No. 86, Sept. 7-13, 2000

About AGR

Colombia: missing in action
How the Citizen-Times distorts news about Colombia

By Brendan Conley and Eamon Martin

Asheville, North Carolina, Sept. 7— The Asheville Citizen-Times underreports and distorts news about Colombia, an Asheville Global Report analysis has found. These reporters analyzed news coverage of Colombia by the Asheville Citizen-Times during the month of August, 2000 and found that the Gannett-owned paper failed to report on significant events and chose articles that slanted and distorted news.

Newspapers have a responsibility to act as watchdogs, informing the public of significant issues and events, and turning a critical eye on powerful interests in our society, especially the government. As the United States government involves itself more deeply in Colombia’s civil war, Americans look to the media to learn what is happening. Newspapers must therefore report extensively and accurately on issues of human rights, war crimes, and US involvement.

The month of August was a hot one for Colombia. As President Pastrana began to implement his “Plan Colombia,” an attack against drug traffickers and rebel armies, he met profound opposition from civil society, and an offensive from the rebels. As the Colombian military and paramilitaries massacred civilians on several occasions, including women and children, President Clinton exempted the Colombian government from human rights restrictions that would have prevented the US donation of $1.3 billion in military aid toward “Plan Colombia.” Clinton visited Colombia, saying that the money was only for anti-drug efforts. Let’s look at how the Citizen-Times informed its readers about Colombia last month.

What got left out

In analyzing coverage of Colombia by the Asheville Citizen-Times, the first problem one encounters is that there is not much of it. In the month of August, the Citizen-Times ran ten articles on Colombia, totaling 2,400 words. By way of comparison, Asheville Global Report ran articles totaling 3,700 words on Colombia in the month of August. (This does not include AGR’s Spanish language reporting on Colombia, a total of 2,500 words.) AGR, of course, is a weekly newspaper that publishes approximately 1,200 fewer pages per month than the corporate daily. The Citizen-Times does not seem to have anything against Colombia; rather, the lack of reporting on that nation is symptomatic of a larger lack of substantive news. The Citizen-Times regularly devotes more space to its Sports and Living sections than to international news. The volume of news is important. Readers – citizens – cannot be expected to inform themselves about current events when such a small amount of information is available. Sound bites and 150-word blurbs can only treat the subject in a shallow way.

The Asheville Citizen-Times showed a pattern of ignoring and distorting key events in Colombia last month. To be fair, it may be impossible to accurately cover a month’s worth of a nation’s major events in only 2,400 words. But within that limited volume, the Citizen-Times made choices about what to inform the public about, and what to keep under wraps. Here we look at seven major events in the month of August. All of these events were reported by mainstream wire services and were available to any major media outlet. They were all reported in Asheville Global Report. We summarize each event, explain its newsworthiness, and analyze the Citizen-Times’ reporting of it.

August 3 general strike: Approximately 700,000 workers staged a one-day general strike to protest the government’s economic austerity measures, and high unemployment. Police used tanks, water cannon, and tear gas to force the protesters to disperse. The event is newsworthy because of the size of the work action, and because it demonstrates the unpopularity of the government at a time when the US is aiding the government. The Citizen-Times did not report on this event.

August 7 machete massacre by paramilitaries: Paramilitary groups slaughtered at least 13 civilians, including three women. Some of the victims were hacked to death by machetes. The event is newsworthy because it is a war crime committed by the paramilitaries, which are linked to the Colombian government, at a time when the US is preparing to give $1.3 billion to the Colombian military. The Citizen-Times did not report on this event.

August 10 statement by Carlos Castano: Carlos Castano, the leader of Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary death squads, claimed that he had received a message from US anti-drug agents requesting his help in wiping out the drug trade. The statement is newsworthy because it alleges a connection between agents of the US government and the paramilitary groups, which have committed human rights violations and have been implicated in the drug trade as well. The Citizen-Times did not report on this event.

August 15 massacre of children by Colombian army: The Colombian army massacred six schoolchildren on a field trip. The event is newsworthy because it is a war crime committed by a military force that is funded and trained by the United States. The Citizen-Times reported on this event on August 19, four days after it happened, and two days after Asheville Global Report covered it. The Citizen-Times devoted 154 words to this event.

August 23 waiver of human rights conditions: President Clinton signed a waiver exempting the Colombian government from human rights conditions that would have prevented it from receiving US military aid. The decision was opposed by Members of Congress and human rights groups. The event is newsworthy because it contradicts the claims of Clinton and other government officials that human rights are a priority in US foreign policy. The Citizen-Times did not report on this event when it happened, though it was mentioned briefly in a Sept. 4 article.

August 26-27 massacre by paramilitaries: About 150 paramilitary soldiers massacred 22 civilians in two separate attacks, pulling some from their beds and some from a dance hall. The event is newsworthy because it is a war crime committed by the paramilitaries, which have ties to the Colombian government and alleged ties to the US government. The Citizen-Times did not report on this event.

August 30 visit by Clinton to Colombia: President Clinton traveled to Cartagena, Colombia, to symbolically deliver $1.3 billion in military aid, ostensibly to fight drugs. Protests erupted around the country, though the Colombian government banned demonstrations in Cartagena. The event is newsworthy because of the size of the aid package, and because it demonstrates the extent of US involvement in Colombia. The Citizen-Times reported on this event on August 31, devoting 346 words to it.

So what did the Asheville Citizen-Times report about Colombia during the month of August? Two of the ten articles are referred to above. Of the remaining eight, five are reports of attacks and other actions by the rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Of these, three are short articles of 100-200 words. The other two articles are more substantial, and they are essentially the same, though they ran five days apart. They report on rebel killings of Colombian police and raise the question of whether US aid should be used to fight guerrillas in the civil war, rather than just fighting drug traffickers. The other three articles are: a short report on US training of Colombian troops, a short report on the opposition to Plan Colombia, and a more substantial report on the concerns of Colombia’s neighboring countries about the civil war.

Distorting the news

Beyond simply reporting the facts about events taking place in the world, newspapers must inform their readers of the issues behind the events. We analyzed the Citizen-Times’ treatment of some of the primary issues involving Colombia and the US role in the civil war. First, it should be noted that the articles in question were Associated Press dispatches; they were not written by Citizen-Times staff. However, the Citizen-Times editorial board is ultimately accountable for their selection. The editorial act of selection is an exercise in power that carries enormous responsibilities with profound implications for a citizenry whose public trust and political engagement with its government depends on the media. Bearing this in mind, after reviewing Colombian events in the month of August as presented by the Citizen-Times, when held against the complete spectrum of available news, what emerges is a consistent pattern of bias by issue omission and issue emphasis.

Choosing sides: One way to distort the news is to tell the story of a conflict from one side or the other – to use humanizing language that encourages the reader to identify with people on one side of the conflict, and to see people on the other side as enemies. On August 1 and 6, (“Killings of Colombian police raise questions on limits of US aid” and “Colombian police fearful,” respectively) we learn that Colombian police officers’ hands are tied because the US Black Hawk helicopters sent by the US “to fight rebels and others who protect drug crops” are legislatively out-of-bounds for counter-insurgency warfare. As a result (we are told in great, humanizing detail) the police are virtually defenseless, and in one instance were “one by one…shot to death,” after rampaging “guerrillas…had attacked a small mountain town.” This is a political scenario in which “officer Jose Borney Trujillo nervously surveys the forested mountains where leftist rebels roam virtually unimpeded,” and where “word has come” to his “tiny police outpost that Colombia’s biggest rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia now executes policemen captured after attacks.” The police “say that without reinforcements, they’d be overrun and likely killed.” The terrified Trujillo was quoted as saying, “They will kill us all…we won’t be able to surrender and ask for mercy.”

