Colombia is full of complex interactions and disruptions when it comes to understanding its long-lasting armed conflict. Journalists and big media groups have played a fundamental role in defining what this conflict really is and describing the situation to the population. How are news reporters portraying the panorama? Is there a biased standpoint where journalists reinforce the role of certain institutions? This article intends to show that Colombian journalism has portrayed a hegemonic war narrative, favouring mainstream views, degrading the `opponents´ and defending the State.
Political instability, geographical complexity and drug-trafficking dynamics have all participated as shaping agents of the Colombian conflict. Violence has been present in the country since its independence in the eighteen-hundreds. However, that unfriendliness intensified during the 1940s, when political and ideological clashes between civilians gave birth to a period called `La Violencia´.
Hostility has remained for decades and it increased with the big blast of the drug cartels during the 1980s. Ever since, the Colombian armed conflict has been a messy melange involving left-wing guerrilla groups, paramilitary bodies (which are anti-guerrilla organisations), drug dealers, the National Armed Forces and inter-departmental gangs.It seems to be the case that nobody knows who is shooting against who anymore.
Journalism has defined the battleground by performing simple actions, for example, labelling the different armed actors involved. Using the terms paramilitary groupsor guerrilla groupsin a reportage has a clear impact on the way in which the conflict is shaped and understood.
Organisations such as the FARC (Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) or the ELN (National Liberation Army) have been usually referred to as guerrillas. This denomination (setting aside the fact that they might be good or bad) does no justice to the political intentions and organisational aspirations that those groups may have. They probably chose their own names for a reason and certainly do not want to define themselves merely as guerrillas.
Those armed groups became then `the enemy´. Being the villain of a journalistic story means that those `irregular organisations´ are excluded from the political community and that the State, through the good-old soldiers, has the right (and why not, the obligation) to destroy them.Hence, guerrillas are portrayed as the uncivilised, disorganised and barbaric groups. This classification is also related to the idea of framing, where only certain features or items are selected in order to define and understand a particular problem. Revolutionary armies might just happen to be on the nastier side of the frame.
Some well-known journalists in the country openly pledge guilty to having `a side´ and a biased opinion towards the issue. Such is the case of Salud Hernández, a Spanish columnist and reporter that boosted her career in Colombia. She admits that, when she reported on the conflict, she deeply believed the FARC were criminals. Furthermore, she has always been in favour of supporting strong governmental institutions. Hernández acknowledges that she faced the complex problem of providing impartial reporting and, at the same time, having her own personal beliefs of who the enemy is.
Sensibility and lack of knowledgeseem to be a pattern. Marisol Gómezis an editor for El Tiempo, one of the biggest newspapers in Colombia. She remembers how she once sent a letter to a guerrilla member´s relative, demanding to know why the so-called guerrillas were involved in such cruelty and unfairness. The recipient indeed replied, saying to Marisol that she did not have even a clue of what living like a guerrilla member was, and that things looked different from the other side. Since then, this editor has acknowledged that she completely ignored what was going on at “the enemy´s” headquarters. How do they live or what do they think? Do guerrillas see themselves as the bad guys? The issue seems to be of little importance, since most of the coverage tends to praise Colombian Armed Forces, describing how precise and brave their operations are.
Unbiased and reliable reporting of the armed conflict in Colombia presents several constraints. Legal restrictions, economic interests and political propaganda are some of the major limitations. In a country where media groups have direct links with politicians and where independent reporting might be seen as `subversive´, it is virtually impossible to attempt any coverage that does not make an us-and-them distinction, clearly defining who are the good guys and who are the villains.
For the journalist Maria Elvira Bonilla, it is Álvaro Uribe Vélez, former Colombian President, the one defining how the story is being told. Uribe has a strong position against guerrillas and through promoting a hegemonic coverage on the conflict he might be getting what he wants: beat them in armed combat.
In such a panorama, alternative media could perhaps be a potential tool to describe the conflict in a different manner. These alternative channels might be a way to externalise what is yet unsaid. However, an alternative solutionimplies changing the habits of a country that has been always oriented towards mainstream reporting. Is Colombia ready for a change regarding media consumption? After more than six decades of ruthless conflict, everything seems to remain quite as it has always been.
As explained by (Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2009)
This can be corroborated on their own websites: https://www.farc-ep.co/nosotros.htmland https://eln-voces.com/category/voces-del-eln/nosotros/
(Cammaerts & Carpentier, 2009)
(Arango Martínez, 2018)