|English | Español||February 21, 2018 | Issue #38|
Information Apartheid in Colombia
Independent Media and Authentic Journalism Under the Uribe Administration
By Laura del Castillo Matamoros
During the event, Morris, after showing one of the episodes of his program Contravía on the massacre carried out by members of the army in San José de Apartadó on February 21, spoke of how he conceives the work of a journalist. He made strong criticisms of the commercial media in Colombia, especially against its television newscasts:
“The conflict that this country is living through cannot be addressed in forty seconds. That cannot continue to be the big Colombian television networks’ solution. If that continues to be the commercial newscasts’ proposal for how to understand the conflict that we are living, this conflict will be perpetuated for another fifty years. If that continues to be their proposal, the media will continue to feed confusion, forgetting, and impunity. That cannot be the proposal of those that call themselves media of ‘social communication,’ unless they get rid of the ‘social’ and call themselves ‘news-producing industries.’”
Worst of all is that, with a government that drapes itself in the idea of security and protection for journalists, Lozano and Morris have not been the only ones threatened. Another such incident happened to Semana magazine columnist and director of the Noticias Uno television program Daniel Coronell (who was also sent the same “gift” that Morris and Lozano received the same week) and to Telesur’s Bogotá correspondent William Para, who was sent to the hospital after being stabbed several times by a group of unknown assailants in Bogotá during the event in Bucaramanga.
And just over a week ago, César Jérez, who aside from directing Prensa Rural is a member of the Peasant Farmer Association of the Cimitarra River Valley, was followed by members of the DAS (Colombia’s security police, roughly equivalent to the FBI) as he traveled from San Pablo (near the Cimitarra valley) to the city of Barrancabermeja. As he explained to Narco News the next day:
“What happened yesterday was one of the pursuits that the security agencies are used to making. I was returning from San Pablo, after having participated in a series of activities that we have there with the Peasant Farmer Association. And when I arrived in Barranca, I spoke to the association’s secretary on my cell phone to ask that they send me some bodyguards, as the entrance to the city is dangerous given the constant paramilitary presence there. Then when I arrived I noticed that there was a DAS truck there, and when we got to the office, that it had beaten us there. It was waiting for us…. This shows that the communication equipment we have – supplied by the government as part of its compliance with the preventive measures that the Inter-American Human Rights Commission ordered given that the association has been threatened and attacked resulting in several victims – was being used to do this surveillance and to track us.”
Photo: Red Resistancia
“First, the three of us are journalists. Second, the three of us have questioned the Ralito issue [the 2004 agreement between the paramilitaries and the government to establish a zone for “peace talks” in Santa Fe de Ralito, in the northern department of Córdoba], the conflict, the reelection; we have taken on public interest issues that are sensitive for this government.”
And they really must have the government’s hair standing on end… especially Morris, whose two episodes of Contravía on the San José de Apartadó massacre revealed several facts that demonstrated the army’s responsibility in the incident.
Prensa Rural, led by Jérez, aside from being one of the main sources of information on the Colombian campesino (peasant farmer) movement, has published investigative articles on the links between paramilitarism and the companies cultivating African palm in the Pacific department of Chocó, and on the human rights violations in the department of Arauca related to U.S. economic interests in the region. That is to say, there is more that one reason why, in various circles, there are those who would want to marginalize these journalists.
During “the Uribe era,” in which attacks on journalists have supposedly gone down, the report that the Colombian alternative media presented to the OAS Inter-American Human Rights Commission – to show Mr. Bertoni and the international community that they do exist, despite the government not wanting to recognize them – refers to other cases of attacks on journalists (especially those that work in high-risk areas) during 2003 and 2004. These included the assassination of journalist José Emeterio Rivas, director of the radio program “Las Fuerzas Vivas” from Barrancabermeja’s community radio station Calor Estéreo on September 7, 2003. Not to mention that, according to the Democratic Association for the Defense of Human Rights (ASDEH in its Spanish initials), four journalists have been assassinated this year in Colombia, one kidnapped, and fourteen threatened. Four more have suffered and survived attempts on their lives, and four others were victims of physical attacks.
Neither must we forget the developments that occurred just over two weeks ago: On June 24, journalist Daniel Coronell announced, in his Semana column, after some meticulous technical research, that he had discovered that the death threats he had received by email originated from the house of former congressman Carlos Náder Simmonds, a personal friend of President Uribe. Náder owns haciendas in Córdoba and several other properties in Bogotá as well as in Spain, and was even a personal friend of Pablo Escobar. These email threats had accused Coronell, along with other national political figures that oppose the administration and the reelection, of various crimes and misdeeds.
