The Toronto Star's Coverage of the Colombia Conflict

A Letter from Joe Emersberger to the Star

Your coverage of Colombia's civil war has been extremely one sided and inaccurate in recent months. Anyone who relied mainly on your coverage of this conflict could be forgiven for having quite a distorted view of it. The impunity with which the Colombian government, often through its paramilitary allies, has killed and tortured its people is greatly assisted by media coverage that distorts reality. I implore you to consider what I say below and to do your part to deprive the Colombian government of this impunity.

Since April 4 you have published 14 articles that referred to the conflict. Five of them dealt directly with murders committed by the leftist rebels (FARC, ELN). None mentioned murders carried out by the Colombian government. Three made brief reference to murders committed by right wing paramilitaries, but their connection to the government was left unexplored.

Of the 14, by far the most detailed about the conflict was a 1011 word article by Oakland Ross ("Murder Shocks Colombians inured to violence",May 4). The conflict is boiled down to one between murderous rebels and a government that is at a loss how to restrain them. Ross stated that "Last year, left-wing guerrilla armies in the South American republic of 41 million people murdered approximately 3,500 civilians." This unsourced estimate flies in the face of what the world's most reputable human rights organizations have reported. Amnesty International's most recent report on Colombia stated that in the year 2002 "More than 500 people 'disappeared' and more than 4,000 civilians were killed for political motives.", but AI reported that "Paramilitaries operating in collusion with the security forces were responsible for the VAST MAJORITY [my emphasis] of 'disappearances' and killings of civilians." [http://web.amnesty.org/report2003/col-summary-eng] Human Rights Watch issued a press release on April 21 that said "Paramilitaries are the leading violators of human rights in Colombia" and that they "continue to operate with the tolerance and often support of units within Colombia's military." [http://www.hrw.org/press/2003/04/colombia042103.htm] For the Year 2001 HRW estimated that paramilitaries killed 1015 civilians. The largest rebel group (FARC) was estimated to have killed 197 civilians. [Http://hrw.org/backgrounder/americas/colombia-table.pdf].

The fact that paramilitaries allied with the government commit the "vast majority" of political murders is not only absent from Ross' article but from all the Toronto Star's coverage over the last two months. During this period the Star informed us of one minor crime committed by the Colombian military - the theft of confiscated drug money ("Troops helped selves to rebel drug money", May 21).

The Star presented the victims of the rebels as real people, not just statistics, in a way it never presented the victims of the paramilitaries. Ross, referring to a recent victim of the ELN, begins his article as follows: "She was a mother, a part-time university student, and a schoolteacher" We learn her name, Ana Cecilia Duque, and her daughter's, Elizabeth Serna. We learn that little Elizabeth appeared on national TV to read a letter that Ana Cecilia had written to her shortly before her death. Apparently this "murder immediately made headlines across the country."

Within days of Ana Cecilia'a murder the following atrocity was perpetrated in Betoyes by the Colombian army and paramilitary forces [http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAMR230432003?open&of=ENG-COL]:

"On 1 May soldiers of the XVIII Brigade, reportedly wearing armbands of the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia

and the Autodefensas Campesinas de Casanare, (ACC), Self-Defence Forces of Casanare, entered the indigenous communities of Julieros, Velasqueros, Roqueroz, Genareros and Parreros, hamlets of the indigenous reserve of Betoyes. In Parreros, gunmen reportedly raped and killed a pregnant 16-year-old girl, Omaira Fernández. Her stomach was cut open and the foetus pulled out. Omaira Fernández's body was placed into a bag, which was then reportedly thrown into the River Cravo."

AI reported that at least three other people were murdered by the paramilitaries in Betoyes that same day, and three other girls, ages 11, 12 and 15 were raped.

The atrocities did not make headlines across Colombia, nor were they mentioned in the Toronto Star. Given Ross' failure to mention, never mind humanize, the victims of the Colombian government, one is not surprised that he doesn't ask why the Colombian media would give the case of Ana Cecilia Duque such thorough attention while ignoring the case of Omaira Fernandez.

Ross' article ran next to a photo of the funeral procession for Ana Cecilia Duque. We must turn to Colombia's alternative media for an image that shows the impact of the atrocities in Betoyes [http://www.colombia.indymedia.org/?theme=1]. They show a picture of a few of the 327 women and children from who fled to the town of Saravena after the atrocities. Another 200 people fled into the jungle and were struggling to survive. The Colombian government's indifference to their plight provoked a 20 day work stoppage of public employees in Betoyes.

The Star obviously needs to look beyond Colombia's major media if it wants provide fair and accurate reporting.

