Government's Propaganda vs. Indigenous Media Perspectives

Achi Bedea, the virtual radio voice of ONIC ( Saturday, October 18, 2008 Media Representations of Popular Mobilizations Ignore the Movement'sMessage By Mario A. Murillo (Bogotá, Colombia) Six days into the Indigenous and Popular Mobilizations in Cauca (and the rest of Colombia), and it is fair to say that the propaganda war is well underway. And so far, it looks like the government of Alvaro Uribe is winning. On Friday, the President held another press conference stating that they had “clear evidence” that the mass popular protest in Cauca was being controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, FARC.


The Commander of the National Police, General Óscar Naranjo, stated unequivocally that the Sixth Front of FARC was behind the disturbances. And at the Palacio Nariño, the Minister of Social Protection, Diego Palacio, stated, with a straight face, “the government continues to respect social protest and mobilization, as long as it is for civil causes,” adding that the sugar cane workers strike and the indigenous mobilizations of the past few days contain the presence of “destabilizing forces.” These words are echoing throughout the media as I write this, and will undoubtedly go on for hours on the radio and TV broadcasts, as well as the websites of RCN and Caracol, the two mega-giants of Colombia’s mass-commercial media. The government’s claims are also among the top stories in the front-page of El Tiempo, and other major national and regional newspapers, and it has almost become conventional wisdom in the last few days because of the capacity of the Uribe Administration to set the agenda, present its arguments to domestic journalists with indignation and authority, and come off as the victim once again. And the indigenous movement’s demands for justice are set aside as they face off against the Colombian Army and Police in La Maria, while their leaders are forced to deny the charges directed against them by those in authority. Who do you believe? Looking over the last few days of news coverage on some of the major news sources, the imbalance of perspectives is unbelievable.


On Friday alone, I scoured through over 25 news articles and dispatches on the websites of RCN, Caracol, El Tiempo, El Liberal and Noticias Uno, the first three being the media of record in the country, with a massive reach that is unchallenged, the latter two representing a local newspaper from southern Colombia, and an independent, national news channel that provides some of the most comprehensive investigative reporting in all of Colombia. Naturally, many other media are covering the developments in the south, and it will take some time to filter through it all. What was most telling of this brief scan of these news media outlets was the wide array of sources that were cited providing the government’s perspective, and the very few voices that were cited providing that of the indigenous movement. President Uribe, General Naranjo, Minister Palacio, as well as the director of the DAS, Colombia’s equivalent of the FBI, María del Pilar Hurtado, were quoted repeatedly throughout the sample, stating again and again how they have exposed this nefarious plan to topple the Uribe government, manifested in both the sugar cane workers strike and the indigenous protests. Hurtado was quoted in one report in El Tiempo saying that “the cane workers strike in Valle del Cauca and Cauca contained the participation of foreigners who were looking to destabilize the government,” without providing any names or other evidence.


The accusations about the FARC’s role in the indigenous protests appeared in 19 of the 25 articles I collected in this limited period, with at least ten not even presenting the indigenous community’s response (I should point out that as I was going through these news articles, I had Caracol Radio turned on in my desk, and over a period of about two hours, the same correspondent reporting from the Presidential Press conference came on at least four times, with dramatic soundbites from the President and Minister Palacio). No doubt, the government’s message was getting out through its communication channels. On the other hand, the sources used from the indigenous movement were very limited. The one voice that was heard/quoted again and again was that of Daniel Piñacué, a Nasa leader from Belalcázar, in Tierradentro, Cauca, who has a long history in the indigenous movement, but who was not one of the principal organizers of the mobilization. He was quoted in several of the articles in this small sample, stating “that the mobilization will continue,” and that “we will continue to respect the authorities, while they provoke us.” On several occasions he denied the accusations about FARC infiltration in the movement, but only after the case was already made by several of the above-mentioned government officials. On several reports from RCN Radio we heard the voice of Daniel Piñacué’s brother, Jesus, one of the most visible indigenous personalities in the country, having served on the Senate for several terms. Only in one report, notably on Noticias UNO, did a voice representing the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca, ACIN, come through in the coverage, a significant oversight given that ACIN was one of the main organizations behind the protest. They and CRIC, the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca, have been putting out communiqués and reports for weeks about the march, and have been calling on the government to meet with them to discuss their demands, but to no avail.


