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Colombians need to debate the conflict, but not as a condition of Langlois' freedom

On April 28 French journalist Romeo Langlois was captured by the FARC. The leftist guerrillas demanded a debate on freedom of information as a condition of his release. Instead, this case raises the need for a debate on this never-ending conflict, and on the role of national and international media in covering invisible conflicts.

Massimo Di Ricco
25 May 2012

Almost a week after French journalist Romeo Langlois was captured by the FARC during an anti-drug operation in the south of the country, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez commented on the case in a local radio show. Uribe defined Langlois as a “grosero” (rude) journalist, and went on to declare that he should have already been sent out of Colombia

In order to understand Uribe’s reaction to the fate of a journalist in a condition of captivity, and his attempt to discredit him, it is necessary to look at Langlois’ work. In a recent documentary produced for France24 on the mining business in Colombia, Langlois hinted at the connection between former President Uribe and the Canadian company Gran Colombia Gold, which is operating in the Northern region of Segovia, and which appeared to have expropriated the mine from local workers. The documentary shows the moment when the French journalist approached Uribe during a political meeting and asked him about his relation with the Canadian company. No answer came from Uribe on that occasion.

On the other side, in a recent communiqué the FARC demanded that Langlois’ freedom should be conditional on a debate at the national and international levels on freedom of information around the conflict. That sounded bizarre to many Colombians, considering that the guerrillas demanded a debate on the coverage of the conflict while keeping in captivity a journalist held while doing his job.  A few days later the FARC, through another communiqué sent to the International Committee of the Red Cross, expressed their will to liberate the journalist, but maintained their accusations against the mainstream media of distorting reality.

The main target of both legal and illegal authorities seems to be the journalist’s duty to inform on the conflict in Colombia. Indeed, the real issue behind this case is around journalists’ conditions in Colombia, and the need for a serious debate to find a feasible solution to this long conflict. The conflict has continued for more than 60 years, and after few attempts at peace resolutions is now missing in the oblivion of urban apathy. After Uribe's successful policy of “democratic security”, which mainly focused on the military crushing of illegal armed groups, current President Juan Manuel Santos put instead the accent on a program of “economic prosperity”. Santos’ policy of economic prosperity perfectly symbolizes the gulf in present day Colombia between urban dwellers and rural campesinos. Indeed, many Colombians living outside of inaccessible rural areas don't even consider the presence of the conflict. The International Committee of the Red Cross affirms in its recent report titled “The Other Colombia” that “there is a Colombia which hardly appears in the press, which can be reached only in canoe, on donkey-back, on foot or on roads which seem like dry rivers”. That has much to do with the informal but consistent Colombian fracture between rural and urban, but is also a symptom of the way national and international media are doing their job.

The communiqué of the FARC demanding a debate on freedom of information only managed to exacerbate the situation, blocking any discussion on a possible resolution to the conflict within the Colombian civil society. The mainstream press and television media, along with the government, rejected the FARC proposal and unanimously condemned it as “blackmail”. The bomb detonated in the capital Bogota on May 15 , which targeted former Minister Fernando Londoño, and for which local authorities accused the FARC, had the same effect of hampering a possible discussion on the peace process. Indeed, the main aim of the attack was probably to hinder the approval in Congress of a juridical framework for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, pushed on by President Juan Manuel Santos but with a lot of criticism coming especially from his predecessor’s entourage.

Despite all this a discussion on the media’s relationship to the conflict is very much needed in Colombia. Journalism is extremely risky and difficult, not just when related to coverage of the conflict, but in relation to any issue that even implies the reporting or denouncing of a situation of illegality. The Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) found in their 2011 report on press freedom in Colombia, that the assassination of journalists had considerably decreased within the country. However, death threats received by local journalists from different armed groups had dangerously increased. Local and regional journalists, mainly working in rural areas far from the urban centers where the conflict is felt on a daily basis, are the main victims of these threats.

Death threats lead to self-censorship and the creation of red lines, which are respected not only by journalists in the field but also by media directors. Very few Colombian journalists leave their desks in Bogota to go investigating in the field. In such gloomy circumstances foreign journalists often enjoy an informal safe conduct through which to report on abuses by legal and illegal authorities. In contrast with local journalists, many foreigners manage to meet with the different actors involved in the conflict without the fear of being publicly stigmatized. Even if the international media doesn’t have much interest in such an intricate and long conflict, foreign journalists based in Colombia manage – at their own risk – to shed light on a situation which national journalists increasingly find difficult to cover.

Langlois is one of these journalists. He has been based in Colombia for more than 10 years. At the time of his capture he was following the Colombian Army in an anti-drug raid in the region of Caquetà. The official version of his capture given by the Army is that Langlois, after hours of armed firefight, removed his helmet and bullet-proof vest and presented himself as a journalist. The version given by the FARC is that the French journalist is to be considered a prisoner of war because he was wearing military clothes. FARC has legitimacy in investigating the presence on the battlefield of a French journalist in uniform, but it should be considered that in no way was he carrying a weapon or participating in the firefight.

In these conditions immunity of the press is sacred. Carrying a green uniform is to be considered an ingenuity of the French journalist, but on the contrary it should open a debate on the precarious work of freelance journalists in a situation of conflict. The negative connotation of being embedded – that it implies complicity with one of the actors involved in the conflict – should be scrutinized according to the journalist’s work in each case. It is an important journalistic task to take into consideration and talk with all the actors involved in a conflict.

A brief look at Langlois’ work history shows how in the last ten years he has reported on the activities of paramilitary forces, the FARC guerrillas, crimes committed by the Colombian Army, illicit trafficking by the government, abuses perpetrated by multinational companies and indigenous rights. British journalist Robert Fisk often quotes a discussion with his colleague Amira Hass, in which they concluded that the inner journalists’ vocation is to monitor the centres of power. Langlois's work perfectly expresses that duty. And there is no doubt that in present-day Colombia the army, the government, multinational companies, guerrillas and paramilitary forces are together the centres of power that professional journalists need to challenge.

Langlois’ case is giving at least visibility not only to a Colombian but to a worldwide issue, which is the relationship between the media and intractable conflicts. But the demand imposed by the FARC for a debate on freedom of information has had the opposite effect from their expressed desire, blocking any debate both on the media and on the conflict in general. In order to find legitimacy, such demand should come out spontaneously from Colombian civil society. Instead, the level of discussion went back to gossiping and expressions of outrage. It recycled pointless and sterile pronunciations on the possible application of International Humanitarian Rights, on United Nations resolutions concerning the institutional role of the press within a conflict, on the color of the helmet Langlois was wearing at the time he was doing his job, and on whether an embedded journalist is to be considered a civilian or not.

In the middle of this trivial political game, played at the expense of a journalist doing his duty, Colombians and the world are missing a professional voice in the field willing to tell them about the ongoing abuses of power in an invisible conflict.

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