Framing Colombia's War

Framing Colombia's War
Posted by FoM on June 20, 2000 at 14:09:59 PT
By Dennis Hans 
Source: MediaChannel 
In The New York Review of Books (April 27) veteran reporter Alma Guillermoprieto described the civil war in Colombia as a struggle "between the army and an irregular paramilitary force on one side and various armed left-wing organizations on the other. ..." In The Miami Herald (April 21), former White House advisor Thomas "Mack" McLarty asserted that "the Colombian government is caught between rebel guerrillas on the left and paramilitaries on the right." 
McLarty echoed Mike Wallace, who on December 5 explained to "60 Minutes" viewers that President Andrιs Pastrana and his armed forces are battling "left-wing guerrillas" and "right-wing death squads." One nation, two news frames. Is the Colombian army fighting both the left and the right, or is it teaming up with right-wing paramilitary death squads to fight the left? This is a critical question for reporters, commentators, human rights groups, policy makers and the public. How the crisis is understood will determine the shape of the aid package that emerges from the U.S. Congress. How the crisis is framed will determine how it is understood. The McLarty-Wallace frame suggests the Clinton administration is right to earmark 80 percent of its $1.6 billion aid request for the Colombian security forces. The Guillermoprieto frame suggests this is not the best way to intensify our already deep involvement in Colombia's four interrelated wars: civil, dirty, propaganda and drug. Those who have taken sides in the aid issue are very aware of the importance of the frame. These days, money to fight the drug war — "to protect our children" — is an easier sell in Congress than money to fight Colombia's civil war. Aid proponents play up this angle and have had great success in getting U.S. media to play along, as Peter Hart of FAIR has reported. drug czar Barry McCaffrey, in a March 2 Boston Globe column, played up the "drug war." But he also appealed to readers' democratic values by framing the crisis in these terms: Colombia's citizens are "caught in the crossfire between twenty thousand guerrillas, six thousand paramilitary terrorists, and national democratic forces trying to defend an elected government." could object to tripling aid to "national democratic forces"? McCaffrey has his boss's gift for using language not to inform but to mislead. He knows Colombia well, having called the shots for the U.S. Southern Command from 1994 to 1996. He knows, but doesn't say boo in the op-ed, about the security forces' substantial, direct contribution to the civilian death toll in the early to mid-1990s and their continuing culpability through collaboration with the paramilitaries. He knows about the impunity with which the "national democratic forces" perpetrate or facilitate such crimes. But he would make a mockery of his euphemism were he to acknowledge what he knows. All the actors in the Colombian drama have vested interests in seeing their frame cast as reality. It should be the role of the news media to assess the validity of the conflicting frames. Particularly in the U.S., where major media are often too willing to follow the administration's lead, if the official frame doesn't conform to the facts, journalists need to say so — then go construct an accurate picture so their readers and viewers can best fulfill their duties as citizens in a democracy. If the journalists can't find easy answers, that's what they should report. When partisans present their frames in a news media context — in editorials, interviews, op-eds and news reports — it becomes increasingly difficult for the reader to recognize that the reality described may be constructed. Not out of bricks, but whole cloth. Colombia's civil war, now in its 36th year, has a long, complex history. In the last decade, say human rights groups, political violence has claimed about 35,000 lives. Some victims were combatants killed in action, but most were civilians or surrendered fighters executed at close range. All parties to the conflict have dismal human rights records, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ), Amnesty International, the U.N. and even the U.S. State Department. These monitors have noted a dramatic shift in recent years, as civilian killings by government forces have declined dramatically at the same time that killings by right-wing paramilitary death squads have skyrocketed. According to the CCJ, in 1999 paramilitaries committed 78 percent of the violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, state forces just two percent, and the guerrillas (who remain world leaders in kidnapping and extortion) 20 percent. HRW reported in April that the Colombian government's "Public Advocate recorded over 400 massacres" in 1999, most of them "perpetrated by paramilitaries working with the tacit acquiescence or open support of the Colombian Army." throughout the editorial pages, who is killing and being killed, why and in what numbers remain mysteries: • The Los Angeles Times, which twice has editorialized in favor of aid (March 27, May 18), erroneously attributed the 35,000 political deaths in the 1990s to "drug-related violence" (March 27). • The New York Times' Thomas Friedman endorsed aid in an April 11 piece that alleged 32,000 war-related deaths in 1999 alone. Neither the influential columnist nor his editors realized he had confused Colombia's astronomical homicide rate with political killings. • On April 26 The Los Angeles Times published an op-ed by Brent Scowcroft and Sen. Bob Graham (D.-Fla.), co-chairs of an "independent task force" on Colombia sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Inter-American Dialogue. (A Y2K version of the 1980s Kissinger Commission on Central America, the task force is bipartisan in the sense that one co-chair is a Republican hawk, the other a Democratic hawk.) They wrote, "Since 1990, Colombia's growing guerrilla insurgency has murdered 35,000 of its own citizens." In their zeal to sell the aid, Scowcroft and Graham distorted the "Interim Report" (IR) they themselves penned for the task force. The IR stated that "Armed conflict has killed more than 35,000 Colombians in the past decade," which is not quite right, given the preponderance of executions outside of combat. Still, it's a far cry from the ludicrous claim in the op-ed that 35,000 have been "murdered" by the "guerrilla insurgency." While the column is crude propaganda, the IR is slick. Thus it takes care not to apportion blame for those deaths or explore links between the army and the paramilitaries, for to do so would call into question the co-chairs' recommendations. Interestingly, the best informed member of the task force, former HRW associate director Cynthia Arnson, did not sign the IR. Perhaps editors shouldn't be held accountable for the (un)reality constructed on opinion pages. But this happens on the "news" side as well, where frames are created through headlines, unattributed remarks and the editing process. Amazing Mr. Wallace: Perhaps the most remarkable pro-aid piece is the "60 Minutes" segment cited above. It made no mention of links between the paramilitaries and the army, and claimed the army would crack down on the death squads if only it weren't so "weak." Wallace said the guerrillas earn $500 million a year taxing drug growers and traffickers and thus have little incentive to negotiate. Viewers might easily have inferred that rebels who have been fighting for decades were in this for the money. When Pastrana said he thought the guerrillas were sincere and wanted to participate in a "democratic process," he came across as naive — all the more reason to triple U.S. aid to the military before this good, if gullible, guy gives away the store. CBS permitted C-SPAN to air the unedited 80-minute interview Wallace conducted with Pastrana and his wife. Here's what didn't make the "60 Minutes" final cut: • Wallace telling Pastrana it is "common knowledge" in Bogotα that when the armed forces want to get rid of someone, they have the paramilitaries do it for them. Snip. • Pastrana disputing Wallace's repeated contentions that the guerrillas had as good or better weapons (including surface-to-air missiles) than the government; Pastrana insisting the armed forces' had a big advantage in the air and on the rivers. Snip. • Pastrana explaining what happened the last time a faction of the main guerrilla force, the FARC, laid down their arms and participated in electoral politics via the Union Patriotica (UP): Over several years, thousands of UP activists, including candidates and elected officials, were murdered by the political right. Snip. • Mrs. Pastrana volunteering that the rebels were committed to "social justice." Snip. "60 Minutes" made a much stronger case for aid than Pastrana himself. (See my other reports on this "60 Minutes" segment and CBS, which has been so pro-Pastrana I've suggested the Columbia Broadcasting System has merged with the Colombia government.) weeks before Wallace's interview, Tim Golden reported in The New York Times (Sept. 15, 1999) that "a secret assessment by American intelligence recently estimated that the rebels' profits from the drug trade ranged from perhaps $30 million to $100 million a year — far less than the amounts cited publicly by some officials, including McCaffrey." Perhaps that secret assessment is too low. Still, it comes from a source — U.S. intelligence — that is hostile to the rebels. Is the $500 million figure bandied about by