From Pistols to PR: Peru Siege Shifts to Winning Over Public

When Marxist guerrillas stormed the Japanese ambassador's residence in Lima a month ago and took Peru's elite hostage, the crisis soon developed a second battlefront: a fight for publicity.

The tense siege has shown the leaders of the Tpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement [MRTA] to be masters of propaganda. On slow news days, they put signs in windows and fired shots in the air. They released the least critical hostages on Christmas and New Year's. When journalists burst into the compound, rebels staged an impromptu press conference.

Through it all, Peru's government has tried to squelch media coverage - keeping an icy silence and denying media access to the compound. But the rebel PR may have achieved its desired effect. International media avoided calling the group terrorists, preferring more romantic terms such as young revolutionaries. Initial tough talk of killing hostages did not come through - on Wednesday, the rebels said they have no intention of executing hostages - but succeeded in grabbing headlines and topping newscasts all over the world.

Rebels agree to negotiate

The rebel announcement of their peaceful intent came the same day they agreed to participate in talks to end the month-long standoff - on the condition that all their demands, including the release of 300 jailed comrades, be on the table. President Alberto Fujimori has flatly refused that demand.

For the MRTA, a small group that has lived for 13 years in the shadow of the larger and far more violent Shining Path, analysts see the siege as the group's chance in the sun. "[Rebel leader Nestor Cerpa Cartolini] must have known he would never have his main conditions met," says Raul Gonzales, a Lima-based sociologist who has studied the guerrilla movement. "But he got his publicity, and will probably get a few minor concessions to boot."

Captives who were released said they had been treated well, while one former hostage even got Mr. Cerpa's autograph.

But the Robin Hood image is beginning to wear off as the siege drags on and reports of psychological torture have begun to filter out. Massive protest marches demanding the rebels free the 74 remaining hostages have been staged repeatedly.

Government silence

During all this time, the government has remained tight-lipped, steadfastly refusing to provide the press with any information or provide access to the rebels in the compound.

"The government lost a major opportunity to get its point across to the foreign press," said Sally Bowen, head of the Foreign Press Club in Peru, at a meeting last week about the lack of information. The foreign press corps totaled 700 at one point, the heaviest media coverage in Peru's history - even more than for a coup d'etat in 1992.

Mr. Fujimori, who traditionally has kept even his ministers in the dark, played down the criticism, saying caution was "necessary to protect the lives of the hostages during the negotiations."

While no one is certain what the government hopes to gain by silence, it has a long tradition of ignoring the media. In a border war with neighboring Ecuador in 1995, Peruvian officialdom clamped down on information while Ecuadorians flew the foreign press to the battle zone daily to get their view across.

During the present hostage crisis, the foreign press's frustration at the lack of news pushed a Japanese TV reporter and his Peruvian translator to sneak into the residence to interview the rebels.

The heavy hand of the government immediately came down on the pair, who were quickly arrested and interrogated at antiterrorist police headquarters for four days.

Their film, originally confiscated, was returned to Japan - but not before raising protests in journalistic circles over the detention.

In a belated bid to improve relations with the press last week, the government held a conference on terrorism, while Fujimori broke three weeks of silence with a barrage of interviews to some choice American media outlets.

But the public was outraged by a radio conversation between Peru's chief negotiator, Domingo Palermo, and Cerpa. In the conversation, leaked once again by rebels to the foreign press, Palermo laughed and joked with the rebel leader in an attitude seen here as submissive.

"It's going to upset public opinion," says Manuel D'Ornellas, editor of the Lima daily Expreso. "We can hardly criticize the foreign press when our own authorities are joking with people with such a dark past and a cruel present."

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