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Censorship and Hegemony in Colombia

The Arrest of Journalist Freddie Muñoz

by JAMES J. BRITTAIN

Shedding light on issues of government corruption, state officials indirectly involved in the violation of its own citizens’ rights, or sectors of the nation’s elite hiring killers to eliminate their adversaries would, in many countries, be on the front pages of any press or headline any television news channel; however, this is not necessarily the case within the country of Colombia. Rather than seeing these issues presented in the media or awards being given to those involved in such investigative journalism, Colombia witnesses the dismissal, incarceration, or even deaths of those involved in exposing information that places the Colombian state or the elite in a critical light.

While Colombia has the highest number of journalist killed by paramilitary death squads in the world, it was the Colombian state that recently acted against one well-known journalist. On the evening of November 19th, Colombia’s secret police (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, DAS) detained Freddy Muñoz Altamirano, a Colombian-based journalist and correspondent for teleSUR [a multi-state-owned news channel located in Caracas]. Recognized throughout Latin America for his investigative reporting on the forced displacement of Colombian civilians at the hands of state and paramilitary forces, Muñoz was arrested on charges of ‘rebellion and terrorism’ relating to ‘terrorist attacks’ in Cartagena and Barranquilla during 2002.

Since its appearance in the fall of 2005, teleSUR has presented critical reports on the Uribe administration’s security policies within Colombia garnishing widespread attention across Latin America. However, the actions of the Colombian state and the DAS have undoubtedly eroded the channels regional legitimacy as an information medium outside the Western/US-dominated services (e.g. CNN, FOX News, etc.). Dan Feder (2006) goes a step further and argues that the state’s actions depict an even larger "attack on the independent and critical press" in the fact that such charges open the door to state and extra-state violence.

Being publicly accused of "terrorism" is often an invitation for assassination attempts in Colombia, where armed paramilitary groups rush to take out anyone who can be portrayed as an "insurgent." At the very least, the Colombian government, in allowing the press to discover the accusations against Muñoz has made a very heavy-handed attempt to discredit an accomplished journalist who has exposed the ugly side of the Colombian and U.S. governments’ war against leftwing rebels.

The silencing of critical reporting in Colombia is not a new issue but rather a systemic policy deeply entrenched within the country’s contemporary political history. Dating back to the 1950s, the Colombian state passed legislation that enabled the suppression of popular discourse by controlling media information via Decree 3000. Passed in 1954, Decree 3000 legalized the government’s ability to suppress what the press could and could not divulge to the general population (Martz, 1962: 198). While such conditions have remained constant there has nevertheless been an observable increase in the systemic repression of open public thought and critical media commentaries since the election of Álvaro Uribe Vélez to the presidency in 2002.

While countless socioeconomic issues have arisen over the past several years, such as increased spending related to the civil war, mass protests towards neoliberal bilateral trade agreements with the United States, and the failed paramilitary demobilization of Law 975, a significant reduction in the presentation of such conditions has been realized in much of Colombia’s popular mediums of communication. Such facts demonstrate a systemic decline in impartial media coverage when concerning state-based economic restructuring, extreme security policies, and the falling socioeconomic conditions of the Colombian majority. The manner in which these constraints are maintained are not merely in the growth of monopoly ownership over the means of information but also the state’s direct hegemony over the mediums of information through coercion and consent.

For over a decade, social justice advocate Father Javier Giraldo (1996: 22-23) has stated that sectors of Colombia’s elite politically-aligned media-owners almost exclusively obtain their information on sociopolitical issues from either the government or the armed forces. Utilizing such a biased information centre therefore leads to a practice of misinformation that is subsequently reproduced by other smaller media conglomerates, outlets, or localized mediums. Leech (2005) has too noted that with Uribe’s rise to power "journalists have become hyperdependent on official [state] sources, which has resulted in an increasingly distorted coverage of the conflict". In 2004, one of Colombia’s most renowned sociologists illustrated the expansion of such centralizing activities which filter information through the hands of the state. Alfredo Molano cited how the flow of information is increasingly being blocked by the military who are no longer allowing journalists to even enter regions of conflict.