U.S. officials and cited by Wallace a good-faith estimate that may be a bit high, or a fanciful concoction by officials advocating a like amount for aid to the Colombian military? That's a question journalists need to answer for confused reader-viewers, who can't be sure which figure to believe. Confusion is bound to be the case when the news consumer is faced with a single article with two conflicting frames. In an April 13 New York Times story headlined "Lott Assures Colombian President on $1.6 Billion to Fight Drugs," Elizabeth Becker reported in the lead that the funds would "help train and equip Colombian security forces to fight the drug war." But in the middle of her story she quotes one of the most informed senators on Colombia, Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), as follows: "What we are seeing is a dramatic ratcheting up of a counterinsurgency policy in the name of counter-drug policy." Is the proposed aid to fight a "drug war," as the headline and lead declare, or is "drug war" a rhetorical device to trick the U.S. Congress into escalating a civil war? Is there truth in both frames? How does The Times decide that the official U.S.-Colombia line gets the headline while the skeptic's view is confined to fine print? The Skeptical Mr. Frankel: Former Times executive editor Max Frankel is so concerned about drug-war coverage he issued this "media alert" to editors and TV producers: "It would be unwise to expect trustworthy information from Washington" about the drug war. After explaining how the drug and civil wars are linked, he asserted that "The terrorism of left- and right-wing guerrillas — and the efforts of the army and the police to pursue them — have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Colombians each year." (The New York Times Magazine, April 30) It's a bad sign when someone who sees himself as a skeptic frames Colombia precisely as McCaffrey would. Before writing another sentence about the security forces' efforts to "pursue" right-wing paramilitaries, Frankel should read the May 15 and May 22 Reuters dispatches from Puerto Asis in southern Colombia, where a government offensive is imminent. Drug crops in the area were first fumigated in 1996, sparking "violent peasant marches," Karl Penhaul reports. "The government later reneged on a deal to help peasants switch to legal crops and improve local infrastructure. Since then government forces and paramilitary gangs have killed many of the march organizers." The local paramilitary's second in command is a "former Colombian special forces sergeant who frequently trained alongside U.S. Special Forces Rangers and Navy SEALs during his eight years in the military. ... About 20 of the senior paramilitary commanders in [the department of] Putumayo previously held ranks in the police or army ranging from corporal to at least lieutenant. ..." The paramilitary group announced its 1998 arrival in Puerto Asis "with a string of massacres and selective assassinations of suspected rebel sympathizers and peasant leaders." Today it "patrols in downtown Puerto Asis under the very nose of a sizable police detachment and the army's 24th brigade." According to reporter Penhaul, such is the cozy relationship on the ground between paramilitary terrorists and McCaffrey's "national democratic forces" — a relationship neatly summed up by Human Rights Watch in its book "Colombia's Killer Networks": "a sophisticated mechanism, in part supported by years of advice, training, weaponry, and official silence by the United States, that allows the Colombian military to fight a dirty war and Colombian officialdom to deny it. The price: thousands of dead, disappeared, maimed, and terrorized Colombians." passage was penned in 1996, but HRW Colombia specialist Robin Kirk told me it holds true for today. Before we intervene further in Colombia, we need a national debate. But first we need an honest framework for that debate. To bring this about, the news media must parse the picture of Colombia painted by the Clinton administration, and make a concerted effort to distinguish what the administration believes from what it says it believes. And readers must recognize that the news media are themselves choosing sides when they accept or reject certain frames. Dennis Hans is a freelance writer and an occasional adjunct professor of mass communications and American foreign policy at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. June 14, 2000E-mail: HANS_D Direct Link To Article: Media Channel is a not-for-profit project of OneWorld Online and The Global CenterProduced by Globalvision New MediaRelated Articles:  Colombia's Drug Battle Grounded's War On Colombia Fights War Without End Colombian Police Chief Resigns
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