Where Is the Press
in Colombian War?
FARC: The State, not the
Rebels, Killed the Senator
By Al Giordano
A Narco News Media Analysis
Mexico City, March 5, 2002: A spokesman for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in its Spanish initials) spoke on Monday to 600 delegates from 21 countries in Mexico City, where he refuted U.S. press reports that blamed the FARC for the assassination of a Colombian Senator.
FARC spokesman Marco Le Calarcá made himself available for questions from the press all day; the date on which the wire services AP and Reuters, and top U.S. newspapers, had all blamed the FARC for the murder last week of Colombian Senator Martha Daniels.
None of those news organizations sought comment from the FARC in their published reports.
"They accuse us of the assassination when the whole world knows that it is the State that assassinates," said the official FARC spokesman. "We don't have civilian targets."
Although the major U.S. newspapers and wire services have bureaus in Mexico City, and yesterday's event was well publicized with invitations in four languages to the public and media, not a single U.S. news organization availed itself of the opportunity to seek the FARC's comment on this current news story.
By any serious standard of journalism, when the media accuses an organization of murder, it ought to seek comment from the accused.
Nevertheless, Monday's headlines were filled with the accusation, which Colombian prosecutors last night began to retract. The spin began with reports from two major wire services: "Rebels Kill Colombian Senator" (AP, by Jared Kotler); "Colombia Senator Killed, Rebels Blamed" (Reuters, by Phil Stewart).
These two gems of disinformation were widely distributed: "Rebels Blamed for Senator's Slaying" (Orlando Sentinel, March 4); "Colombian Senator, two others, apparently killed by rebels" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 4); "Colombian Senator Killed by Rebels" (Seattle Times, March 4).
Newsday, the Miami Herald, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, among others, repeated the AP and Reuters reports verbatim.
Others claimed to report it themselves. The New York Times' Juan Forero (reported by Narco News last year as having allowed U.S. Embassy officials to monitor his interviews with Colombian mercenaries) said, flat out: "Last week, rebels killed a senator, Martha Catalina Daniels."
The Times international desk added a photo of the martyred Senator. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published Forero's story, too.
And here's a bizarre new twist: Although the story appeared on page 6, column 1 of Monday's NY Times ("Apprehension Grows as Colombia Rebels Step Up Pace and Intensity of Their Attacks," by Juan Forero, March 4th) Forero's article, as of today, no longer appears on the NYT's website. It is, however, archived by the Dow Jones news wire, and by the Media Awareness Project.
Publisher's Update, March 6: The Forero article is back up on the NY Times website (subscribers to the newspaper can click here to read it).
However, still no correction of the article, nor the photo caption that states: "Martha Catalina Daniels, a senator, was assassinated by rebels. Her body was found Sunday."
The Houston Chronicle News Service took AP's errant story without crediting AP, quoting Colombian police colonel Alvaro Sandoval as saying, "it's assumed that it was the FARC" that assassinated the Senator.
None of these news organizations sought comment from the accused FARC.
That may not be easy for reporters in Colombia to do: Last February 20th, the Colombian and US governments ordered that journalists are no longer allowed in rebel territory unaccompanied by military officials. Every report filed since then by U.S. dailies and wire services from the rebel zone was made by reporters brought on "tours" by the military officials, a fact not disclosed by the journalists in their reports.
Since the Colombian military issued arrest warrants for all the FARC spokesmen in Colombia on February 20th, the babysitting policy for the war correspondents has caused an effective blackout of journalism that reports both sides of the conflict.
But these same news organizations can still easily seek the FARC's comment through its Mexico City office. Which puts FARC's international spokesman in Mexico City, Marco León Calarcá, in an important position. He is the last FARC spokesman available daily to the press.
The U.S. and other governments have worked very hard to limit the FARC's ability to respond in the press even through civilian channels. Last October, the European Union revoked the visas for FARC spokespersons in Europe. Currently, U.S. pressure on the Mexican government to ban the FARC office in Mexico City has increased.
(The info-war has its fronts large and small:
Narco News spoke yesterday with a group of 35 youths from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador, now a legal political party. Despite pre-arranged visas to travel to Mexico for this week's gathering, the youths were detained for two days at the Mexico-Guatemala border. They sang songs and shouted chants while working diplomatic channels and were finally allowed into the country.)
The FARC's Marco León Calarcá was available yesterday, all day, at the Mexico City Business and Commerce Center. That none of these news organizations bothered to seek the other side of their March 4th reports, speaks volumes about how the Colombian war, in addition to being a civil war inside Colombia, is, internationally, an information war, a "netwar," as it is defined by think-tanks like the RAND Corporation.
For Latin Americans, the recent controversy over Pentagon plans to start a "disinformation office" was laughable. That office has had many names, and existed for years, South of the Border.
Any war correspondent worth his salt already knows: If the FARC had wanted to apprehend Daniels or any Colombian senator, it would have more likely kidnapped the legislator, not killed her. The FARC, which seeks a trade of political prisoners with the Colombian government, freely admits that it has six such legislators already as bargaining chips. In its stated goal of freeing hundreds of FARC militants from prison, Daniels would have been worth far more to the rebels alive than dead.
"The assassination of the Senator cannot be a revolutionary act," said author Heinz Dieterich at yesterday's international gathering against Plan Colombia. "It is an action by sectors of the State; the death squads of the right wing."
Thus, the story repeated yesterday throughout the U.S. press was not just false and one-sided: It made no sense.
Even if one adopts the most cynical stance toward revolutionary movements, it is not the FARC that has the documented history of assassinating national legislators. Rather, its adversaries - the Colombian army and police forces and the paramilitaries they protect - have a long and documented record of murdering members of Congress:
-- Last October 8th, Liberal Party Congressman Luis Alfredo Colmenares, of the state of Arauca, was assassinated by two hitmen. The paramilitary "United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia" committed the crime, according to the pro-government national daily El Tiempo. "In taking credit for the attack, the AUC accused Colmenares of having connections to communist rebels," reported El Espectador.
-- Six days earlier, on October 2nd, Liberal Congressman Octavio Sarmiento, also of Arauca, was shot and killed. The AUC, again, was the perp, according to El Tiempo.
-- The prior month, on September 5th, Conservative Congressman Jairo Rojas of the state of Cundinamarca, president of the peace commission of the House of Representatives, was fatally shot by paramilitary troops, according to El Tiempo.
-- On December 29th, 2000, Liberal Congressman Diego Turbay Cote was assassinated near rebel territory. The government claimed that two gunmen were members of the FARC. The FARC denied the action, and blamed the paramilitaries.
-- In September 1998, Liberal Congressman Jorge Humberto González of Antioquia was assassinated by hitmen in Medellín.
On the other hand, the six legislators kidnapped by the FARC are still alive, each new POW strengthening the rebel hand in negotiating for the release of its own prisoners.
Daniels, 49, had more obvious enemies than the FARC: First and foremost, the Pastrana government, and also United States officials, who never forgave Daniels for leading the 1996 defense of then-President Ernesto Samper of her Liberal Party, accused by U.S. officials of taking narco-money in his presidential campaign.
None of the press reports mention the Tale of Two Senators: that while Daniels was the point-person in Congress defending Samper from those charges, the recently kidnapped Senator Ingrid Betancourt was the point-person for the other side, staking her career in alliance with the U.S. campaign against Samper, even writing one of her self-praising books about it, titled, "He Knew It."
A reader who simply browsed the recent headlines of the U.S. press could get the impression that it was Senator Betancourt - the Paris-educated English-speaking daughter of the Colombian oligarchy and darling of the U.S. media - and not Senator Daniels who had been assassinated last week.
That may, in fact, have been the intent of Daniel's murderers: to further muddy the waters of the already murky Betancourt story, as part of the ongoing disinformation campaign against the FARC.
"We have entered the phase of the political isolation of the guerrilla," author Heinz Dieterich told yesterday's gathering in Mexico City. "Political isolation is a military strategy."
At 6 p.m. on Saturday, the first press reports about Daniels' assassination in Colombia were reported on the daily El Tiempo's website: "The authorities said that they have no information about the possible perpetrators of the assassination of the legislator."
But immediately, the spin machines of Washington and Bogotá didn't let the facts get in the way of blaming the FARC. In addition to AP's quoting of a Colombia police official pointing toward the FARC, President Andrés Pastrana and former president César Gaviria, from Washington, pounced to try and place blame.
