Obituary: Jacobo Timerman

Click to follow
JACOBO TIMERMAN was Argentina's best-known and most innovative journalist, and one of the few victims of the "dirty war" unleashed by the Argentine military in 1976 to live to tell the tale. His account of his time in the regime's secret dungeons, published by Penguin as Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number in 1982, was hailed by reviewers as on a par with testimonies from the Gulag and the Holocaust.

Timerman was born in Ukraine in 1923. When he was five his family, who were Jewish, emigrated to Argentina. He spent years as a young man travelling around the country on freight trains, working in a variety of occupations, including diary herdsman and coalminer. He then drifted into journalism, learning his trade on the Jewish newspaper Nueva Sin, and on a succession of Buenos Aires dailies.

His career took off in 1962, when he both founded and edited Argentina's first news magazine, Primera Plana. Three years later he created the second, Confirmado - an achievement comparable to devising and directing both Time and Newsweek, with the additional complication that, in the unstable Argentina of that period, brief spells of press freedom were regularly followed by brutal and unpredictable repression.

His crowning glory was La Opinin, the daily tabloid newspaper he founded in 1971 and edited until it was taken over by the military government in 1977. La Opinin enabled him to indulge his taste for big cigars, hobnobbing with the rich and famous and cultivating the image of a larger-than-life, hard-nosed, cynical newsman. He was not loved by his employees, but they respected him for his journalistic flair and for his fair-mindedness - not to mention the relatively generous salaries he paid those who caught his eye.

He put together teams of brilliant young investigative reporters, and gave them free rein to denounce corruption, brutality and malpractice in high places. When asked by an interviewer if La Opinin had been inspired by the prototype "serious tabloid", Le Monde, he denied it hotly. "No, no, not at all," he said. "It's an exact carbon copy."

Timerman refused to be gagged by the military regime that deposed the weak civilian government in 1976, even after a dozen or so of his journalists were murdered or "disappeared". He went on fearlessly denouncing the right-wing forces behind the junta, who were responsible for bombing synagogues, attacking trade-union demonstrations and snatching people off the streets into the back seats of unmarked Ford Falcons, never to be seen again.

It was not long before the death squads turned their attention to the editor of La Opinin himself. Anonymous telephone threats were followed up by a visit from a squad of plainclothes military intelligence agents, and in April 1977 he disappeared into the labyrinth of unacknowledged interrogation and torture centres run by the armed services.

Five months later a military tribunal ruled that there were no charges against him and ordered his release. But he was held until September 1979, when he was eventually released on the orders of the supreme court. This was partly a result of diplomatic pressure on the Argentine government, from the United States and other countries.

Timerman's harrowing account of his experiences appeared in Argentina in 1981, while the military were still in power. Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number did more than anything to draw the attention of the rest of the world to what had been going on in Argentina in the name of "Western Christian civilisation". Timerman suffered the personal attentions of General Ramn Camps, the Buenos Aires police chief, who was convinced that he was the embodiment of a world Jewish-Communist conspiracy backed by the United States.

Later investigations revealed that at least 9,000 people "disappeared" during the military regime. Many were left-wing political and trade-union activists, but intellectuals of all sorts - anybody suspected of independent thought - were targeted.

The government's response to the unwanted publicity brought by the book was to throw Timerman out of the country and strip him of his citizenship. He went to Israel, where he worked as a journalist and on human-rights campaigns, returning home in 1984, after the humiliated junta had been forced from office in the wake of the Falklands debacle. Thereafter he spent his time between Israel and the Uruguayan seaside resort of Punta del Este, where he was said to be writing his memoirs.

Timerman's most striking legacy was the large numbers of able young Argentine journalists who, when they too were driven into exile, went on to found successful newspapers in the image of La Opinin all over Latin America (Diario de Caracas in Venezuela and UnoMsUno in Mexico were two notable examples) and in Spain (Diario 16).

Jacobo Timerman, journalist and writer: born Bar, Ukraine 6 January 1923; married 1950 Risha Midlin (died 1992; three sons); died Buenos Aires 11 November 1999.