Meanwhile, the entire narrative contained within the press coverage of the past several days remained stuck on the battles unfolding on the Pan American highway, and who was to blame for the violence. Television images have shown the army and police using gunfire, which in a sense refutes the government’s claims that no live fire has been used on the protesters. But again, commanders on the ground have been given top priority, presented as the voice of reason against a horde of indigenous protesters running wild. The coverage has been fundamentally about the violence, while the underlying reasons for the mobilization have been relegated to the trash bin of history. The concerns and demands of the popular movement were made completely irrelevant. It is difficult to imagine that the media workers covering this story are not even partially aware of the issues the communities are raising in the protests, but in some of the coverage the ignorance comes across loud and clear. For example, in one report in El Tiempo, which to its credit was about the International Federation of Human Rights’ criticism of Uribe’s handling of the protests, the author states: “The Indians initiated the encounter last week in commemoration of 516 years since the discovery of America, what they call the displacement.” Nowhere in the piece, or in any other articles I tracked in this sample, were the five points being put forth by the indigenous movement mentioned, even in passing. If even a fraction of the movement’s fundamental concerns were made known to the public in the reporting, and the fact that their main purpose for the mobilization was to start a dialogue with the government about these concerns, the repressive response from the government to the protests probably would have been a lot clearer – and indeed much more intolerable- for the average viewer. The movement is not remaining silent, but very few media are really paying close attention to what they’re saying. If one were to read from the missive the “Popular Minga” released on Thursday, their arguments are pretty clear and make perfect sense within the current context. For example, in response to the constant accusations that FARC is behind the movement, they write: “Let us be clear: If there are Indians involved in the insurgency, or any other armed group, it is a personal decision of theirs that goes against our organizational and community process.” The communiqués and the actions of the movement have always taken a position of autonomy vis a vis the guerillas. The ACIN and CRIC have publicly denounced FARC for its incursions into its territories. Nevertheless, the Uribe government continues to make the unsubstantiated link in an attempt to avoid any dialogue with the communities. This fact does not come through in any of the coverage whatsoever, leaving the audience in a permanent state of being misinformed.


Taking it a step further, the indigenous movement is always trying to make the point about the “dark forces” behind the current regime, something that the news media consistently overlook. The same government that accuses the movement of being manipulated by FARC is in many ways illegitimate in the eyes of the popular movement, as they expressed clearly in their missive released on Thursday. Perhaps one day we will see the news media echo these claims as often as they present the charges of the government against the movement: “The majority of the members of Congress that support the government of President Uribe, those legislators who have elaborated and approved the laws that displace us of our rights and our liberties, occupy their official spaces with the backing of paramilitary groups, and are involved in the Para-politics scandal currently under investigation. Neither they nor the laws they have approved have any degree of legitimacy.” The reasons for the protests, which are based on a profound critique, not only of the current government but of the entire system itself, are not elaborated on in the media coverage for the obvious reason that it goes against the interests of those same media, and the political class they serve. A lot has been written about how the commercial mass information and cultural industries continue to perpetuate profound myths about Colombian democracy and society. This is done on several levels, most prominently in the way reporters, editors, commentators and the like accept the institutional definitions provided by official sources to frame the so-called fringes of society. For generations, this marginalization has also been manifest in the way state institutions have limited the spaces whereby these dissenting community voices may be heard, although precisely because of the years of organizing around media and democracy, this latter approach has been curtailed considerably. Colombia, despite its very fragile democratic institutions, has a long tradition of community, citizen's based media projects that consistently challenge the corporate media. The indigenous communities currently mobilizing throughout the country around five basic points have their own media channels, and are utilizing them extensively as the current crisis unfolds. There are 26 indigenous radio stations around the country licensed as public interests broadcasters, plus a constellation of other smaller, low-power community stations broadcasting to local indigenous communities. In the department of Cauca, the indigenous media are perhaps the most effective and well organized, particularly that of the ACIN, whose communication network includes one public interest station in Santander de Quilichao, two community stations – one in Toribio and the other in Jambaló – a smaller, low-power station in Canoas, plus a video production team and an elaborate website ( The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, ONIC, also has its own website, which includes a virtual radio station, Achi Bedea, which for the last several days has been streaming the voices of indigenous activists from every region of the country. These and other indigenous media outlets are linked to the broader network of national, alternative media, such as IndyMedia-Colombia, SICO, SIPAZ, La Red de Prensa Alternativa del Sur del País, among many others.


They have been working feverishly in the last week to present an alternative narrative to the corporate media. In many respects, they have been successful in gathering support on an international level, and getting NGOs and other human rights groups to pay attention. I would argue they have not been as successful in getting progressive and independent media outlets in the U.S. to pay attention. Unlike developments in Oaxaca a few years ago, which received considerable coverage by the independent media movement up north, this latest struggle in Colombia is barely on the radar screen of media such as Democracy Now, Pacifica Radio and Alter-Net, media that are completely caught up with the presidential campaign in the U.S. In this regard, the alternative media movement and the social sectors they represent here in Colombia has a long way to go in terms of penetrating the agenda of like-minded folks in the U.S. The bigger question at the moment is whether or not the indigenous community and alternative radio stations and media networks in Colombia can counter-act the damaging effects of the mainstream media’s overwhelming tendency to give an unfiltered voice to the official authorities, especially on radio and on television news. It is part of a pattern that has gone on for many years in the Colombian news media that is not easy to break. When it comes to coverage and representation of indigenous communities, the tendency of the mass communication media has been consistent: they either ignore the communities by making them invisible, clump them all together in a process of homogenization, thereby negating their diversity and complexity, or present them as nothing more than passive actors, the poor, defenseless victims of an unjust system – “el pobre indio.” There is also the more benevolent yet equally harmful tendency of celebrating their exotic-ness, embracing the novelty of their different forms of dressing, their spiritual and healing practices, or their internal justice system, without really understanding the significance of each.Radio host of Voces de Nuestra Tierra, community radio in Jambaló, Cauca, promoting the mobilization two days before its start. Meanwhile, when the communities take matters into their own hands in acts of massive protest and mobilization, as they are currently doing, the dominant media usually represent these situations as acts of criminality, emphasizing their tendency to break the law–block highways, occupy territory “illegally,” etc.–as a way to address their grievances. The unsubstantiated association with “dark forces of terror,” meaning the FARC guerillas, becomes the accepted message that is very difficult to refute for the people directly involved in the confrontations. These faulty patterns of media coverage leave the audience with the perennial question, why would people behave like this if they can employ the legitimate instruments of the democratic system to promote their interests and seek redress from the dominant society? I’ve heard it repeated by many people here in Colombia, even those one would normally consider to be enlightened: “Those Indians in Cauca are always looking for trouble, and they constantly want more.” The current backlash against indigenous organizations that are on the upswing under the Uribe administration has made it much more difficult for the movement to put forward its message of social transformation through peaceful means to the broader public, especially through mainstream channels. This is connected to the fact that, with very few exceptions, the Colombian mass media rarely if ever represent the complex organizational structures of indigenous communities, characterized by deliberative consensus building, grassroots participation, and leadership accountability. All of this should not be surprising, given the institutional structures that have for decades characterized the Colombian media, structures specifically put in place by very powerful private and state interests who are naturally threatened by the kinds of issues being raised by the communities and their allies in the popular movement. I’ll have more on this in a future post. Luis Evelis Andrade, president of ONIC, with Roberto Cobaria, U'Wa council of chiefs, at ONIC press conference on October 15th.