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The FARC Calls for a Debate

The Retention of Romeo Langlois

by CHRIS GILBERT

A couple of weeks ago Colombian guerrilla force FARC-EP, in the midst of a nation-wide offensive involving combat on several fronts, retained French journalist Roméo Langlois. The facts will be explained in the paragraphs that follow, but what’s most interesting is the debate that the case inspires – a debate that the guerrilla itself is promoting.

Langlois was effectively an embedded journalist with the Colombian army, having donned both helmet and armoured vest. In the midst of frontline combat in southern Colombia, he was lightly wounded. To save himself, and given that the FARC had gained the upper hand in the confrontation, Langlois shed helmet and vest and ran towards FARC lines. There, to his good fortune, he was taken prisoner of war and given prompt medical treatment.

Langlois can easily be interpreted as a military, non-civilian prisoner. Not only was he embedded – which is enough to question the innocence of any aspiring Pendennis – but the nature of some of his reporting involves montage that exceeds mere partiality. In a video report, Langlois presented the story of what appears to be a FARC deserter. The reporting clearly has a great deal of theater of the “let’s make believe” rather than “all the world’s a stage” variety.

Langlois’ dubious claim to civilian status (especially considering that the Geneva Convention holds that uniform-wearing war correspondents may be fired upon and taken prisoner) did not prevent Piedad Córdoba of the organization Colombianos y Colombianas por la Paz from intervening in his favor, asking for his quick release and expressing confidence that such a release would happen soon. Now, in a curious turn of events, the FARC has informed that Langlois’ release will be conditioned on having a national dialogue about the media and freedom of expression (www.rebelion.org/noticia.php?id=149277 ).

How grateful one has to be that there are still a few voices that promote dialogue and conversation! That such an alleged Occidental value as rational debate appears today to be exclusively promoted by armed groups (or until-recently-armed groups, like the Basque nationalist left) confirms the validity of FARC “chancellor” Rodrigo Granda’s now legendary response to Fidel Castro’s “battle of ideas” campaign: “I agree,” Granda said in a public event, “but the battle of ideas often needs to be accompanied by a bit of shooting”.

So there you have it: a battle of ideas about media censorship and freedom of speech – all of it helped along because there a few firearms and prisoners in the offing. The first idea that comes to mind, apart from the very interesting points that the FARC makes in its communique about the state’s systematic aggression against any dissenting voice in Colombia – is the beautiful symmetry of the situation. Almost exactly one year ago Colombian authorities, with the collaboration of the Venezuelan government, retained Colombian-born Swedish journalist Joaquin Pérez Becerra, who ran the Anncol website. Today Pérez, who is not a FARC militant but a sympathizer, is still in prison.

Now, on the highly dubious assumption that rationality is not confined to the jungle and mountains of Colombia but actually has a foothold in the government of Juan Manuel Santos, one could imagine a kind of interchange. A kind of mutual “let’s leave journalists out of this” agreement. Enlightened and Occidental, no? Still, it’s not likely to happen, since letting a glimmer of rationality into the cavern of mediatic lies in which Colombia’s government maintains its urban masses might dangerously inspire some kind of collective conscientization process.

Faced with its non-responsive, non-rational opponent, the FARC has taken a clear lead (1-0) in its battle of ideas with the government. So far so good. The most disturbing possibility, however – against which the FARC explicitly warns in its communique – is that the government will attempt a still less rational response: a dangerous and irresponsible a military rescue.

Final note: As a matter of clarification, the FARC’s decision in February of this year to desist in retaining civilians as a means of financing itself obviously does not apply to Roméo Langlois’ retention. It is therefore not a breach. It is worth pointing out that the procedure of retaining civilians was anything but the delinquent practice that the state represents it to be, since it was punishment for not paying taxes in FARC-controlled regions, taxes specified in the revolutionary Law 002.

Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.