In the latter article, in case the reader should miss the point, journalist Andrew Selsky drives it right on home to the US with the desperate, who-will-save-us-now call for the hero, typical of the preliminary, strategic propaganda prose style used by journalists to generate public support before an escalated military intervention. We learn that “whether reinforcements save them…hunkered down in their brick building, which is laced with chicken wire to repel hand grenades” could “depend” on the “interpretation” of the military aid agreement. The police are under siege. “The officers say they could fend off a large assault for several hours, but that reinforcements would have to arrive quickly.” “Rescue from the air is the best hope,” Selsky asserts. And, “Tolemaida military base, where US special forces have been training army counternarcotics troops, is only about a five-minute flight away.”

The police officers, of course, are human beings, and their fear is real. It should be noted, however, that they are official agents of a government that is fighting a civil war. The school children killed by the army and the villagers hacked to death by the paramilitaries are human too, and the stories certainly lend themselves easily to the sort of heart-rending journalism that the Citizen-Times employs to describe the police officers. Yet the Citizen-Times chose AP articles that humanized police officers and chose to leave out articles that humanized the victims of the army and the death squads.

The Citizen-Times is not unique in its bias. This pattern of distortion is being repeated in every corporate media outlet in the United States. It serves the function of providing the government with a public that is ready to believe in the need for greater US involvement in Colombia.

In reality, of course, US weapons are already being used against the rebels; just two weeks after President Clinton signed the aid bill, the Black Hawks were employed to repel a July 30 FARC offensive in the town of Arboleda. Arboleda is a town in coffee-producing western Colombia, where neither coca nor poppy is grown. Some government officials are pushing for greater use of US weapons in Colombia. In fact, just a few days earlier, on July 25, US House International Relations Committee Chair Ben Gilman (R-NY) had complained that the helicopters hadn’t been used to thwart an attack on July 14. “Since the US Embassy maintains the absurd fiction that US aid could only be used for counter-narcotics purposes, the Black Hawks were not called in,” he said.

The missing paramilitaries: Another way that the news media distort the news is by ignoring reports of killings by the government and death squads, as we saw earlier, and overemphasizing attacks by the rebel armies.

In the Citizen-Times World Digest of August 9, a news brief explains that the US helicopters “are to seize vast swaths of drug-producing areas from the FARC and other armed groups.” As in the Selsky article which identifies the criminal suspects as “rebels and others who protect drug crops,” we’re never informed who these mysterious “others” are. There is never any mention that the government-linked paramilitaries have as much of a hand in the drug trade as the FARC.

Four days later, the Citizen Times informs us in another, 171-word, World Digest tidbit that the FARC released hostages, among them, an “American.” The next day, in the same section, the FARC will be blamed for a car bomb explosion. The day after that –August 15, while the Colombian army was busy massacring six school children— we discover in the Digest that the most significant thing about Colombia is an almost heartwarming, little “human interest” tale in which American biologist John Lynch has only “one regret” after he “emerged from captivity at the hands of leftist rebels.” The freed hostage “did not find a caecilian - a giant wormlike creature he’(d) been hunting for years.”

In the month of August, the Citizen-Times reported rebel attacks five times, and military and paramilitary attacks once. This serves to distort reality for the reader, as the military and paramilitary activities are far more numerous and deadly. As Cecilia Zarate-Laus of the Colombia Support Network told AGR, “There are more killings by the paramilitaries and the army than by the guerrillas. The guerrillas are not saints, but the paramilitaries and the army are much worse.”

Underreporting a massacre: The Citizen-Times’ reporting on the massacre of children deserves a closer look here. We are talking about civilian children as young as six years old being slaughtered by a military force that is trained and funded by the United States. As mentioned before, on August 19 the Citizen Times, within 154 words, caught up to the massacre. Immediately after the first two paragraphs of the article introduce its central thrust, the Colombian army’s suspension of 41officers and soldiers “allegedly involved” in the killings –presumably, exemplary evidence of the military’s capacity for self-correction and self-cleansing—a paragraph appears, dead center, that has nothing to do with the story whatsoever. In fact, it is as garish as it is clumsy in its appearance: “Also on Friday (August 18), the police said two other children were killed, and five people injured, by a bomb planted by the Revolutionary Armed Forces Colombia, the country’s largest guerrilla army.”

