|English | Español||November 21, 2017 | Issue #33|
The War for Defense of the Truth
Welcome to the Dramatic and Creative Country That Is Bolivia
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
We were also warmly welcomed by Constantino Rojas, the director of the Department of Communications at San Simón University, who spoke of his belief that universities should be open to supporting projects such as the School of Authentic Journalism, and his hope that we will practice a journalism which is not sensationalist or yellow journalism, but which is commited to ordinary people and to social issues. Rojas spoke candidly about his excitement about our upcoming trip to the Chapare, a region widely known and brutally repressed for growing coca. He expressed his hope that we would “...shed new light on that region and how it is represented – not only the same old theme of coca, drug trafficking, and cocaine, but of people who are coherent and organized, who struggle for better living conditions, and who possess great natural wealth….”
So here we are, at the School of Authentic Journalism. But exactly what does it mean to be “authentic”? And what is it that makes this school different from other journalism programs?
A partial answer to both questions is that here at the J-school, a high value is placed on personal relationships, on camaraderie and solidarity. Sarah Harris, a documentary filmmaker from Illinois, talked about her family’s concern for her when she was documenting the gas war in La Paz last fall. Her sister told her that it was dangerous to trust people too much, which runs contrary to Harris’ deep faith in humanity. “I actually think it’s dangerous not to trust people too much,” she told her sister in reply.
Trust, truth, authenticity, solidarity, struggle. These are not common themes in traditional journalism schools; in fact, they are quite rare in the global North. They are not profitable enterprises in which to engage. In fact, in many countries these traits, these qualities, these ways of being are brutally and fatally repressed.
Nigerian Ogoni doctor Owens Wiwa, brother of assasinated writer and community organizer Ken Saro Wiwa, has been arrested and tortured numerous times for telling the truth. Dr. Wiwa worked for years documenting and treating diseases caused by oil-industry pollution and the injuries of victims of the dictatorship, before having to flee his country in fear for his life. In an interview with the Notes from Nowhere collective, he spoke passionately of the importance of solidarity, of his community’s resistance to the oil-industry, and of the inspiration he derived from the WTO protests in Seattle. Something he said in that interview has stuck deeply in my mind ever since: “One thing our friends in the North should know: that big corporations, the extractive industries – if you want to stop them, you have got to stop them at the point of production, as well as disrupting the meetings.”
But what, you may wonder, does this have to do with the J-school, with Bolivia, with the struggle for truth and authenticity?
I have thought for years about those points of production and extraction, and about my role as a writer and an activist, and how those three things might converge. And here at the J-school, something finally clicked. I live in the United States, and I simply can’t be in Nigeria and in Colombia and in Indonesia and Iraq and all of the Southern countries from which natural resources are extracted. I can’t be there blockading highways or attacking pipelines. And because I respect Dr. Wiwa deeply, I’ve continually asked myself: how can I be effective and respond to his directive in the United States – the country of my birth, which I leave over and over again, only to find myself drawn back by an urge to try and create a new world to replace it? What are the points of extraction in the US where I can shut things down?
I began to get an idea yesterday, listening to my classmates and teachers from the South – from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, Uruguay, and of course, Bolivia – talking about the one-way flow of information by which news travels through a tightly controlled pipeline from the North to the South. The result is that the corporate press is full of stories about the United States, its wars, its movie stars, its economic ups and downs. Yet there is little to be found about local, national, or continent-wide issues. And the pipeline is fitted with a one-way valve, so in the US corporate press, Latin America is invisible at best, an exotic vacation spot and little more.
That flow of information is countered by a contrasting one-way flow of people, migrating to the North, fleeing repression, economic misery, poverty, despair. And so there is a reverse flow of arms to the southern borders of the US and of México, ensuring that capital can cross freely and that people may not. And the arms flow deeper south, extending to the limits of the continent, concentrating themselves in areas in which coca is grown, areas where people are well organized and fighting back, areas of natural resource extraction.
And these are untold stories which need telling, not only the stories of repression but those of resistance, of fighting back and winning; they are stories which are so urgent, so important, and increasing exponentially in frequency. Stuck at that one-way valve in the pipeline, these stories of truth are generating an enormous amount of pressure, there is no substance strong enough which can keep them enclosed for long, for despite being vulnerable in times of war (and when are we not in times of war?), truth demands to be spoken, to be exposed to sunlight, oxygen, debate.
As long as that valve remains in place, as long as that pipeline remains under control of the very few, the very wealthy, the very privileged, the very Northern, the pressure will continue to build, the pipeline will weaken and eventually burst.
The pressure also comes from outside, from those of us who reject the hegemony of the controlled pipeline, and who are patching together our own networks, our own means of communication, our own battle plans and truth commissions, which – judging from the amount of repression that journalists face, particularly here in Latin America – is quite threatening to the pipeline’s gatekeepers.
“I am not a journalist. I am a popular reporter,” said María Eugenia Flores Castro, a Cochabambina radio reporter who works with Indymedia Bolivia and with a clandestine radio station. I noticed that several of us shied away from using the word “journalist,” even when qualified by the word “authentic.” Judging by the stories I heard last night, a large number of us have come to associate the word “journalist” with obfuscation, manipulation, and laziness.
But lest you begin accusing me of obfuscation, let’s go back to those points of extraction. Through listening to the stories of my classmates last night, I began to understand exactly what some of the principal points of extraction are in the North, what natural resource is so preciously guarded and highly controlled. I’m not talking about mineral or petroleum products, nor all the produce from California. I’m talking about information. I’m talking about truth – those things which used to be found in what we call “the news,” but are no longer. Those things that are being looted, wasted, dumped in garbage bags and buried in unmarked graves. The truth is mined, the offcastings are toxic, the byproducts are being passed off as the real treasure, and the most valuable bits are being hoarded, hidden, sometimes destroyed by the corporations, governments, and international financial institutions, not to mention the media who receive money from and collude with them.
Those are the points of extraction at which people in the heart of the Empire can apply pressure, just like folks in Nigeria, Bolivia, Iraq, South Korea apply pressure – blockading roads, going on strike, attacking oil pipelines. We in the North can do – in fact, must do the same if we have any hope of salvaging the truth.
Last night, Sunny Angulo told a story about exactly that, about journalists in the Spanish state shutting down the information pipeline, refusing to accept tailings and other toxic byproducts of truth-mining and broadcast them as if they were authentic truths. In the last few days (officially) of the 2003 war on Iraq, the United States military attacked the Palestine Hotel, in which virtually all of the international media were staying. Two journalists died, José Couso, cameraman for the Spanish Telecinco television station, and Taras Protsyuk, a Ukrainian citizen and cameraman for Reuters. There was a huge outcry all over the world…except in the US, where it went quietly underreported, with the Pentagon unsurprisingly refusing to claim responsibility for the attack. The Spanish government was complicit in this silence, to the outrage of the Spanish journalists’ union, which launched a counter-attack. At the next press conference, when the government spokesperson began to speak, all of the journalists placed their cameras on the floor in a line and turned their backs on the speaker.
“This is the power of journalism,” Angulo concluded, before introducing “the captain of the army of journalists,” director of the J-school and founder of the Narco News website, Al Giordano, who also spoke of struggle: “To those who sacrifice the most come the greatest rewards. I know all of you sacrificed a lot to be here these ten days. Some had to fight great distances. Some surmounted seemingly insurmountable financial obstacles. Nobody got here without a struggle…. [As authentic journalists] we will not remain silent or seated when confronted with the lies promoted by mass media.”
Photo: Jeremy Bigwood D.R. 2004
All of us studying and teaching during these ten intense days have much to learn, not only from each other but perhaps most importantly from the people of Bolivia, from the cocaleros and the water warriors, the indigenous communities and the defenders of Bolivia’s gas. As Greg Berger, filmmaker from New York and Mexico City put it: “If only the people of the US had one-tenth the strength and courage of the Bolivian people, we would tear down the Empire.” We, as authentic journalists, have the privilege and the responsibility to help crack the facade of the Empire, to help enable others to tear it down. So the war-mongers and Empire-builders should take note: those of us who believe in a different América – indeed, a different world – we are organizing, we are sharpening our weapons and focusing our sights on our next targets. We expect a long battle in this war for the defense of the truth. And we are already gaining ground.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism