Pubdate: Mon, 25 Dec 2000
Source: Chicago Tribune (IL)
Copyright: 2000 Chicago Tribune Company
Contact:  435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL 60611-4066
Author: Alfredo S. Lanier


Journalists Struggle To Cover A Civil War That They Can Easily Become 
Caught Up In, The Tribune's Alfredo S. Lanier...

BOGOTA, Colombia After nearly 40 years of civil war, killings, kidnappings 
and shootouts are routine fodder for Colombian newspapers and television 
stations--like traffic or weather reports.

While the conflict in Ireland has killed about 6,500 people and the Basque 
rebellion in Spain about 1,200, Colombia's bloodletting has claimed 
approximately 3,000 people a year. From 1995 to 1998, Colombia's 
human-rights ombudsman reported 708 massacres. Some estimates put the 
number of internal refugees in the country at 1.3 million.

Veteran reporters may have spent their entire careers writing about the 
war, while their younger colleagues, who weren't even born when it started, 
may feel they are covering history as much as news.

How the media should cover the war is a hot topic among Colombian 
journalists. There are no foreign enemies to demonize. Instead, human 
rights are violated by all the participants: the two guerrilla armies, the 
official armed forces and the bands of paramilitary thugs supported by the 
military, cattle farmers and property owners wanting protection.

When a war touches everyone personally, including journalists, objectivity 
or detachment can become mere pretenses.

According to El Tiempo, Colombia's highest-circulation and most influential 
newspaper, 19 journalists have been kidnapped, received death threats or 
fled the country during the past seven months.

Even Francisco Santos, a managing editor whose family owns El Tiempo, has 
been affected. He was kidnapped by narcotraffickers--an experience related 
in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book "News of a Kidnapping"--and later had to 
flee the country after receiving threats from the FARC guerrilla group.

The latest victim is Alfredo Abad Lopez, a 35-year-old television reporter 
gunned down in front of his wife earlier this month.

Last year, a group called Media for Peace published a pocket-size manual of 
style for reporters covering the civil war. It covers some obvious but 
essential terms. "Massacre" is the "indiscriminate killing of defenseless 
people." A "prisoner of conscience" is a "person detained for their 
ideological convictions, political ideals and religious beliefs."

Other entries include historical references, presumably for the benefit of 
younger reporters unfamiliar with all the protagonists, factions and events 
in this interminable war.

There are also definitions of slang coined by the combatants. Ganado 
(cattle) is what the guerrillas call army soldiers, who in turn refer to 
the insurgents as babosos (slimeballs). A nina (girl) to the guerrillas is 
a machine gun, and "make the big girl cry" is an order to fire the 
.50-caliber machine gun.

Even some Spanglish is included: Changon means "shotgun."

Former journalist Gloria Moreno de Castro, director of Media for Peace, 
said that because of deadline pressures, confusion and inexperience, some 
reporters write stories that distort events and create confusion and fear 
among the public. The 3-year-old organization mounts workshops for sharing 
war experiences and even organizes confidential encounters--"off de record" 
in Spanglish--to allow journalists to meet with some of the participants in 
the conflict.

About a year ago, El Tiempo established a "Peace Unit" of four reporters 
whose beat is covering Colombia's civil war. El Tiempo publishes special 
war reports on Sundays and Mondays.

It's a tricky beat, said Political Editor Hernando Corral, who heads the 
unit. "You have to keep a balance between covering the war without 
discrediting the peace process," he said.

Colombian President Andres Pastrana launched peace negotiations shortly 
after his inauguration in 1998. Corral says beats are rotated periodically 
to prevent reporters from becoming too cozy with their subjects, a 
journalistic version of the Stockholm Syndrome that leads kidnap victims to 
identify with their captors.

This past summer, the U.S. Congress approved $1.3 billion in mostly 
military aid, calling the anti-narcotics package Plan Colombia. Since then, 
U.S. government policies and declarations have come under the purview of 
the Peace Unit, Corral said.

Of particular interest now, he said, is the American propensity to define 
the two guerrilla armies as drug cartels. "If you stigmatize the guerrillas 
as cartels, then it's impossible to expect the government to negotiate with 
them," he said. "You don't negotiate with cartels any more than you 
negotiate with the Mafia. In that sense, Plan Colombia may become an 
obstacle to peace."

In fact, of all the definitions in the war-and-peace dictionary, "peace" 
seems one of the most elusive. "Public tranquility that arises from the 
achievement of justice, in opposition to war or turbulence," the manual 
says. "It defines the great objective of humanity about which, however, 
there is no agreement."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens