Getting the Story Wrong: The Press and the Zapatistas
An Analysis of English-Language Media Coverage of Last Month’s EZLN Gathering
By Annalena Oeffner
Narco News Authentic Journalism Scholar
September 12, 2003
Tens of thousands were gathering on August 8, 9 and 10 in Oventic, a little town in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas. Most of them came to support the Zapatistas and their cause, that of enabling the indigenous communities of Mexico to exercise authority over their land and ways of living. Others, perhaps sympathizing with the Zapatistas, perhaps not, perhaps even indifferent, came to file “well-balanced” stories, telling the world about the gathering convoked through a communiqué and invitation by Zapatista spokesman Subcommandante Marcos. And they came to tell about the “fiesta de los caracoles” – whose purpose was to announce the declaration by the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN in its Spanish acronyms) to launch five “juntas de buen gobierno”, good government committees. The “county seats” of these regional councils are called “caracoles” (a snail-shaped Mayan symbol that represents, among other things, the “opening to the heart”) now represent the Zapatista communities in Chiapas. That, at least, is the information the reader should have expected.
However, looking at what the world’s main news agencies and some of the dominant English-language press published, one finds a tendency towards the government’s side of the story, leaving out or twisting certain facts and making some clearly false statements. Many focused primarily on Subcommandate Marcos’ absence (he did participate, though, in a broadcast of the newly launched “Radio Insurgente”), on the pre-dominance of ski-masks covering people’s faces and on the music and the basketball tournament. All these are facts. But the BBC ( August 9 ) clearly missed the point when reporting “the emphasis [of the event] has been on fun.” Just like the wire services and influential English-language newspapers, they did not find it necessary to mention that the “fiesta” and “jamboree”, as they called it, took place on Zapatista lands where alcohol and drugs have always been strictly forbidden and drug trafficking has been fought against. Nor did they explain the purpose of the ski-mask, which, according to Marcos, is a symbol of Zapatismo and an “invitation for everyone to feel part of the struggle.” He claims that the government only sees the indigenous now that they conceal themselves. The same could also be said, reading the English-language press coverage, about the media.
The event was indeed of a more peaceful nature than the armed Zapatista uprising in 1994. Yet the political and social demands and aims remained the same. In the words of Subcommandante Marcos in 2001: “We do not want independence from Mexico, we want to be part of Mexico, to be Mexican indigenous. Up until now, they’ve treated us as second-class citizens, or as a hindrance for the country. We want to be first-class citizens and to be part of the country’s development, but we want to be so without ceasing to be indigenous”. The Zapatistas did thus not “revive the cause of indigenous rights” (Reuters: Rodrigo Martinez, August 8 ; VOA News, August 9 ). The cause never went away. They did, however, arouse the attention of the media once again.
After years of clandestine organization, the Zapatistas, now seen worldwide as an emblem for the antiglobalization movement, entered the scene on January 1st 1994. After fights that left about 150 dead, negotiations led to agreements the government never maintained. It instead chose to lead a war of low intensity, harassing oppositional indigenous villages in a way that the media took little notice. In March 2001, the EZLN and the National Indigenous Congress (CNI) marched to Mexico City to demand the implementation of the 1996 San Andrés Accords about indigenous rights and culture. The reform the Mexican government ratified in April 2001, however, ignored the main demands of the indigenous peoples and was therefore rejected by the EZLN and CNI.
According to the Associated Press (John Rice, August 8, and 9 ) and the BBC (August 9), reporters at the “fiesta de los caracoles” were being told not to conduct interviews. This, as the Narco News team knows from having been among the many interviewing colleagues, was not true at all. Yes, high-ranking Zapatista officials were not available for interviews, but nine commandantes did issue communiqués. And yet, Marcos was the only commandante (although he is just a “sub”) to be in the limelight of the mainstream press, whereas the speeches of others on matters of substance (from explaining the new good government councils to announcing support for this month’s WTO protest in Cancún) were scarcely mentioned.
