Civil war in black and white

A novel approach, as Colombia's news media debate how to cover violence

The kidnapping of a journalist would be headline news in most countries. But here in Colombia, the reporter's own news organization said nothing.

"We refused to treat it as news, that's all," says Jos Vicente Arizmendi, director of a noontime news program here in Cali, Colombia's second city.

That's not to say the crime wasn't important. But Mr. Arizmendi, and Colombia's media in general, are going through a remarkable change in how they cover violence.

Increasingly, editors and reporters here are asking themselves if they're helping or hurting the country climb out of a spiral of violence now in its fourth decade. The situation involves drug cartels, paramilitaries, an Army propped up by US aid, and rebels including Tirofijo, or Sureshot. In his 70's, he is perhaps the oldest Marxist-in-the-mountains, leading an estimated force of 15,000.

Regarding the abduction, Arizmendi says, "We knew they were pressuring us to deliver a message through his kidnapping. We considered it absurd that the rebels would use this method, and so we became involved in his rescue, but didn't report on events as they unfolded."

Arizmendi says that due to his program's refusal to cover the abduction, the rebels got into the habit of sending press releases - just like the other actors in what is now the Western Hemisphere's longest-running civil war.

Several weeks ago, Felipe Zuleta, another a television news director, came up with his own unusual decision. While editing footage from the sort of massacre that usually rules headlines in this nation that sees 20,000 murders annually, he decided his program was giving the war too much attention, or perhaps the wrong kind. Above all, he thought, there was too much blood.

So Mr. Zuleta decided to depict the violence in black and white and to preface the images with the words No Mas (No More). The slogan has been appearing on banners around the country for about a year as citizens protest the more than 200 kidnappings that occur each month. Most are carried out by three major leftist rebel groups, who finance their war against the government and rightist paramilitaries with ransoms, taxes on the cocaine and heroin production chain, and extortion.

Zuleta wanted to protest the violence. "This is the correct way to use the mass media: for showing solidarity with the people of this country, all of whom are victims of violence," he says.

The proposal initially won consensus among newspaper and television news chiefs. But only a few programs have gone black-and-white so far. While El Tiempo, the leading daily newspaper, has added a small black rectangle emblazoned with the protest slogan to its layout, El Espectador, second in circulation, has preferred not to adopt it.

The strongest impact has been the debate swirling in opinion and letters pages of newspapers and on TV talk shows. One reader complained, "This is a campaign that won't transcend its own publicity-seeking spirit."

Lus Can, editor in chief of El Espectador, also believes the issue goes beyond a slogan. "Just as it's necessary ... not to exploit violence for attracting readers, it's also necessary ... to inform Colombians about their reality with sufficient context and background," he says.

The debate itself has been simmering for some time. Dozens of letters cram the dailies every time news cameras cover the release of hostages, alleging that the thirst for ratings, plus new tools for live coverage, have increased sensationalism and insensitivity to human suffering.

In July, a mass e-mail invited Colombians to "boycott the media on August 11 ... to manifest disagreement with how the theme of violence is being handled." While organizers admit few people responded, they say the goal was to provoke debate. Mara Cristina Alvarado, a journalist who supported the effort, says, "The idea wasn't to oppose the mass media, but to reflect about what kind of media we want." Ms. Alvarado, who worked 10 years for El Espectador, has started the Press Agency for Peace. As of December, she hopes to publish a monthly menu of stories on communities working against violence. A similar effort is Media for Peace, a loose-knit group that circulates bulletins on the Internet and holds workshops about covering the war.

All told, Colombia is diverging from the experience of its neighbors, many of whom have also lived through periods of violence. Peru may be an exception, since the press and television went through an editorial transformation in the 1980s on covering attacks by the Shining Path and Tupac Amaru guerrilla movements. In print, the rebels were banned from the front page; on the screen, they were limited to a minute.

"[The rebels] wanted to draw attention ... in order to raise the level of terror," recalls Alejandro Miro Quesada, assistant editor of Lima's El Comercio.

In El Salvador's and Nicaragua's conflicts, stretching across parts of the past two decades, the media were either censored by one side or aligned with another. The soul-searching now seen in Colombia didn't take place, whether due to external forces or design.

Just last month, the business community here joined the fray. ANDA - an association of 85 companies that represents 95 percent of television advertising - issued a statement protesting "the tremendous daily dose of crime, kidnappings, attacks, and rapes." The association recommended that commercials not be aired during violent programs.

In another case, internationally renowned journalist and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garca Mrquez recently purchased the newsmagazine Cambio. He has said, "The irresponsibility and improvisation stemming from the ... 'scoop syndrome' are finishing off journalism here, and will wind up finishing off the country."

As Colombia's media debates its role in facing the country's troubles, the solutions they arrive at will be more than black-and-white.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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