April 05, 2008

MEDIA-COLOMBIA: Unraveling the "New" FARC Announcement

by Diana Cariboni

Colombian and international media outlets reported Thursday and Friday that the FARC guerrillas had "ruled out" the release of Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt in an article issued after a French emergency medical mission to save the gravely ill hostage got underway. The problem is that the FARC statement is actually more than two weeks old.


It was the Caracas-based Telesur network that first reported the article by the FARC. "The FARC consider the request for the release of Ingrid Betancourt unacceptable" was the headline of an on-line report posted by Telesur at 2:02 PM Thursday.

The Telesur report stated that one of the signatories of the FARC article "published Thursday by the Agencia de Noticias Nueva Colombia (Anncol), the so-called foreign minister of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Rodrigo Granda, described as ‘unacceptable’ the request for the release of former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt as a new unilateral gesture that the Colombian government has set as a condition for freeing imprisoned guerrillas and moving towards an eventual humanitarian swap" of hostages for prisoners.

But the Stockholm-based Anncol, which is sympathetic to the FARC, had published the guerrilla group’s article in Spanish on Mar. 20, under the headline "Raúl Reyes, the path of life in spite of death". It was signed by Granda and Jesús Santrich and was dated Mar. 19.

And what Granda and Santrich were actually describing as "unacceptable" was "that they are asking us for further gestures of peace, when after so many reliable demonstrations of our political will to find solutions to the conflict, we are maligned and slandered in response."

With a little fact-checking, IPS found the Mar. 19 FARC article Thursday on the Anncol web site, which was down on Friday. But the cached Google version of the article can still be seen at: http://ipsnoticias.net/fotos/ANNCOL.htm.

Shortly after Telesur reported on the Mar. 19 article as if it were new, Colombia’s Caracol Radio station and El Tiempo newspaper placed the news on their web sites, error and all.

The "news" continued to spread, as it was picked up by international agencies and published in turn by the press in the region and around the world, with a few exceptions, like IPS, the French daily Le Monde and the Bogotá weekly El Espectador.

Why did so few reporters and editors take a moment to check the content of the FARC article? Perhaps because everyone was waiting for a FARC response to the desperate humanitarian mission sent out from Paris?

The French government of Nicolas Sarkozy dispatched its delegation to Colombia, including two doctors and two diplomats, on Wednesday with the difficult mission of finding Betancourt in the jungle and providing her with medical assistance, and if possible, rescuing her.

The backdrop to this situation includes a week of rumours on Betancourt’s critical state of health, with contradictory versions of her supposed heavily guarded visit to a health post in a remote jungle village and alleged witnesses who claimed that she was dying.

Betancourt, a French-Colombian citizen, has been held captive by the FARC since 2002 and is reportedly suffering from hepatitis B, leishmaniasis (a tropical skin disease), malaria and severe depression.

But there is no certainty that the French humanitarian mission will be successful, due to the lack of public signs that the FARC have agreed to release the most valuable of the 37 or so hostages they are still holding with the aim of trading them for some 500 imprisoned rebels.

Another aspect ignored by the media was the fact that the FARC article was not signed by the insurgent group’s leadership, the secretariat of the "Estado Mayor Central" -- an important detail when it comes to verifying whether a message from the rural guerrilla group is official or not.

But while the article thus cannot be taken as an official FARC response to the French medical mission or to President Sarkozy’s urgent calls this week for Betancourt’s release, the 2,644 word message does contain newsworthy aspects.

It is the first time that members of the insurgent group say there will be no more unilateral gestures on their part, after the release of six hostages in January and February -- which the FARC described as a show of goodwill for the mediating efforts of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and Colombian opposition Senator Piedad Córdoba -- and Colombia’s Mar. 1 bombing raid on the camp of FARC international negotiator "Raúl Reyes" in Ecuadorean territory.

That places the FARC in a difficult position: if they are indeed determined to hold on to their strongest bargaining chip, Betancourt, to the very end, they stand to lose much more as a result of her death than a chance to negotiate a hostage-prisoner swap with the government.

Given that Reyes, and shortly afterwards another member of the FARC secretariat, Iván Ríos, were killed while the rebel group was holding talks on the hostage issue with emissaries from several European and Latin American countries, it is clear that "we are right to demand increasing safeguards and guarantees when any kind of meeting is involved," says the article by Granda and Santrich.

"We will undoubtedly become more exacting, and we will only trust our own guarantees. There will be no government-guerrilla meeting, for example, without the existence of a demilitarised zone," they add, referring to one of the FARC’s key demands for talks: the withdrawal of the army from a large area in southwestern Colombia.

The article also includes a paragraph that takes an unusually harsh tone towards the hostages: "All of the captives are responsible for fuelling the war, from Ingrid on. And we should clarify that none of them are in worse conditions than Simón Trinidad or Sonia (FARC guerrillas who were extradited to the United States, where they are in prison), or than many of the political activists and community leaders who have been imprisoned even though they are not guerrillas."

But this is not the first instance of sloppy or careless journalism committed in the last few months in coverage of the Colombian armed conflict.

For instance, the press in the region invented a series of relationships in the FARC, taking the alias of Reyes’ girlfriend, "Olga Marín", as her real name, and concluding that she was the daughter of FARC chief "Manuel Marulanda", whose real name is Pedro Antonio Marín.

According to that creative FARC family tree, "Olga Marín" was the sister of Luciano Marín, the real name of another member of the FARC secretariat, "Iván Márquez".

And during the tense episode when the region’s foreign ministers were meeting at Organisation of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington to attempt to repair the unprecedented rupture of relations between Bogotá and Quito over Colombia’s incursion into Ecuadorean territory, the El Tiempo newspaper published a photo of the recently murdered Reyes alongside a man who was identified by the paper as Ecuadorean Interior Minister Gustavo Larrea.

A few hours after the Colombian government distributed copies of the photo among the delegations attending the OAS meeting, the secretary general of Argentina’s Communist Party, Patricio Echegaray, publicly stated that he was the man in the photo, which was taken while he conducted an interview with Reyes that had been published in several media outlets.

All of these blunders were easily avoidable with just a tiny bit of fact checking.

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