August 5, 2008
The Media's FARCed: Mainstream coverage of Colombia
By Tim McSorley, Originally published in The Dominion, August 5th, 2008
In what most news outlets described as a daring and stunning military victory, on July 2, 2008, the Colombian government freed 15 hostages being held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The rescued group included the best-known of the FARC’s prisoners, former journalist and Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, as well as three United States military contractors and 11 Colombian soldiers and police.
The story and accompanying images and sound bytes--splashed across the front of newspapers and on heavy rotation in broadcast news for several days--praised the operation as a sign both of the effectiveness of the Colombian government’s battle against the FARC and of the revolutionary organisation’s decline.
The future of the FARC was questioned by not only mainstream media, but also by the independent press. While it is clear the insurgents are not on the brink of being wiped out, voices in the media--from independent journalist Justin Podur, to cable news outlet CNN--pointed out that the rescue mission follows on the heels of the assassination of the FARC's second-in-command, Raul Reyes, by the Colombian government the previous month and the death in March of the FARC's leader, Manuel Marulanda. It also accompanies a growing belief that the FARC’s tactics of kidnapping and waging an insurrectionary war is no longer the best way to change Colombia’s political landscape.
The event has led to a critical eye being cast on the FARC, but it has had the opposite effect on the Colombian government. A government recently plagued by scandals has been able to re-invent itself in the mainstream media as a knight in shining armour. In fact, the success of the operation has made Colombia’s president, Alvaro Uribe, more popular than ever, with polls showing support among the population at a stunning 91 per cent.
The extent to which this has allowed the mainstream press to gloss over questions surrounding Uribe and his government is surprising. While the FARC has used what many describe as deplorable tactics in its revolutionary fight, the groups responsible for the largest share of the killings in Colombia during their drawn-out civil war-–particularly deaths among civilians and non-violent progressive activists-–have been the country’s right-wing paramilitary groups. According to some estimates, 75 per cent of the 3,500 to 4,000 civilian deaths in Colombia between 1998 and 2006 were due to paramilitary forces. The operations of these groups have been publicly denounced by the government, but have at the same time received thinly veiled support from Colombia’s military law-makers, including President Uribe’s cousin, Congressman Mario Uribe Escobar, who was arrested in April 2008. According to an Edmonton Journal article published in April, 62 current or former Colombian politicians have been arrested and 31 more are being investigated for their links to paramilitaries. Individuals named on the list of those connected with the massacre of 15 people in 1997 include the speaker of the house, a supporter of President Uribe, and the president himself. However, in articles such as “Betancourt liberation a tonic for Colombia's problems,” published in the Montreal Gazette on July 4, no mention is made of these links. Even an article ostensibly critical of Colombia’s president, “Alvaro Uribe has more work to do,” published in the Toronto Star on July 14, skirts the issue.
The rescue operation has also helped to deflect attention from a bribery scandal that nearly forced Uribe to hold a referendum on the legitimacy of his 2006 re-election. The Colombian Supreme Court recently sentenced congresswoman Yidis Medina to four years of house arrest for admitting to taking bribes in the form of money and promises of jobs for supporters in exchange for backing a constitutional amendment that allowed Uribe to stand for re-election. Faced with a legitimacy crisis, Uribe had announced he was willing to hold a country-wide vote on whether he should remain in office. He has called it off since the freeing of the hostages.
All things considered, it is not necessarily surprising that questions have arisen about the accuracy of the official story of the rescue. The Colombian government has claimed it managed to infiltrate the inner-circles of the FARC, thereby fooling them into believing a top FARC officer had ordered the transfer of the hostages when in reality they were being placed on a rescue helicopter. But Radio Suisse Romande, a Swiss radio station, has claimed that, according to a confidential source, a $20 million ransom was paid to the FARC to free the hostages and that the ensuing rescue operation was staged. Most media have ignored or buried this story. For example, the rescue itself made the cover of the July 3, 2008, issue of the National Post, but the story of the possible payment appeared on page A15. Adding further to this embarrassment was the little-reported story that the Colombian government was forced to apologise to the Red Cross when it was revealed one of the soldiers donned the aid organisation’s uniform during the mission. Impersonating the Red Cross is considered a breach of the Geneva Convention, which regulates war crimes.
The rescue mission has not only been used to minimise controversy in Colombian politics; the strategy is being used in North American politics as well. Several major news outlets have featured pieces using the hostages’ release as justification for increasing free trade ties with Colombia, despite Colombia continuing to be one of the most dangerous countries for labour organisers. Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson used the occasion to support a Canada-Colombia free trade pact in a July 5 article entitled, “A bold rescue is good news for Colombia--and Canada.” In the US, Marc Grossman, vice-chairman of The Cohen Group and former undersecretary of state for political affairs in the George W Bush Administration, made the case for a US-Colombia deal in the Boston Globe. Unlike Canada, where the Conservative Government has all but signed an agreement, Democratic legislators in the US halted debate on the issue in the spring, ostensibly over the Colombian Government’s lack of action to curb human rights abuses. In his article, Simpson noted that, “Colombia has moved a long way from those grisly days when judges, mayors, police officers and other symbols of authority were targeted by the FARC, while paramilitaries targeted unionists, teachers and others.” While it's true that the rate of killing has dropped and that the FARC have ceased assassinations, in a July 8 letter to the Globe, Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress, pointed out that Simpson went too far in saying the murder of trade unionists has ended; since the beginning of the year, the killing of labour organisers is up 70 per cent over the same period in 2007, and Colombia remains the country where the most labour organisers are killed every year.
As Colombian-Canadian surgeon and activist Manuel Rozental recently explained to Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, “We’re talking about the regime with the worst human rights record in the continent and the army with the worst human rights record in the continent with the greatest US support, including the contractors or mercenaries. So the fact that this regime was involved in this liberation does not, and should not, and can not, cover up the fact that it is a horrendous regime.”