<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

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The trademarks "Narco News," "The Narco News Bulletin," "School of Authentic Journalism," "Narco News TV" and NNTV © 2000-2011 Al Giordano


Information Apartheid in Colombia

Independent Media and Authentic Journalism Under the Uribe Administration

By Laura del Castillo Matamoros
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

July 11, 2005

Alternative? What do they mean by that? According to what representatives of several different non-commercial media said during a meeting held in Bogotá with the directors of Telesur (an independent, Venezuelan government-promoted 24-hour news channel that hopes to extend its signal across all of Latin America) on May 4, that was the question that Eduardo Bertoni, the special rapporteur for freedom of expression from of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission at the Organization of American States (OAS), asked when he met with them two months ago, during his visit to Colombia. It seems that Mr. Bertoni did not even know that “alternative media” exist in Colombia, and that, in fact, such a label seemed a little “strange” to him.

Vice President Francisco Santos (a member of the honorable Santos family, owners of the leading daily newspaper El Tiempo and who, curiously, worked there as a journalist during his wild years) must have asked himself the same question when, last February 23 (during the second International Congress on victims of terrorism in Colombia), he labeled the commercial media themselves as “sounding boards for terrorism.” This came after the media had reported on the guerrilla attacks in different parts of the country during the month of January. What the vice president was really saying was that the government’s “Democratic Security” policy was being disparaged, and that the media coverage was instead highlighting “subversive actions.” In his own words, “they were so irresponsible as to question whether the security policy had failed.”

The funny thing about this whole affair is that when the commercial media covered the events, they did not have any intention of questioning even the effectiveness of the Democratic Security Policy, but rather they hoped to demonstrate “the brutality” of the guerrilla. Nonetheless, Vice President Santos’ paranoid instincts led him to the conclusion that his “allies” had betrayed him. This despite that, as journalist María Jimena Duzán pointed out in her March 7 column in El Tiempo, “there is no administration in the history of Colombia that has had such supportive media during its term as President Uribe’s.”

And so, it is possible to ask oneself: if the vice president sees the commercial media this way, then how does he see the alternative media? Does he even see them? Does he know they exist? And if he recognizes that they exist, taking into account that the great majority of them have shown themselves to be diametrically opposed to the government, how would he label them? Maybe as “mouthpieces for terrorism,” just as, in the peculiar language of Uribe, all people and organizations that denounce human rights violations by the army, the consequences of the United States’ interventionist policies, the devastating environmental effects of coca fumigation, or the impunity surrounding the new “justice and peace” law, or other injustices, are known?

On March 13, President Uribe, taking advantage of the occasion of his presentation during the recent meeting of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) in Panama, and trying to mitigate the vice president’s statements a bit and reaffirm that image of being a “friend to civil liberties” that he loves to manage in public, said that in Colombia “there is no censorship” on the media, and that the relationship between the government and journalists is one “of independence and respect.” Although, he did add that the media should “control themselves” to avoid giving too much exposure to terrorist acts. (With such statements it is possible to understand how on various occasions the president himself has put pressure on the directors of various media outlets to either emit or omit certain information.)

Of course, it must be rather strange for the government, the OAS, and all those who blindly believe that freedom of speech exists in Colombia, to listen to talk of alternative media. They will wonder, “Alternative to what, if ‘there is no censorship’ in Colombia?” It will seem even stranger to them that a national event was organized one month ago, whose principal aim was to create ties between several projects in alternative communication and independent journalism in the country. And there will be no lack of those who think that the event constituted several days of subversive indoctrination or something like that, because “that word, alternative, sounds a lot like terrorism, doesn’t it?”

Confronting Repression and the Commercial Media

Despite such questions that grow out of the twisted minds of friends of the Colombian government, the event Alternative Media Against the Globalization of Disinformation – which the student newspaper NOIKOS and the Forum on Colombian Problems at the Industrial University of Santander (UIS) organized in the city of Bucaramanga – was carried out; among other reasons, because what the president says about the media and journalists in Colombia is simply a lie. And we will tell you why shortly, kind readers. For now, though, let’s pause for a bit and look at what happened at this event that, with the exception of a few sporadic local or regional meetings, was without precedent in Colombia.

On May 23 and 24, more than 300 people – representing alternative publications, communications projects (the community radio stations were the most visible), student collectives, as well as human rights organizations, and accompanied by representatives of various international media (among which was Narco News) – met with the goal not only of speaking about their personal experiences or reflecting on the general situation of invisibility and risk in which the Colombian alternative media find themselves, but also to make proposals moving toward the creation of a common and consolidated front to put an end to their scattering and isolation and to the information monopoly that the commercial media have created in a country where, according to President Uribe, censorship does not exist.

In fact, on the last day of the event, the general council of the new Colombian Coordinating Committee for Alternative Media (CCMA) was created. This committee will work to, in the words of César Jérez, director of the online newspaper Prensa Rural (“Rural Press”) and one of the event’s main organizers, “dynamize the more than fifteen proposals that came out of the event, which have to do with training, strategies for strengthening alternative media, and methods for reacting to dangers and threats.”

And it is worth adding – without, of course, the slightest intention of offending those who put their faith in the harmonious relationship between the government and independent journalists – that the event occurred within a very difficult and even dangerous context. Just over a week before, there had been death threats by “dark forces” who sent funeral bouquets to the houses of journalists Carlos Lozano, director of the weekly Voz, (the country’s oldest and most respected left-wing newspaper) and Hollman Morris, creator of the investigative television program Contravía, which has given ample coverage to attacks against the civilian population not just by the paramilitaries and the guerrillas, but also by the military, in the most forgotten regions of the country.

Hollman Morris
Both Morris and Lozano, despite the threats, were present at the event, and as such were two of the most honored guests, together with representatives of the communications network of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (which is still standing despite the constant threats against its communities).

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.’”

“Respect for Journalists” During the Uribe Era

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.”

Carlos Lozano
Photo: Red Resistancia
Why threaten, persecute, and makes attempts on the lives of these journalists? Lozano could not have given a better answer than he did on June 2, when he spoke at the symposium “We Are Not Alone: The Situation of Freedom of Speech in Colombia.” He spoke of the reasons that he, along with Coronell and Morris, had been recently threatened:

“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.

Shutting Down the Media

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.

The Uribe Administration’s Peculiar Concept of Freedom of Speech

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.

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