The Media’s Drug War Propaganda
Last week, mainstream media correspondents based in Colombia again served as propagandists for Washington’s so-called war on drugs in the South American country. Following last month’s killing of 29 soldiers by rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), President Alvaro Uribe was determined to make a statement to Colombians and the world that his government was winning both the civil conflict and the war on drugs. However, in order to get his message out effectively, Uribe needed the international media’s cooperation. No problem. All he had to do was plan a counternarcotics offensive and have the military arrange a press junket to transport foreign correspondents from Bogotá to the operation zone. Inevitably, the spoon-fed reporters would quote the military officers in charge of the operation and comprehensively cover one side of the story.
On January 19, the Colombian military arranged a press junket for reporters from Reuters and the Associated Press (AP) to cover the manual eradication of coca crops in La Macarena National Park in southeastern Colombia. The two journalists obediently reported on the launching of the operation although they apparently could not agree on the number of troops involved (it was 3,000 soldiers, according to AP, and 1,500 soldiers and police in the Reuters version). Both articles only portrayed the Colombian military’s perspective of the operation to eradicate the coca crops.
The next day, more than 50 media outlets worldwide, including many U.S. dailies, carried the two wire service stories. The neutral title of the Reuters story declared, “Colombia Starts Clearing Coca from National Park.” The title of the AP version, however, sounded like a Colombian government or U.S. embassy press release: “Colombia Reclaiming Coca-Infested Region.”
Nowhere in the two articles do any of the military or government officials who arranged the press junket explain what, if anything, the government is doing for the estimated 5,000 impoverished farmers whose livelihoods are being destroyed. Also, nowhere in the articles are there any quotes from local coca-growing peasants that would help the reader understand how the operation was affecting the farmers and their families and what they thought about the military operation. And nowhere in the articles are there any quotes from the FARC explaining its perspective on the military operation that is allegedly targeting the rebel group’s funding.
Official press junkets, regularly organized by the Colombian government and the U.S. embassy, are a convenient way for correspondents based in Bogotá to visit remote rural regions affected by the civil conflict. The problem, however, is that the journalists are flown to the destination to spend a few hours with officials and be presented with a pre-packaged story. Inevitably, the official line dominates the published account.
For their part, the Colombian government and the U.S. embassy are fully aware of the mainstream media’s over reliance on official sources. Consequently, they regularly hold official press conferences or dispatch officials to public events such as the opening of a new factory or the launching of a new military operation. Government officials know full well that the media will obediently cover these events because they provide convenient stories and there is the slim possibility that an official just might say something newsworthy.
All the foreign correspondents based in Colombia often attend the same event so as not to be the only one not covering the “story,” meaning that several almost-identical versions of the same article will be published the following day. Government officials know that if they keep the media occupied daily with pre-packaged stories that portray government policy in a positive light, then reporters will be too busy to actually conduct any real investigative journalism that might raise serious questions about important issues.
Coverage of Colombia’s conflict and other important issues does not have to be conducted in this manner. Correspondents should work more independently and not passively accept an agenda dictated by government officials. Two, three, four or even five foreign correspondents covering a press conference by the U.S. ambassador, for example, only leads to the publication of as many as five almost identical articles. Instead, one reporter could cover an event such as a press conference (or none if the government cannot convince the media that it will address a significant issue), while the other correspondents would be free to investigate other stories. As a result, the public would benefit from a far more comprehensive coverage of Colombia. The mainstream media’s over reliance on official sources is one of the reasons that alternative, independent journalists focus on those viewpoints and stories routinely ignored by their corporate counterparts.
In the case of last week’s Reuters and AP articles, the journalists should not have based their entire stories solely on the official press junket. They should have traveled independently to the region and conducted a more thorough and comprehensive investigation of the operation instead of simply serving as a propaganda service for the Colombian and U.S. governments. Such a strategy would have allowed them to speak to coca farmers affected by the operation, interview FARC members (if they would have been willing) and actually get a feel for the situation on the ground beyond the confines of their official military guard.
While press junkets provide quick, easy and safe access to a story, they undermine the journalistic responsibility to thoroughly investigate an issue and avoid over dependence on a single source. While working independently might at times be dangerous in a conflict-ridden country like Colombia, the reality is that foreign reporters based in the South American nation are war correspondents and have a responsibility to comprehensively cover the conflict. An article based almost exclusively on a couple of hours of spoon-fed official views cannot be considered journalism. In fact, it amounts to nothing more than official propaganda.