The other development of recent weeks that you should consider, kind readers, if it still seems to you that these events have nothing to do with President Uribe’s administration, is Uribe’s statement on Radio Caracol on June 27, three days after Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas launched attacks against several army bases in the Putumayo department: “I feel sadness because these terrorists continue to invite journalists to come and cover their actions.”
The president’s “sadness,” comes from the fact that, according to him, there had been television cameras in Putumayo three days before the attacks. Though he did not say so openly, President Uribe was referring to Hollman Morris, who was filming a documentary for the BBC.
The official statement that came later from the Palacio de Nariño (Colombia’s White House), as expected, treated the matter as an innocent mistake on the part of the president, based on “incorrect information on the date that the reporters arrived in the zone.”
But were these really innocent statements? Did they have anything to do with the fact that Preident Uribe has always shown himself to be “slightly hostile” to those apposed to his administration? Isn’t Uribe’s “sadness” over the fact that “the terrorists invite journalists to come and cover their actions” similar to the “sadness” provoked when he thinks about the NGOs that are, according to him, “mouthpieces for terrorism?” Could these statements have anything to do with the way that the president stigmatized the Peace Community of San José de Apartadó when he said that several of its leaders served in the ranks of the FARC? Could they have anything to do with his annoyance that Morris has publicly demonstrated such claims to be false?
Who knows? But the fact is that the “innocent mistake” of the president, who is always so concerned with protecting Colombian journalists, caused Morris to have to leave the Putumayo for fear of reprisals.
President Uribe’s administration has been characterized by its capacity to evade or adapt, finding loopholes in Colombian law. However, it seems to have figured out how to profit from the rigid laws pertaining to the country’s communications media.
In fact, the Ministry of Communications enforces these laws so rigidly that it has committed abuses such as the closure of Radio Nasa, run by the indigenous councils of Toribío and San Francisco (Cauca), under the pretext that it had no broadcasting license. Curiously, the order was enforced on the eve of the Indigenous March carried out in Cauca during the month of September.
And there is no media closure more memorable in Colombia – also occurring, coincidentally enough, during the Uribe administration – than that of the National Radio and Television Institute (Intravisión). Though it wasn’t exactly a media outlet, Intravisión brought together different public spaces for radio and television, which was of and independent and often critical nature. But of course, taking into account that the government doesn’t like these kinds of attitudes and that it didn’t generate as much profit as a private media company (in a country divided between giant native companies and foreign investment), the institute was closed on October 28, 2004, leaving hundreds of workers unemployed and the country with a vastly diminished public broadcasting system.
Finally the OAS rapporteur issued a press release about his visit to Colombia. It made no specific reference to the alternative media. But it did mention a few “concerns” about certain abuses and toward the lack of security for journalists. And, of course, it pointed out that despite all this, the Colombian authorities had shown great advances in respect for freedom of speech. And, undoubtedly, this is so…
Thanks to President Uribe’s government, journalism can be practiced with more freedom in Colombia… when, of course, the one who practices it does so in the name of a commercial program or publication, or the press office of some government agency; when one goes to cover some raid carried out by the armed forces in some “suspected terrorist operations center”; or when one goes to report on some mass arrest of “FARC guerrillas.” And of course, journalists have even more security if they are correspondents for recognized international media, like AFP for example, which published an article last year in Miami’s El Nuevo Herald. that surely drew a few tears in that city’s luxury neighborhoods, beginning with the lead:
“Mientras Colombia está de vacaciones, con millones de turistas descansando aquí y en el exterior, el presidente Alvaro Uribe pasó el 30 y el 31 de diciembre con los soldados que combaten la guerrilla en las selvas”.
What’s more, let us not forget that the president, in his speech to the IAPA, spoke of the importance of “critical journalism.” In fact, such journalism only bothers him when it dares to ask questions about his possible links to “paras” or “narcos.” Let’s just remember that famous interview that Newsweek’s Joseph Contrares gave him while he was still a candidate.
In this context, one must rephrase this idea that the government does not recognize the alternative media. Of course it recognizes them… especially in order to identify and stigmatize them, to elegantly argue that everything they say is a lie. Under such arguments it promises investigations “to clear up these unfortunate things that have happened to journalists”; investigations that will never happen, as this government believes they deserve it for being “mouthpieces for terrorism” (remembering that all who are not with the government are against it). It orders radio stations and other media shut down for not having licenses, when it was really because they were talking too much about certain things.
All of this happens, kind readers, in a country where – despite having the oldest democracy in Latin America, one of the most democratic constitutions and most exhaustive legislation on the right to freedom of speech – at the end of the day the only common language, when it comes time to report, is fear.
But the alternative media and the authentic journalists of Colombia are not afraid.
In fact, they have much left still to say. A country of injustice provides a lot of material for that.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism