Pathology of freedom of the press

by Ignacio Gómez

As in the Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, those in charge of informing society of its failures in building the nation end up stoned to death. The Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa ( has documented 152 assassinations of journalists over the last 22 years. After examining the cases in depth, it also reported dozens of Atraps@ set by armed actors to secure favorable media coverage of their activities, which the journalists survived, though not always unharmed.

Although the Colombian press is already world-famous for the attacks directed against it, the analysts of the Inter-American Press Association, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, and the French organization Reporters without Borders all recognize that we are facing a different situation as regards the freedom of expression in Colombia. There is no longer talk of columnists and reporters assassinated for informing society just how it had been fully penetrated by the drug traffickers. Though we have never gotten over the loss of Guillermo Cano and his followers during the years when journalists opposed the Anarco-cracy,@ we have entered the years of the Adark forces,@ which human rights workers have suffered for several years.

While Guillermo Cano lay dying at the Clínica Santa Rosa, the radio news programs revealed that Pablo Escobar had ordered that crime. Seven years later, Escobar=s deputies acknowledged their role and explained their motives. Jaime Garzón was assassinated one year ago, and it is still not possible to determine whether state agents were involved in hiring the gunmen.

Garzón was one of seven journalists murdered in Colombia in 1999. That=s the average for the last 22 years, though in the first 12 years few fell victim to the paramilitary forces, guerrillas, and state security forces, who in the last three years have been behind most of the attacks on journalists in Colombia.

Two cases illustrate the point. Margarita Gómez Alvarello, judicial affairs editor for the Ibagué daily El Día, was invited by the ATeófilo Forero@ Front of the FARC to an interview to discuss the peace process. After she had been waiting two hours for the person who was supposedly to be interviewed, an armed man opened the windows and asked that they turn on the cameras to film the guerrilla occupation of the township of Gigante. After those images were aired, the reproaches from the paramilitary groups forced her to leave the country.

Arturo Prado Lima was recognized in the city of Pasto as one of the more objective journalists, and the office of the governor of Nariño had turned to him, given his reputation, as a guarantee in several negotiations involving hostages and peace processes. Last April 28 he received a new request to intercede, yet as he was on his way to carry out his mission, a patrol, possibly of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, intercepted and set fire to his car, with the television equipment inside. Miraculously, he saved his life, escaping amidst the flames.

Jorge Enrique Rivera, Richard Vélez, and others are journalists working in the interior and who left the country after attacks, in some cases in the wake of traps such as those described, and in which the alleged participation of members of the Army has never been refuted (or punished).

The factor common to these attacks derives from the fact that the AWestern-style@ military forces, the paramilitary forces, and the guerrilla groups in Colombia practice what they call psychological operations. Their organizational charts include complex structures, reaching up to their central command units to develop the war through the media in propaganda, information, and counter-information actions which, despite the way in which they are defined in the official warfare manuals, attack our right, as Colombians, to receive accurate, impartial, and timely information.

In the psychological war, which often becomes more important than the war waged using gunpowder, rockets, and propane gas, the combatants feel attacked when the press highlights their mistakes--even when the reports are accurate--because they think of the media as a platform from which to attack the enemy, and they are sure that the enemy does the same. Affected psychologically by the war that they themselves invented, they confuse the perpetrator of their defeats with those in charge of reporting them. And so they end up attacking the journalists, stealing their cameras, intercepting the trucks that distribute the morning paper, visiting the community radio stations to warn them that the only possible way to see Colombia=s reality is the perspective of they, who are armed, and not that of the others, who are also armed, as all of society could be understood as a coin, with two sides; as if only their triumph in the war were the only path to peace for those of us--97% of Colombians--who are not armed.

True, journalism isn=t always peaceful, nor is it violent in most cases in Colombia. The Colombian press is replete with initiatives to support a solution to the conflict based on dialogue and building tolerance, a peace process that makes it possible to rebuild the peaceful coexistence that more than 35 years of armed conflict have destroyed, making Colombia one of the most violent countries in the world. This explains the appearance of groups of journalists who constitute the APeace Units@ at El Tiempo and El Espectador, specialized reporters in most of the news programs on TV and radio, and, in general, the intense interest on the part of the media to initiatives for dialogue and peace in Colombia.

Psychological warfare is the Ascience@ of the farse. One of its fundamental principles is to keep the enemy from knowing your weaknesses, and that the enemy=s weaknesses be disseminated and magnified to the point of stirring up hatred in public opinion. This is exactly what the country has lacked during these years of war, unable to figure out the real thinking of the armed actors, and not the image they project of themselves in the context of a frenetic psychological war. This is why it is now impossible to think of a solution to the war in Colombia without fostering respect for the professional work of journalists and the right of all Colombians to be informed by those who vie to be interlocutors in the dialogue.


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