This kind of control leaves the public essentially blind, and no one knows what happens in these areas. There is a very tight control over information in Colombia, and it gets tighter every day. Ninety, maybe one hundred percent of the news about the conflict or about public order in general are literally produced by the army. So one never completely knows what is going on (Molano as quoted in Feder, 2004).

Even Canada’s former political counsellor with the Canadian Embassy in Bogotá, Nicolas Coghlan, has shared his concerns about the Colombian army’s manipulation of the media to induce a manufactured reality in the purpose of supporting the state’s manipulation and exploitation of political opponents (Coghlan, 2004: 13).

One of the methods in which the state has promoted the actual suppression of journalists is best described by Doug Stokes. In 2005, Stokes (2005: 108-109) specifically criticized the Uribe government for becoming more than opponents to the free press but structurally reactionary in methods of silencing – or threatening to silence – those within the media critical of the state.

Uribe is also pushing for tighter control of the Colombian media by seeking to pass laws which censor reporting on Colombian ‘counter terrorism measures’ and Colombian military activity. One of the ‘anti-terrorism’ bills seeks to hand down sentences of eight to twelve years in prison for anyone who publishes statistics considered ‘counterproductive to the fight against terrorism’, as well as the possible ‘suspension’ of the media outlet in question. These sanctions will apply to anybody who divulges ‘reports that could hamper the effective implementation of military and police operations, endanger the lives of public forces personnel or private individuals’, or commits other acts that undermine public order, ‘while boosting the position or image of the enemy’ . . . The media censorship laws also mean that the reporting of human rights abuses will be harder (Stokes, 2005: 108-109).

From a more cultural perspective Leech (2005) contends that as a result of the state’s hegemonic presence, journalists have been restricted through a fear of political reactionary aggression or occupational reprimand.

… the reality of the country’s conflict is rarely reflected in the mainstream media is largely due to the way journalists operate in Colombia. Foreign reporters mostly cover the country’s civil conflict from the safety of the capital Bogotá, rarely venturing into dangerous rural zones except on press junkets organized by the Colombian military or the US embassy.

Eberto Díaz Montes and Juan Efrain Mendiza (2006) pronounced that the persecution of Muñoz once again demonstrates "that the prevailing regime in Colombia violates all the fundamental rights of the citizens, especially when they are left-of-centre". The President and General Secretary of La Federación Nacional Sindical Unitaria Agropecuaria (FENSUAGRO) went on to state that the voices of those inside the media (and society) are increasingly allowed to only transmit ideas that are in alliance with those of the state and if one publishes another realm of truth they are immediately exposed to the persecution of the regime.

The Uribe administration increasingly resembles not only a state that restricts the right of information and press freedom, but, more disturbing, a governing body that limits the actual human right to disseminate information relating to state policy and the suffering of the countries masses. It is hoped that the Muñoz incarceration is not long and that justice will be found.

JAMES J. BRITTAIN teaches in the Department of Sociology at the University of New Brunswick. He can be reached at: james.brittain@unb.ca

Works Cited;

Coghlan, Nicholas (2004) The Saddest Country: On Assignment in Colombia. Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Díaz Montes, Eberto and Juan Efrain Mendiza (2006) ¡Pronta Libertad Para Freddy Muñoz! (21 de Noviembre de 2006). Bogotá, DC: Comunicado Público.

Feder, Dan (2004) "Increasing Repression, U.S. Intervention, and Popular Opposition in Colombia: A Conversation with Colombian Authentic Journalist Alfredo Molano" June 28 On-Line http://www.narconews.com/Issue33/article1003.html Accessed June 29, 2004.

Feder, Dan (2006) "Telesur Journalist Arrested and Accused of "Terrorism" in Colombia" November 20 On-Line http://narcosphere.narconews.com/story/2006/11/20/211346/16 Accessed November 21, 2006.

Giraldo, Javier (1996) Colombia: The Genocidal Democracy. Monroe ME: Common Courage Press.

Leech, Garry M. (2005) "Blanket Coverage" Oxford Forum Issue 2.

Martz, John D. (1962) Colombia: A contemporary political survey. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Stokes, Doug (2005) America’s Other War: Terrorizing Colombia. London, UK: Zed Books.