Alejandro Peña comes from a family of Argentine journalists (La Prensa newspaper, ranked among the most widely circulated dailies in the country, from 1869 until late 1970’s). Along his first five years in primary school, he became close friends with Peter Cox (Robert Maud Cox’s youngest son) and suffered his sudden departure, for reasons that were only revealed many years later.

On Monday, April 1, the Duke Human Rights Center @FHI will be hosting a Rights!Camera!Action! Screening of Messenger on a White Horse, which documents the fearless investigative reporting of the Buenos Aires Herald during the disappearances and murders of Argentinians between 1976 and 1983, and utilizes impeccable archival footage and testimonies from surviving members of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo as well as lead newspaper editor Robert Cox.

The following interview with Mr Peña about growing up among journalists in Argentina during this period and his relationship to the Cox family was conducted over email with Miranda Gershoni, a first-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Please join us for the screening of Messenger on a White Horse on Monday, April 1 at 7 p.m. in the Ahmadieh Family Lecture Hall, Smith Warehouse Bay 4, room C105. A panel discussion with Mr. Peña and Deborah Jakubs, the Rita DiGiallonardo Holloway University Librarian and Vice Provost for Library Affairs at Duke University.

Miranda Gershoni (MG): What was it like growing up in a family of journalists? Did this perspective change the way you understood the atrocities in Argentina?

Alejandro Peña (AP): During those years I completed kindergarten and primary school. My grandfather Alberto and my uncle Máximo directed the family’s (Gainza Paz) newspaper, La Prensa. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica describe this Argentine daily newspaper, founded in 1869, as “having been widely regarded as the finest Spanish-language newspaper in the world”. Even as a child, I could perceive the pride that this international recognition generated in every member of our family. The pillars of this reputation were an unquenchable thirst for reporting news without bias and a sustained commitment towards human welfare that included sponsorship of free legal and medical clinics, and the hosting of world-class cultural events open to everyone. I can distinctly remember many times in which my grandfather abruptly interrupted a conversation that took place on the other side of the dinner table because he had heard someone spreading a rumor or gossiping. He would ask the person talking, in front of a crowd that would rarely fall below 20 guests, what his source of information was, and if the answer was not solid enough personal shame followed. La Prensa’s Directors did not own properties nor businesses, aside from the newspaper, as a means to ensure impartiality. But no one is completely impartial, as I got to understand as an adult.

The stand that the Buenos Aires Herald took, in a scenario that where the free press had been explicitly limited, contrasted with the one that other newspapers and other media chose. La Prensa’s life-long eagerness for seeking the truth and its voiced pride for defending freedom (of press and others) during that years seemed not to be strong enough to put the military dictators on the spot, nor challenge the status quo with the firmness that those times required. I can only understand this “caution” or “distraction” from a human standpoint. The privileged social and economic class in which my family was raised, with few exceptions, supported most of the deeper views for which the Government claimed to stand. Most of my family members and a significant part of the society chose -with very little self-awareness of this choice- to ignore or doubt any news about the criminal means by which their goals were carried out. Some military leaders, Ministers, and governmental authorities personally knew my grandfather, uncles, aunts, and other relatives, and their children were friends with some of my cousins. Life has taught me that it is a common human reaction to close ranks with our inner circle and rest under the protection of “our tribe”. This human instinct represents not only a major challenge for independent journalism but a source of many communication problems. I sense that we are reluctant to criticize those that happen to be part of our tribe, probably because we perceive that this criticism could somehow question who we are and how we are perceived by others. In my family, almost everybody just did not dare to ask uncomfortable questions, neither to themselves or to others, and this -I sense- is how we felt protected. Several of my friends and schoolmates (same school where Robert and Maud’s Cox children attended) had their homes bombed or relatives kidnaped; I believe that these criminal incidents fueled “my tribe”’s unconscious decision to keep eyes wide shut. I very much value Robert Cox’s honesty by sharing that he had a very hard time, even with clear proof placed in front of him, to acknowledge what was happening.

MG: How would you describe Robert Cox, the subject of the documentary? Did his example inspire you? What would you like viewers to get from the film? What stands out to you?

AP: I would describe him as a loving, emotionally intelligent, compassionate and honest (with himself and others) man. He is clearly also a courageous and accomplished journalist, but these latter virtues come second to the previously mentioned. He doesn’t transmit hate towards those who can be easily (and with enough grounds) portrayed as monsters, but anguish towards the tragedy -in general- and deep kinship with the victims during this black chapter of the Argentine history. He seems to have the ability to distinguish justice from retaliation.

I don’t know Bob in person but only through this documentary, what I read about him and how his sons -Peter and David- talk about him. I would love to know Robert and Maud (they seem to be a great team) in person; they are not only the parents of my friends but also because they could also help me to know more about my grandfather and uncle (they were colleagues and friends, I understand) and their struggles as journalists.

Are there lessons in this film we should be applying today?

AP: We live in a world in which hating and humiliating others are considered normal reactions. Robert Cox’s transmits a different message, one of firm convictions, courage, honesty and compassion. These are the reasons why I see him a real “Messenger on a White Horse”.

MG: Is there anything else you would like to say about the film, the Cox family, or anything else?

AP: This documentary has excellent rhythm and opens many emotional doors, not only for Argentines but for -I suspect (and my Portuguese wife, Inês, confirm) anyone who is interested in understanding how totalitarian regimes get to be installed and how they manage to curtail people’s perception of reality.