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"I could hear my wife being tortured in the next cell"

May 4, 2015
Natasha Schmidt
8 min read
Brazil's military dictatorship was at its most brutal in the 1970s
Brazil's military dictatorship was at its most brutal in the 1970s
Protest against Brazil's military dictatorship
Protest against Brazil's military dictatorship
Vladimir Herzog, "Vlado", who was murdered in 1975
Vladimir Herzog, "Vlado", who was murdered in 1975

Journalist Paulo Markun was arrested in 1975 during a crackdown on journalists and members of the Communist Party, which advocated for non-violent resistance against Brazil’s military dictatorship. Markun talked to IranWire about his time in prison, the cruel logic of the dictatorship era, and the state of Brazil’s media today. 


How did censorship work in Brazil when you started out as a journalist? 

I started working as a journalist in 1971. Since 1969, censorship was the rule in publications and television stations across the country. It happened in telegrams sent to newsrooms — it was often through these telegrams that journalists discovered certain facts or versions of facts — and in some publications, with censors installed in newspaper offices. It was the case at the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo [one of Brazil’s biggest newspapers]. Other publications had to send all their material to the capital, Brasilia, where censors cut out most of the text. It was the case at Opinião, a weekly newspaper where I worked for a few months. We produced enough material to fill two newspapers, but censors even cut out news that other papers published.

There was no legal basis for such action — just an institutional act, Number 5, introduced on December, 13, 1968. Fernando Gasparian, Opinião's owner, waged long legal battles trying to put an end to prior censorship. He lost the battle because the Act was above the law.


How did journalists get around censorship? 

During the dictatorship it was very difficult to distribute news that defied censorship. This was done by leftist organizations’ publications and led many journalists and activists being sent to prison. Several were killed because of this activism, which sometimes (but not always) included armed struggle against the regime. “Legal” papers attempted to surreptitiously include clues in the news it published to allow readers to understand what actually happened. It was even forbidden to report a meningitis epidemic at the time.

But it was a lost war in most cases. It was common to send uncensored news to the outside world, where exiles had created a network that published this information. Today we know that many leftists were murdered under torture and their deaths were staged as suicides or accidents: they fell out of windows, died in accidents, or through armed confrontations with the police.


You were imprisoned during the country’s dictatorship. Can you tell me how your arrest came about and why you were arrested? 

I was arrested on October 19, 1975, with my wife, who is also a journalist. We were both 23 and had a daughter, six months old. We were arrested for being members of the Communist Party, which was illegal. It fought for the return to democracy within the limits of the law — that is, it did not accept armed resistance to the dictatorship and sought to build a broad front against the military regime.

I was news chief of TV Cultura, a public broadcaster, under Vladimir Herzog, a journalist who, like me, was part of the Communist Party. He had taken the news director post after having his name approved by the secret government service (his selection was not seen to be controversial). Vlado, as he was called, was arrested one week later, in a wave of arrests that saw more than 100 people sent to jail. The operation sought to undermine the president, General Ernesto Geisel, regarded by the military’s most right-wing radicals as overly liberal.

My wife and I, and almost all prisoners, were tortured. Herzog, who failed to go with the police who sought him out at the TV station on the Friday night, had promised to present himself the next morning. He did, and a few hours later, was murdered by the military police. His death was staged as a suicide by hanging. 

Society’s response was enormous. There was an ecumenical service in the cathedral of São Paulo, attended by thousands of people. Many newspapers even published about it. Others just gave the official version of death. Opinião, the weekly newspaper where Vlado had worked, was forbidden to print a single line on the subject.

I was not tortured to the limit of my physical resistance for two reasons: first because I had no information that could lead to the arrest of clandestine party leaders — and that was the main aim of the torturers at the time. And secondly, because, while he [the military policeman] applied electric shocks to my body and especially on my genitals, and put a hood over my head, I could hear noises that indicated that my wife was being tortured in the next cell. Faced with this situation, I confessed to what they wanted. Other companions were taken to the point of pain and suffering. Some were murdered and disappeared forever, including Montenegro José de Lima, a young clandestine leader of the Communist Party, who I knew very well.


Vlado’s murder came at a very sensitive time for Brazil, when there was a lot of in-fighting among the military leaders. How did his death affect society and Brazil’s independent political activists and journalists? 

The death of Vladimir Herzog led to the temporary suspension of torture against journalists who remained in prison, including me. Direct censorship of certain newspapers, such as the newspaper O Estado de São Paulo, had been suspended a few months earlier, as part of Ernesto Geisel's strategy to promote a political opening that he intended to introduce slowly, gradually and safely (for the military). But other papers continued to be censored and control over information ended only 10 years later, with the election of a president from the opposition, Tancredo Neves, in 1985, who died before taking office.

There were still illegal arrests, disappearances and the torture of prisoners after the death of Herzog. Another "suicide" of a detainee connected to the Communist Party forced General Geisel to call for the resignation of the local commander of the army. The resignation was not because the General Geisel was against torture, but because the commander disobeyed an order to stop that practice at that time.


Was the regime consistent when it came to imprisoning journalists and activists?

The regime persecuted all who dared to fight it, whether they were people who supported armed struggle or other kinds of opposition.

There was a cruel logic: the regime wanted assurance that Brazilians could not choose their leaders. It was the Cold War and it supported the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. Torture and censorship were the main instruments of pressure, but many journalists lost their jobs and had enormous difficulty getting another job after being arrested or simply denounced as communists. The Secret Service followed thousands of people, whether or not they were members of illegal parties.


What was like as Brazil emerged from its dictatorship? How did it affect the journalism community?

First, opposition groups exchanged the armed struggle for legal action, after most of them were destroyed by the combination of spying and torture. Then censorship was reduced. The regime reestablished direct elections for state governments and opposition politicians won the race in most of these states. Then the political prisoners were released and exiles returned to the country during the amnesty, which also extended to the torturers as part of a process put in place under the command of the last military president.

Finally, millions of Brazilians took to the streets to demand the return of direct elections for the president. But TV and radio remained under censorship and the country's capital, Brasilia, was subjected to military control. 

At that time, most of the opposition supported Tancredo Neves, who defeated the government's candidate, which had been unable to unite all the right-wing forces. Tancredo died before he could take office, but the vice president, a politician who served military governments, completed the political liberation process, ending censorship, legalizing the Communist Party and organizing a new liberal constitution. 

All this happened 30 years ago. Much has changed in the country. There is freedom of expression, there are no longer exist arrests of journalists and opponents. Elections are free. Anyone can be a candidate and vote. But there is still much to do to deepen the democratic process. Economic power has strong influence in campaigns. Large companies finance candidates and then charge a price in the form of contracts with governments. There are parliamentarians committed to religious factions, arms manufacturers, and entrepreneurs in many industries. 

The torturers were not punished. The government created a truth commission to investigate the crimes of the dictatorship, but its final recommendations did not result in any punishment. A soldier who dared to confess his crimes was mysteriously murdered. Many opponents of the dictatorship are now in power, but, in many cases, this does not mean the changes society dreamed of are in place.

Transparency is still insufficient. People are annoyed with legal complaints and corruption cases. The Workers' Party, which was voted in and in in power for more than 12 years, saw several leaders arrested on charges of corruption. And unfortunately, some people go to the streets to demand the fall of the elected president and the return of the military — and therefore, also the censorship, I would say.

Traditional media is in crisis, here as in almost all countries, because of the scope of the internet and because of the reduction in the number of readers, viewers and listeners. There are no forbidden topics, but I notice a growing number of commentators who favor more conservative views in the biggest newspapers.

The internet, in turn, is marked by intransigence and intolerance. The policy seems to be reduced to a football game: you can only be in favor of or against your team. This goes for issues such as gay marriage, the economy, employment contracts, and even musical preferences.

Newsrooms get smaller every day. And the older journalists like me have to invent their new ways to tell their stories and do their job.



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