The archbishop’s mini press conferences had become an almost inevitable ritual for the mainstream local and foreign-media representatives.
In El Salvador, as it has often happened in many other countries around the world, a religious leader’s criticism can be a very powerful weapon — even more so when, as it was in Romero’s case, scandal hasn’t tainted his life.
And as it happens anywhere in the world, intimidation and censorship often result in increased attention paid to the critic.
To the fact that this was a leader speaking out against human rights violations and in general commenting on the political situation in El Salvador, added importance to the mini press conferences was due also to the desire of the foreign correspondents to spice our reporting with the more personal, “… the archbishop told [include your newspaper or newswire here].”
Censorship also worked in Romero’s favor.
On several occasions the transmitters of YSAX, the Archdioceses of San Salvador’s radio station, were the target of bombs that took his Sunday homilies off the air. More people would flock to the church to listen to his sermon and, unable to listen to the message via radio, journalists would also be in church early enough to position ourselves for the after-mass Q&A.
The picture above, where an altar boy is holding a phone handset to Romero’s mouth, was most likely taken at the time of one of those bombings in early 1980, when supporters of the archbishop made arrangements for his sermons to be transmitted by Radio Noticias del Continente, an overseas-based radio.
Talk about censorship being counterproductive: Romero’s homilies were now available instantly to a hemisphere-wide audience, instead of merely a national one.
Attending Sunday mass to listen to monsignor’s homily was not that difficult a chore for me or my then bureau chief, another Salvadoran journalist, Rosendo Majano h.
Our offices were located just across the street from the Sacred Heart Basilica, chosen as alternate see for his sermons.
While newspapers or magazine correspondents (even TV reporters, for that matter) had the luxury of polishing their stories, newswire correspondents were always then (and perhaps even more now, with the added immediacy of the Internet) pressured to file stories fast. To paraphrase a common saying, “Your deadline passed a second ago. Where the hell is your story?”
On Sunday 23 March 1980, as it had been customary after a prolonged occupation of the National Cathedral by left-wing militants, Romero was officiating mass at the basilica across the street from our offices. And this time, it was also carried over locally by YSAX.
Because of our proximity to the basilica and given the normal amount of time between the sermon and the benediction, there would usually be enough time for us to prepare a quick four- or five-graph summary of the homily, and then dash downstairs to attend the Q&A.
As the radio blared that Sunday with Romero’s plea “in God’s name” for all soldiers to obey divine law and not engage in any more killings, for all soldiers to disobey any unlawful order to murder, both me and my bureau chief looked at each other and thought aloud, “They are gonna kill him!”