Koos Koster in El Salvador
Koos Koster and committed journalism
Koos Koster was born in 1937. He was one of five sons in a family that also included seven daughters. The father was a minister in the Frisian village St. Annaparochie. Koos was deeply involved in his father's profession as a minister and paid close attention to his sermons. He attended secondary school at the Dutch Reformed Lyceum in Leeuwarden, choosing the classical literary specialisation. In those years it seemed as if he was going to follow in his father's footsteps. In 1957 he started his studies to become a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church at Kampen Theological University. He finished this course of study in 1963. In that same year he was appointed vicar for the Dutch community in Berlin, joining the minister Bé Ruys. There he was employed in the Hendrik Kraermerhuis until 1969. He worked mainly in the Eastern sector of Berlin, where he participated in the discussion on the recognition of the DDR, a hotly debated topic in the sixties in the Netherlands. He edited a book entitled: 'Het stiefkind van Europa' (Baarn, 1970) ['The stepchild of Europe'] in which he pleaded for recognition, though rejecting the DDR's political system. In this book he wrote (pg.6): 'It is too crazy to be true that in a country that boasts about its free, fearless and independent press ... hardly any information exists on this other Germany.'
The transition from the church to journalism was evident in the years 1968-69, when he started working for Radio Noord in Groningen. At the same time he studied theology at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where he graduated in 1970. This is also the period of the beginning of his interest in Latin America. He was very impressed by people like the Brazilian bishop Helder Camara and the Colombian Camilo Torres. Torres was a priest who followed his political convictions and joined the armed struggle; he was killed in 1966.
Although Koster considered writing a dissertation on the Latin American priests, he decided to become a journalist. In the seventies he worked for the IKON broadcasting network and the weeklies 'Hervormd Nederland' and 'De Nieuwe Linie'. He moved to Chili and married (in Groningen) the Mexican Ana Maria Rumayor.
In September 1973 Koos Koster reported on the events in Chili. On the 20 September of that year he was arrested, and like so many others, was confined in the Santiago football stadium. This experience had a lasting impression on him. In poetical form he wrote about it in 'Volk zonder geweren. Vodjes papier uit een voetbalstadion' ['People without guns. Scraps of paper from a football stadium']. Koos Koster continued to report on Latin American issues. From Chili he went to live in Peru and Mexico. He was the committed journalist par excellence. Besides his work as journalist, he was constantly engaged in solidarity campaigns for the victims of injustice. Another event that deeply affected Koster was the shameless murder of Bishop Romero on 24 March 1980 during the celebration of holy mass in the cathedral of San Salvador. Koster had previously interviewed Romero, which reinforced his believe that journalism was a sacred profession meant to bring out the truth.
Everybody who knew Koos Koster was very impressed by him. Justice was his motivation. He was obviously someone who affected you, but he also could be disturbing. His involvement was carried directly to others. 'Koos was the master of the short encounter' said Leo Aukes and Annet van Melle in 'Koos Koster. Bisschoppen, militairen en bureaucraten' [Koos Koster. Bishops, soldiers, and bureaucrats] on page 5. He had a talent that fitted his way of journalism: direct, emotional, and requiring the involvement of people with current events. Finally, Koos Koster wrote in a poem from 'Volk zonder geweren':
in an unguarded moment
I would like to protest
run to the street
tell how it is
The death of the journalists in El Salvador brought a storm of indignation to the Netherlands. In many obituary notices individuals and organisations spoke about their shock and support for the cause of justice. There were demonstrations in front of the American consulate in Amsterdam, where large crosses were placed with the names of the journalists. These crosses remained there for a long time. Public interest in Central America surged. The Dutch government investigated the killings, and published a report, which again caused heated discussions. With regard to journalism, the debate centered on the topic of committed journalism. Had the journalists gone too far? Were they biased? Had they deliberately taken too great a risk because of bias? Fellow journalist Gijs Wanders wrote: 'Koos and I felt it our duty to return again and again to that misery. Not just to report, but also to annoy the mighty with our presence. And to give the population the feeling that the dictatorship cannot surround a country with a curtain of silence. (cited in: 'Feiten over Midden-Amerika verzameld door de IKON, - [Facts about Central America, collected by the IKON] - Amersfoort 1982 pag.51).
What was striking about the debate was that the Second World War was used as the measure for individual positions. The Central American civil wars of 1980 came measured according to standards of 'right or wrong'. This may have come about because Dutch journalists in the sixties and seventies were still engaged in the aftermath of the Second World War as well as with the deep changes in Dutch society, where the traditional religious and socio-political boundaries were removed and all layers became strongly politicized.
Finally, Henk Hofland, one of the Netherlands' leading journalists, wrote on 29 March 1982 in the daily NRC: "In a conflict like that in El Salvador the media are a political factor, whether they like it or not. Every party tries to placate or to influence them, and the American government has an automatic advantage because everything coming out of Washington is news that will irrevocably be printed or broadcasted. A counterweight, or better, a necessary addition or complement must come from the journalists themselves, on the spot."
Substitute 'Iraq' for 'El Salvador', and these words are also true for the current situation in Iraq. Committed journalism has not been an issue during the war in March and April 2003, but there has been news on the limitations of 'embedded journalism' and the necessity of independent reporting. Maybe the element 'commitment' in the discussions about Koos Koster and his colleagues was completely irrelevant. It is very unlikely that the Reuters' and Telecinco journalists in Baghdad had any sympathy for Saddam Husseins regime. Despite that, they were killed on 8 April 2003 because an American tank shelled their room in the Palestine Hotel. All this clarifies the risks of independent journalism, as well as the ambiguous effects of its intimidation.