Subcommandante Marcos, who acts as the spokesman for the Zapatistas and at the same time heads their military wing, provided for wild speculations and debate among the journalists in Chiapas. “According to Zapatista organizers”, writes Rodrigo Martinez for Reuters ( August 8 ), “the hooded Marcos was expected to appear at the event”. The Los Angeles Times claimed that the Zapatistas were awaiting the “entry of their ski-masked, pipe-smoking leader down a steep path to this mountain hamlet” (Richard Boudreaux, August 11). However, according to members of the Narco News team who were present in Oventic, the corridors formed by the Zapatistas were for the arrival of the members of the good government committees and not for any triumphal entry of Marcos who was not expected to appear in public.
The inaccurate reporting of such a detail might seem insignificant at first sight, but is in fact of important consequences. Marcos was portrayed as someone who breaks his word. His absence was also viewed as “a sign of his declining power within the Zapatista hierarchy” (Financial Times: Sara Silver, August 11). Several writers followed the announcement of Xochitl Galvez, Mexico’s Indian affairs officer, who “said the failure of the Zapatista’s ski-masked leader, Subcomandante Marcos, to show up at the three-day jamboree that launched the good government committees was a sign his Indian followers were becoming more independent of the rebel leader” (Reuters: Karina Balderas, August 20). The Los Angeles Times claimed that Marcos “will play a diminished role” within the movement (Richard Boudreaux, August 11). Only a few of the influential news organizations questioned this government spin to suggest Marcos’ “defeat”. Agence France Press, for example, saw the situation differently: “The announcement Saturday was the latest political setback for President Vicente Fox, who said early in his term he intended to settle the Zapatista insurrection swiftly” ( Jordi Zamora, August 9 ).
Another misunderstanding or even deliberate twisting of facts concerns the establishment of the new good government committees. Since 1994, the civilian wing of the EZLN (in effect, the residents of 1,111 Zapatista villages) has controlled about thirty Autonomous Municipalities in Chiapas. The communities put back their clocks one hour to resist the introduction of daylight saving in what they call “Fox time”, they do not pay taxes and have for the past nine years refused to accept any government money. The five good government councils are again being formed by members of the civilian Zapatistas, but they will act on a more regionalized basis. They will be the intermediaries among the Autonomous Municipalities as well as between those municipalities and the officially recognized local governments. In addition, they will settle land disputes, oversee NGO projects and aid and follow the principle of “governing obeying”, governing, that is, according to the will of the people.
And yet, Reuters ( Rodrigo Martinez, August 10 ) claimed “Marcos said the Zapatista rebels will hand over controls to the committees”, while the Los Angeles Times reported that the EZLN “announced it was yielding much of its authority to the civilian boards, apparently shifting the movement away from its clandestine military roots” (Richard Boudreaux, August 11). Both ignored the fact that the pre-existing Autonomous Municipalities are already made up of indigenous belonging to the civilian Zapatistas. The only involvement of the military Zapatistas has been, and still is, to provide protection for the communities if necessary. According to Marcos: “We shall be ready and waiting to defend [the caracoles]… Armies are for defending, not governing”. It is therefore misleading to write “but the taped withdrawal pledge from Marcos […] was seen as a shift away from armed conflict and toward the negotiating table” ( Reuters: Chris Aspin, August 10 ) or “the event is part of a new Zapatista strategy apparently designed to make it easier to deal with the outside world—yet another step away from the movement’s clandestine military origins” (AP: John Rice, August 8, and 9 ). This “step”, in fact, occurred nine years ago, when the conflict was only days old.
