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Q&A: Victims in Colombia Are Gagged, the Public Misinformed

Interview with Father Javier Giraldo

BOGOTÁ, May 2 2007 (IPS) - When a murder occurs in a Colombian community, the locals know who committed it: far-right paramilitaries, leftwing guerrillas, or the security forces. They also know if fighting really took place, or if the “enemy” bodies displayed on television as “trophies” by army officers were in fact dead civilians.

Jesuit priest Javier Giraldo Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado

Jesuit priest Javier Giraldo Credit: Jesús Abad Colorado

A large proportion of the casualties in Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict are civilians. The violence between leftist rebel groups on one hand and rightwing paramilitary militias and government forces on the other is further fuelled by drug trafficking, corruption and impunity. Amid the chaos and pressure from all sides, local people are in the best position to know precisely what happened.

But the truth seldom makes it into media coverage, says Jesuit priest, sociologist and human rights expert Javier Giraldo, founder of the Inter-Church Justice and Peace Commission, who spends his time with communities in the most violent regions of the country, provides them with legal advice and gives voice to their accusations.

In Colombia, “the people cannot communicate with the people,” and the right to information and communication does not exist, except for a small minority, Giraldo said in an interview with IPS ahead of World Press Freedom Day (May 3).

Giraldo runs the Human Rights and Political Violence Databank of the Centre for Popular Research and Education (CINEP), which has been keeping a tally of the killings for 19 years.

Without its records, the memory of tens of thousands of killings, cases of torture and forced disappearances over the duration of the war would have been lost. He is also a motive force behind the Never Again Project, an appallingly long chronological list of crimes against humanity committed since 1965, in every region of this South American country.

As an advocate, Giraldo represents victims in Colombian courts and in the inter-American justice system. He teaches peasants and indigenous people the importance of filing complaints about human rights violations, and how to take their cases before oversight authorities or international tribunals, as well as the use that can be made of the International Criminal Court, which will have jurisdiction in Colombia from 2009.

IPS: You have a view at national level of what is actually happening in Colombia, and what gets published about it. Tell us about that split.

JAVIER GIRALDO: I have been in villages in (the southern province of) Caquetá where you could basically say that during the 1980s, no youngster over the age of about 15 had escaped being tortured. Torture was extremely widespread. When did that make the news? None of these crimes, which were documented by local bodies, ever came to light in the national media. And there were hundreds of them.

What version of our national reality is the majority of the population being fed? An image is being created for mass consumption that is nowhere near the real truth, especially with respect to human rights questions.

Press freedom must be distinguished from the right to information. It could be said that freedom of the press exists in Colombia, in the sense that someone with a great deal of money can open a media outlet and cover the news and express opinions as he or she wishes. Within limits, of course, because if the information goes beyond certain parameters, the media begin to run risks.

That’s why even very well-known and respected journalists have been talking about self-censorship for many years now. Here in Colombia, reporters know that their opinions cannot stray too far from the official view, because it is very risky for that to happen.

The problem in Colombia is that there is no right to information. The right to information means that people can have access to the truth, and that most people, or at least organised sectors of society, can communicate what is happening and their own reading of it to the general public. That is not possible in Colombia.

IPS: Isn’t the Internet changing that?

JG: Internet is available to a very small sector of the population, such as intellectuals. But for the vast majority of Colombians it’s not accessible.

IPS: Why is that?

JG: Because of economic reasons.

IPS: How much does an hour on the Internet cost in a region that you have visited lately?

JG: It’s not just about the cost of an hour or a minute. The problem is everything it requires in terms of technical skill and level of education, which only a very small stratum of the population possesses. The vast majority rely on television and radio news programmes, because even the written press is out of the reach of many people. People can’t afford to buy a daily newspaper. It’s too expensive, and a large proportion of the population has no culture of reading, or reading habits, either.

The fundamental problem is that information is conceived of as a commodity, and I would say that it ought to be seen as a public service and one of people’s basic rights. Because the people can’t communicate with the people. Only a few privileged layers of society can communicate, and they distort reality according to their own interests. They, certainly, have the right to communicate.

IPS: What view do the victims of violence take of journalists?

JG: I see the truth of the victims as a silenced, gagged truth. In the first place, because of fear, because of the terror that has spread everywhere and that intimidates people, so that the victims and their families are completely inhibited from speaking out or protesting. As long as that is the case, I think that there is no possibility for truth, justice and reparations in this country.

But there is also the pressure on the big media. People know very well that when the media arrive at a place where a tragedy has occurred, the reporters don’t want to get involved. They just hold the microphone up to the survivors and witnesses, for them to speak into, and just let them bear all the risk.

The same thing happens when the authorities give out misinformation. Suppose there’s a massacre that’s attributed to the army, and the reporter comes and puts a microphone in front of the nearest army officer. He gives his version, and there is no cross-questioning to probe whether his version at least has a credible basis. It’s just a dogma that must be believed by the whole country. And the reporter’s job finishes there. And that’s how we have swallowed mountains of false information.

At the Databank that I coordinate, in the last year we have taken the decision not to continue to publish information about so-called war operations. Because we gradually discovered that the only source of information we had to report these events was the press, and the press merely reflected military sources.

IPS: The guerrillas are another available source of information about casualties. What difficulty do you have with them?

JG: They are not impartial.

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