Chile’s El Mercurio newspaper was the propaganda wing of the Pinochet dictatorship and continues to influence national politics.

There are two stories to El Diario de Agustín, Ignacio Agüero’s probing documentary on the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio. The first is the film’s conventional narrative, which unfurls as a highly-critical study of the El Mercurio media group during the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The second story occurs decades later and concerns the film’s 2008 release and the subsequent political reaction to its content. It tells us much about El Mercurio’s continued influence in Chile and about the government of Sebastián Piñera, which ran from 2010-2014 and was the country’s first right-wing administration since the end of the military regime and the return to democracy in 1990.

Let’s begin with the film itself. El Diario de Agustín (Agustín’s Newspaper) takes its name from an illustrious line of men – all of them named Agustín – from the Edwards family, one of the wealthiest in Chile since arriving from England in the late colonial era. In 1880 the family patriarch Agustín Edwards Ross purchased El Mercurio, which had been founded in Valparaiso in 1827. Ownership of the newspaper has thereafter passed down several family generations, reaching current proprietor Agustín Edwards Eastman in 1957.

Throughout its long run (it is the world’s oldest Spanish-language newspaper still in circulation), El Mercurio has upheld conservative values, representing the social and political perspective of Chile’s ruling classes and setting a news agenda that meets their expectations. Yet to call El Mercurio merely an establishment mouthpiece would do a disservice to the depths of its scheming under the democratic government of Salvador Allende through the subsequent military era.

This is the story Agüero tells in his film. It is one of deceit, complicity and falsehood. The election of Allende in 1970 was vehemently opposed by Chile’s elite, whose traditional stranglehold on political and economic decision-making would be radically challenged by Allende’s Popular Unity government. Even prior to the election, Allende had been subjected to an extensive campaign of negative propaganda, as the CIA and its collaborators in Chile – prominent among them the El Mercuriomedia group – sought to undermine his push for the presidency. When this failed and Allende was elected, the campaign switched to one of subversion.

Meddling with democracy

El Mercurio’s meddling with Chilean democracy has been well-documented. On 14 September 1970 – ten days after Allende’s election victory – Agustín Edwards met with Henry Kissinger and CIA Director Richard Helms in Washington DC to discuss strategies for deposing the fledgling government, with military action identified as a plausible option. The CIA pumped around $2million into the newspaper’s anti-government offensive.

In 2014, the ex-CIA agent Jack Devine, in an article for Foreign Affairs entitled ‘What Really Happened in Chile,’ described the nature of his own involvement in events: ‘My most important responsibility at the time was handling the “media account”, especially the CIA’s relationship with El Mercurio, the oldest and most influential newspaper in Chile. The newspaper’s owner feared that Allende’s government might expropriate his businesses and put the media under government control; that made him a natural ally for the agency.’

Allende was eventually overthrown and died in the military coup that was the culmination of a period of social turmoil and instability instigated by opponents of the government in Chile and Washington. But even with Pinochet established as Chile’s de facto ruler, El Mercurio’s work was far from over. Under military rule, the newspaper was fundamental to the dissemination of state propaganda, helping the authorities cover up the disappearances, summary executions and repressive measures being carried out all over Chile. The level of its complicity was depicted in El Diario de Agustín, leading sectors of the Chilean right to attempt first to discredit the film and, when that didn’t work, to suppress it. If the revelations couldn’t be disproven, perhaps they could at least be buried.

The film follows a group of Chilean students as they investigate El Mercurio’s involvement with the military regime. They interview figures such as Arturo Fontaine, a director of the newspaper (and a Chilean ambassador to Argentina) under Pinochet, and Álvaro Puga, who combined roles as a military spokesman, an official in the brutal DINA secret police, and a columnist for the La Segunda evening paper, owned by El Mercurio’s. Puga is the more forthcoming of the two, describing the murder of communists as ‘a biological need for the military to keep functioning’ and claiming that ‘in Chilean history, 600 or 800 deaths are not important’ (the real number was far higher).

In a 2008 interview with the Argentinian newspaper Página 12, Agüero spoke about his motive for making the film. ‘We are showing El Mercurio’s criminal anti-communism,’ he said. ‘That is to say, El Mercurio has the right to be opposed to the Communist Party, but what the paper did during the last 40 years is a direct action of repression, which resulted in deaths among the opponents of the dictatorship.’

With cases such as the campaign of disinformation over 119 dissidents murdered during the military’s Operation Colombo – which allowed the authorities to deny any involvement in the killings – it’s not hard to see why Agustín Edwards might be keen for the film to be suppressed. Fortunately for him, in 2009, the year after El Diario de Agustín’srelease, the Chilean presidency would go to a key ally. Sebastián Piñera, who became one of Chile’s richest men under military rule, filled his cabinet with underlings of the Chilean right, many of whom belonged to the pro-Pinochet Independent Democratic Union (UDI), to establish a government with extensive ties to the military regime.

Censorship and blank space

This brings us to the second story. In May 2010, two months after Piñera’s inauguration, Chilean state television channel TVN bought the rights to El Diario de Agustín, having agreed to screen the film a minimum of three times over the next three years. It was never shown, leading to accusations of state censorship, as the national channel refused to relinquish the rights so that another network could bid for them. The public was denied access to a film scrutinising a media body that continued to wield great influence over daily life. TVN’s effective blackout of El Diario de Agustín was seen by many as an assault on investigative journalism and freedom of expression.

According to Agüero, resistance to showing the film emanated from TVN’s then-director Daniel Fernández. ‘He was very concerned about his name appearing on the contract,” says Agüero. ‘He negotiated a slightly lower price that didn’t require him to sign the document, whereas the initial agreement did. I think he was worried about receiving a call from El Mercurio asking for explanations about the purchase. When he left the channel, he became a manager of Hydroaysen [a highly contentious project to build a number of dams in Patagonia which sparked large demonstrations in 2011]. If he’d allowed El Diario de Agustín to be shown, he felt it would damage his chances of getting the position.’

Hopes for the film were resuscitated when the TVN agreement expired in 2013 and the rights were picked up by ARTV, an independent channel with a focus on social, political and cultural programming. Although lacking the audience of state television, the channel’s commitment to alternative content made it appear the ideal platform. However, ARTV’s journalistic credibility was damaged in May 2013 when it too opted to not screen the film, leading channel director Natalia Arcos to resign in protest.

Two months earlier, a scheduled discussion on the film’s absence from national television, to be held at Santiago’s prestigious Museum of Memory and Human Rights, had been cancelled. It followed Agüero’s refusal to replace two members of the panel, the ex-TVN executives Faride Zerán and Francisco Vidal, as requested by museum director Ricardo Brodsky. In an email to Agüero, Brodsky said ‘the panel members linked to TVN could be tempted to put TVN and (network chief) Mauro Valdés on the accused bench, which besides being unfair is something we wouldn’t want to happen at the Museum of Memory.’ Brodsky seemed keen to make sure any important feathers remained unruffled.

Finally, on 5 July 2014, five years after TVN first purchased the rights to El Diario de Agustín, the state channel screened the film in its entirety. It was little coincidence that this happened within a few months of the Chilean right’s exit from La Moneda, following the election victory of centre-left candidate Michelle Bachelet. El Mercurio’s TV listings for the day offered a blank space where the film was scheduled. It brought to mind the newspaper’s front page from the previous 11 September, the 40th anniversary of the military coup, as El Mercurio led with a story about plans for a new dam in the south, with miniscule coverage of the commemorations, while the rest of Chile remembered the victims of the dictatorship.

While the screening brought a sense of resolution to the debate of unsanctioned censorship (Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light was another film that encountered problems in being screened on state television), the affair provides further evidence of the dictatorship’s ongoing impact on daily life in Chile. This is apparent in several areas, from the media, to the armed forces, to the neoliberal economic structure that today makes the country one of the most expensive in Latin America for essential services such as health and education. While many continue to challenge this system, as witnessed in, for example, the 2011 student protest movement, the indigenous Mapuche land conflict or the production of films like El Diario de Agustín, inequality and division remain entrenched. El Mercurio, meanwhile, is available from all good newsstands, sowing the seeds of a social landscape it has done much to cultivate.

This article was originally published in Alborada magazine issue one (Spring/Summer 2015)