The majority of articles are very one-sided, letting only government officials have their say, taking those positions for granted and ignoring the nine communiqués delivered by the Zapatista commandantes. This was particularly demonstrated by Reuters: “Mexico is pinning its hopes on the rebels’ move away from armed conflict”, and “the good government committees may move the Zapatista cause further into the civil arena and away from armed conflict” ( Karina Balderas, August 20 ). On July 19, 2003, the EZLN announced it will “suspend any contact with the Mexican federal government and the political parties”. Reuters ignored this side of the story and merely wrote: “Mexico said on Sunday the door had reopened for peace talks with Zapatistas”, and “Interior Minister Santiago Creel said the promise [to withdraw roadblocks and to stop charging travelers] made late on Saturday by rebel leader Subcommandante Marcos […] was an olive branch for a stalled peace dialogue to restart” (Aspin, August 10). In other words, those reports were in direct contradiction to the easily available facts laid down in written EZLN communiqués.
The Mexican government not only put its spin on certain points but also did not seem to follow a consistent policy either. According to Agence France Press ( Jordi Zamora, August 9 ), “Interior Minister Santiago Creel said the government would study the EZLN’s new plans to determine if they comply with federal and state laws, but that it had not drawn any conclusions yet”. But, the BBC ( August 11 ) stated: “the government says the town councils are in line with Mexico’s constitution”. On August 10, Creel “had no problem with the indigenous committees” ( Reuters: Chris Aspin ), whereas the national government’s Indian Affairs Secretary Galvez told Reuters ( Karina Balderas, August 20 ): “They probably do break the law, but who ever questioned when the law was broken by not guaranteeing Indians their rights to health or education?” The government, unlike the EZLN, was not even speaking with one voice. Yet, it was the main source for many journalists covering the weekend in Oventic.
A national referendum held in March 1999 by the Zapatistas and monitored by the “respected educational institute” ( The London Guardian, March 23, 1999 ) The Arturo Rosenbluth Foundation, found that of more than 2.5 million Mexicans participating in the unofficial vote, 96% (figures by The International Service for Peace ) responded affirmatively to the questions of whether indigenous Mexicans should play an active role in Mexico’s development, whether their rights should be explicitly recognized in the constitution, and whether Mexico should be demilitarized and soldiers sent back to barracks. In Chiapas alone, 400,000 people voted in this referendum. Now the AP ( John Rice, August 8 ) claimed that “most Indian people even in the Zapatistas’ jungle heartland have declined to join the movement, put off by its tendency toward strictly collective organization, its military bent or its near-complete rejection of government aid or cooperation.” If that was true, it would be an interesting development. But the AP gives no evidence to back up such a statement.
The above examples of inaccurate reporting may be explained by several reasons. Foreign correspondents often cover a great many countries, in many cases far from their homelands. They may not have the background and the time to do the necessary research, even if it involves the ‘biggest’ running story of the second most populace country in Latin America. A news story will be even more distorted if relying too carelessly on the “official” or influential sources and their opinions. As could be seen in the case of the Mexican government, sources rarely deter from spinning the information the way they want it to, if it is for their own good.
Minister Creel, for example, used the Zapatistas’ success to show the government in a favourable light, saying: “Let’s make this event an opportunity to relaunch new initiatives with an open mind, with new ways to bring us together and to talk” ( BBC, August 11 ; Reuters: Chris Aspin, August 10 ). This kind of government spin to “contribute to the image of a government engaged in pro-active peace efforts” has also been witnessed by The International Service for Peace. In 1999, to promote the disarmament bill, supposed Zapatistas publicly turned in their arms in exchange for development assistance. The EZLN insisted that none of its members had participated, but “while images of “Zapatistas” handing their arms to Governor Albores appeared in newspapers around the world, the EZLN’s denials generally went unreported”.
In an interview with the Mexican La Jornada ( March 8, 2001 ), Noam Chomsky, US-American professor of linguistics, pointed to the limited coverage of the 2001 Zapatista march in the US mass media. This, he said, was a way to marginalize the movement. The business and political elites would try anything to prevent solidarity and mutual support among different movements, which, will they work together, have the power to change history. Two years have passed since Chomsky’s remarks. It seems little has changed since then.
Lea Ud. el Artículo en Español
Comment on this Report
Narco News is funded by your contributions to The Fund for Authentic Journalism.
Please make journalism like this possible by going to The Fund's web site
and making a contribution today.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism
For more Narco News, click here.