Beating swords into pens

Bernardo Gutiérrez
17 May 2007

Colombia enjoys the dubious merit of boasting one of the highest rates of kidnappings, massacres and extortion in the world. In recent times, the crime-rate has dwindled thanks to the disarming, through dialogue, of right-wing paramilitary groups as part of the "Justice and Peace" plan launched in 2003. Yet, this experiment in peace-making has yet to show its long-term success. The plan now seems to have been engineered more for its media impact than for securing real change, as shown by the lax requirements imposed on militants for accepting their "demobilisation". Many Colombians believe that this "peace process" leaves the hidden structures of the paramilitaries intact.

In reporting the armed conflict in Colombia, journalists easily fall into the traps that imperil the objectivity of their work. The various jostling agendas in the conflict - government, guerrilla, paramilitary, and other elements of the arms-industrial complex - make objective writing and reporting on the war in Colombia next to impossible. Any incisive story is bound to upset one of the country's many armed groups.

The multi-faceted, complex conflict has thoroughly undermined Colombian journalism. Colombia ranks 131st on Reporters Sans Frontieres' (RSF) "Press Freedom Index", with a more repressive climate for journalists than war-torn Afghanistan.

Not only have many journalists been assassinated, forced into exile, or cowed into silence in recent years, but the very exercise of the profession - free from the pressures and manipulations of the warring parties - has atrophied. Only a handful of editorial writers and reporters from the written press and radio can hold any claim to independence and objectivity. The state of television journalism is perhaps worse, even more conditioned by self-censorship.

One of the most difficult areas for reporters is managing their relationships with their sources. Representatives of all sides of the conflict tend to get aggravated when journalists contextualise and qualify their claims. They would rather have their statements published unvarnished and unchallenged, as the only interpretation of events. The practice of balanced journalism is almost never to their liking. The threats and assassinations that imperil the press corps come most often at the hands of such aggrieved interviewees.

In the last fifteen years, hundreds of journalists have been murdered. Even more have had to endure death threats or go into exile. In 2006, Olga Cecilia Vega of US daily The New Herald was forced to leave the southern town of Florencia by members of the United Self-Defence Forces (AUC), the major right-wing paramilitary group. Herbín Hoyos Medina, a radio journalist, also fled the country after intimidation from the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Gustavo Rojas Gabalo, Milton Fabián Sánchez and Atilano Segundo Pérez - all radio journalists as well - were killed in 2006 after they denounced corruption and human rights violations.

In a climate of broad repression, it is not surprising that journalists also feel the heat. The recent past saw the extermination of the Patriotic Union, a leftist political party affiliated with FARC, in the course of ten years (an estimated 3,000 leftists were killed during those years). Human rights, labour, peasant and Indian organisations are constantly under threat. The Colombian judiciary has allowed militants, particularly the AUC, impunity in many instances, strengthening rather than minimising the possibility of continued crackdowns against dissidents.

Medios Para La Paz (MPP), "Journalists for Peace", was conceived ten years ago, by fifty-three people, most of them journalists, committed to preserving the credibility of Colombian journalism and to equipping journalists with the tools to pursue their profession in hostile and dangerous circumstances. A second goal is to challenge the apathy shown by sectors of the Colombian news media regarding the armed conflict and its toll on civilians.

MPP's activities include running workshops and public gatherings of journalists; producing guiding publications for journalists, such as the "Handbook for forced displacement coverage" and a glossary of 600 delicate terms for use in describing Colombia's conflict; and conducting research into the effects of Colombia's war on the practice of journalism.

At once a research think-tank and an advocacy group, MPP has also established relationships with universities, NGOs working in conflict resolution, and various other sectors of Colombian civil society. MPP is pioneering a path for journalists in Colombia to play an active - and not simply observant - role in the political resolution of the country's armed conflict.

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