The article then continues: “Military investigators are examining the claims of top army officials who say the six students were shot during a fire-fight between rebels of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, and government troops.”

Without even touching the inherent dubiousness of “military investigators examining the claims of top army officials,” subsequently these “claims” have since proven to be lies, as yet uncorrected or clarified by the Citizen-Times. According to interviews of the survivors and eye witnesses in Pueblo Rico, on August 15 no kind of armed confrontation occurred between the insurgency and the Colombian army. The children’s group was attacked for 47 minutes with firearms and fragmentation grenades.

It’s worth noting that the Citizen-Times wasn’t alone in this distortion. Incredibly, this report of the Colombian army battling left-wing troops that in truth were not there at all made the media rounds pretty quickly. On August 16 the Washington Post, deep inside on page A32 in “For the record…,” a one paragraph synopsis of a few world events, 29 words read: “schoolchildren were killed in cross-fire between government troops and leftist rebels.” The same day, on page A12, the New York Times, in a 52 word article reported that the children were “caught in the cross-fire of Marxist rebels fighting the army.”

This is important. Eight days after this massacre, President Clinton signed the waiver exempting the Colombian government from human rights conditions that would have prevented it from receiving the $1.3 billion US military aid. One could imagine a scenario in which newspapers across the country carried front-page stories about the massacre, American citizens became outraged at this misuse of their tax money, Clinton was forced to obey the law regarding human rights restrictions on US aid, and the US contribution to Plan Colombia was canceled. But because the Citizen-Times and the rest of the corporate media failed to inform the public, the money has been delivered.

The Citizen-Times headline on August 31 read: “Clinton visit supports antidrug plan.” Next to the article was placed a photograph of a student spray painting “Yankee Go Home” on a banner painted like a US flag during a protest in Bogota. The picture is the only indication of political opposition to Clinton’s presence in Colombia at a time when turbulent protests were breaking out all over the countryside in direct response to his arrival. This news piece all but trumpets the president’s trip, and in describing the necessity of the military aid falls just short of describing the visit/aid package as benign and benevolent. It is mentioned that during Clinton’s brief stay, he will “meet Colombian National Police and talk with widows of police officers who have been killed in the line of duty. Later, he will go to tour…one of 20 centers funded by the US Agency for International Development that gives Colombia’s poor greater access to the justice system.”

What’s missing from all of these articles is any mention of the actual form of “aid” the US has been providing to the Colombian poor: the US Army’s School of the Americas (SOA), located in Fort Benning, Georgia. Colombia has sent over 10,000 soldiers to train at the SOA – more than any other country. A recently released Human Rights Watch Report on Colombia cites seven SOA-trained Colombian military for recent human rights atrocities and for support of paramilitary forces. The report entitled, “The Ties That Bind: Colombia & Military - Paramilitary Links” documents the involvement of SOA grads in kidnapping, murder, massacres, and setting up paramilitary groups. Likewise, the 1999 US State Department Report on Human Rights – as in previous years — links SOA graduates to current atrocities in Colombia. All of this is invisible to the corporate media.

The US involvement in Colombia’s 36 year-old civil war is by no means a trivial matter in which the core issues can be succinctly abbreviated to 150-word, World Digest briefs about the plight of the caecilian. This comprehensive news distortion might concern any US taxpayer compelled to think critically about their direct involvement in the escalated promotion of what is one of the bloodiest arenas of human rights abuses in the world today.


back to top


about | subscribe | contact

Entire Contents Copyright 2001 Asheville Global Report.
Reprinting for non-profit purposes is permitted: Please credit the source.