Compare the detail given in the Star about Ana Cecilia Duque with what the Star tells us about the victims of paramilitaries. On April 27 in a 125 word "Brief" on page F04 we learn that "union leaders" were assassinated by right wing paramilitaries. This brief article dealt mainly with the fact that Coca-Cola's main bottler was being sued in the US for allegedly abetting the crimes. Who were these union leaders? What were their names, their children's names? Did their grieving relatives get to appear on national TV? And why are union leaders being targeted?

Unlike the Star, Amnesty International lets us know that the victims of the Colombia's government are real people. The following excerpt is from last May's issue of AI's monthly magazine [http://web.amnesty.org/web/wire.nsf/May2003/Colombia]. The article is entitled "More than 170 Colombian trade unionists murdered last year":

"Viviana María Villamil and Julio Galeano, her husband, were travelling to work one morning in February 2002 on their motorcycle. They were stopped in the street by men on another motorcycle. Julio Galeano was shot dead and Viviana María Villamil fled in terror of her life. The couple were active trade unionists involved in campaigning against the privatization of Cali's municipal utilities. Earlier, members of the Colombian armed forces had accused union members of being involved in a 'terrorist' plot to destabilize the city. An army-backed paramilitary group had declared members of the union to be legitimate 'paramilitary targets'."

The article reveals that "...trade unionists particularly targeted are public sector unions and unions representing workers in strategic sectors of the country's economy including oil, mining and energy." This helps explain why Colombia's government works with the paramilitaries. Though the drug trade certainly adds much fuel to the fire, the conflict has a lot to do with economic policies and the struggle for economic rights in a country with extreme inequality. Ross noted that Colombia has a "chronically unbalanced society, split between the very wealthy few and the impoverished masses." but draws no connection between this fact and the conflict.

Other references the Star has made to the crimes of the paramilitaries have been similarly brief and lacking in detail about the victims. On April 4 an article briefly notes that Colombia's largest paramilitary group has been added, along with the rebels, to Ottawa's list of banned terrorist groups ("Seven added to terror list"). On May 2 an article by Clayton Ruby makes the general statement that "Colombia remains the most dangerous place on Earth for journalists, who have come under murderous attack from leftist guerrillas, rightist paramilitaries, and crime barons." Neither article informs us that the paramilitaries commit most of the murders or provides any significant detail about their victims. The link between the paramilitaires and the Colombian government is also unstated.

To your credit you did run an article about Amnesty International's assessment of the "war on terror" ("Allies under fire for war on terror", May 29). The article did specify Colombia as one of a group of countries around the world where there has been"'a heavy toll on human rights and human lives,' yet little international attention." But such a brief and general statement can't begin to correct the distortions created by the rest of your coverage over the past two months.

Ross quoted a political science professor who said that drug legalization in the US would end the conflict. The article implies that the rebels would be starved for funds if the profitability of the drug trade were drastically reduced. We do not learn in Ross' article, or anywhere else in the Star over the last two months, that the paramilitaries receive 70% of their funding from the drug trade [Http://hrw.org/backgrounder/americas/colombia-table.pdf].

The Star should not hesitate to contact the Toronto based En Camino network (http://www.en-camino.org/index.html) for alternative news and analysis about Colombia. Surely you have the resources to investigate the following incidents that a recent article of theirs documented [http://www.en-camino.org/july052003podur.htm].

On June 8, in Riosucio, Caldas, 4 indigenous activists were murdered and 4 others severely wounded in a paramilitary attack [http://colombia. indymedia.org/news/2003/06/4070.php].

On June 14 in the Afro-Colombian community of Zabaletas, Buenaventura, paramilitaries killed 5 people This last incident is apparently part of a campaign to expel Afro-Colombians from territory where mega-projeacts are planned [http://colombia.indymedia.org/news/2003/06/4176.php]. In January, Human Rights Watch reported that "over two hundred thousand Colombians were forcibly displaced in the first eight months of 2002, most by paramilitaries." [http://hrw.org/wr2k3/americas4.html]

You are not likely to find confirmation of these incidents on Colombian national TV or in its major newspapers, but journalists should be able to look beyond mainstream sources.

In an interview with Colombia's, El Tiempo, on June 30, paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño inadvertently provided a searing indictment of the US media. He said he was "relieved that now we are no longer being lumped into the same basket as the FARC and the ELN." [Http://www.worldpress.org/Americas/648.cfm] Serious questions need to asked of media that the most murderous groups in Colombia are basically pleased with. I'm afraid Castaño would also be "relieved" by the way the Star has reported on Colombia in recent months.

The Toronto Star does a better job of publishing a wide range of views and analysis than any mainstream newspaper in Canada that I'm aware of, but your coverage of Colombia's civil war has been terribly distorted. Please help saves the lives of innocent people by doing a better job of reporting on Colombia in future.

Regards,
Joe Emersberger

PS: I can provide a list of the articles I looked at if you wish.

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