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Oregon-UNESCO Crossings Institute.

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