From Washington, the president of the Organization of American States, César Gaviria (imposed on the OAS by Washington as a sinecure and reward for his reliability as an obedient servant to U.S. policies), was one of the first to jump on the story. He sent out a press release: "The death of Martha Catalina Daniels is another hit for Colombia and democracy. This new act of violence lets the world see that for these groups there is no respect for human life."
Pastrana went even further with his innuendo against the FARC, as reported by the Spanish news agency EFE and the French news agency AFP, which have both been more honest than Reuters, AP or the New York Times in covering the Daniels Assassination.
"Investigators are also looking into the possibility that common criminals had been working out the terms of a ransom payment for the abductees, some newspapers have said," reported EFE yesterday. "Pastrana, however, was quick to blame 'violent groups,' who want to bring the country under their control 'through their acts of cruelty and demented behavior.'"
According to EFE, Pastrana even used the assassination of Daniels, one of his political opponents, in a cheap electioneering strategy for legislative elections to be held this Sunday: "Pastrana called on his countrymen to condemn the perpetrators of attacks on democracy 'by voting massively for the most capable and honest candidates in the upcoming elections.'"
EFE followed up today with a report titled "Unclear whether FARC or common criminals killed senator." It said:
Bogota (EFE).-Colombian authorities are not ruling out Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas as suspects in the murder of Sen. Marta Catalina Daniels and two companions, but they are also investigating the possibility that common criminals are behind the crime.
Even Colombia's Attorney General seems to be
backing off his claim that audiotapes of alleged guerrilla radio communications (officials often cite alleged tapes, but never share them with the press or public, as in the case of the alleged Irishmen in FARC territory last year, in which the "tapes" have disappeared).
"This is a hypothesis that we are working with," Attorney General Luis Camilo Osorio told El Espectador last night. "But, in all ways, the complexity of the matter impedes us, at this moment, from making any declaration."
According to El Espectador today:
"'We have clues that lead toward different conclusions,' added Osorio, in an allusion to the eventual implication of the FARC or common delinquents, which are the possibilities that police and judicial authorities are working with.
However, Osorio recognized that the assassination of members of Congress contradicts the policy of the FARC to kidnap political leaders to exchange them for guerrillas held prisoner."
Pastrana has been caught before in blaming murders on the FARC that were later revealed to have been committed by paramilitaries or common criminals.
As reported by a Narco News press briefing in September 2000 (scroll down to last item), a biography of Colombian General Jose Serrano, likely to be the next United Nations drug czar, reveals that Pastrana and Serrano both blamed the FARC even as Serrano privately told his staff that the FARC had not perpetrated a "necklace bombing" of a farmer.
"There also appears the history about the "pressures" that he (Serrano) received to state that the necklace-bomb that killed a farmer woman from Boyaca had been the work of the FARC when the general knew that, in reality, it was not done by the guerrilla.
"The first ones to be surprised by the accusations of the general were his own most trusted advisors, who had already told him that there was no evidence that the guerrilla had done it and that all the evidence pointed to common criminals.
When Colombian and U.S. officials have been caught time and time again in blaming crimes on the FARC that later turned out to have been perpetrated by common criminals, paramilitaries and even Colombian police and military officials, authentic journalists should be skeptical of the election-driven campaign underway to blame the FARC for the Daniels assassination.
Pastrana continues to try and link his nation's Civil War with the U.S. "war on terrorism." Last week he compared the FARC to Al-Quaida, and referred to the Daniels assassination as "a terrorist act."
"When they say we are terrorists," FARC spokesman Marco León Calarcá told the 600 international delegates yesterday in Mexico City, "we urge you to erase that word 'terrorism' and put 'self-determination' in its place. People have a right to rebel. 'Terrorism' is currently in fashion as an excuse. But last year, more than 150 union leaders were assassinated in Colombia for engaging in legal struggle. In defense of these popular movements, we must rise up. The violence is the responsibility of the governments, the State, and the empire."
Back to the press: At minimum, all of the aforementioned news organizations were duty bound, when they accused an organization of political assassination, to seek comment from the accused.
Where were they yesterday, in Mexico City, when they had the opportunity?
Where is the correction owed by AP, Reuters, the New York Times of their reports?
In a conflict between two clearly defined parties - the FARC and the State - where is the media's commitment to seek both sides of the story?
Where is the press?
Narco News Publisher Al Giordano reports from Mexico City this week from the International Solidarity Gathering for Peace in Colombia, now in its second day.