Friday, June 06, 2008

The FARC Gets A Bad Press

There has been a huge amount of press coverage recently concerning the FARC guerrilla group in Colombia and allegations concerning the contents of laptop computers that we are told belonged to the FARC commander Raúl Reyes, who was killed a few months ago just across the Colombian border in Ecuador. Some of this coverage betrays the true nature of much of what passes for journalism these days. “News” appears on agency feeds and then multiplies across other outlets as numerous rewrites are done without any real verification or analysis taking place. The story about the FARC supposedly preparing attacks in Madrid was a perfect example of this, hardly anyone seemed to pause for thought or examine the story until the next day when a few people pointed out that there is also a city called Madrid in Colombia! The version of events being presented is always that of the Colombian government, who seem determined to internationalize Colombia’s internal conflict with selective leaking of information said to have come from Reyes' laptop.

It is cases like this that mean I find it quite funny when the blogosphere comes under attack from “professional” journalists because of its lack of standards. The benchmark for poor quality and one-sided reporting of the issue was set a few weeks ago in a very extensive report in El País by Maite Rico focused on alleged connections between the FARC and Hugo Chavez. This is one of the articles. I remember thinking when I read the original articles that I was simply being fed the Colombian government version. The articles combined selective quotes said to come from documents on Reyes’ laptop together with anonymous Colombian sources being used to provide the interpretation required to establish the connection to Chavez. Now there is not necessarily anything wrong with using anonymous sources as long as there is a good reason for them being anonymous. In the case of Rico’s articles it seems fairly clear that her sources were from the Colombian security services and the reader is entitled to know that and how it impacts the version of events being presented.

The week after Rico’s reports appeared the section of the paper dedicated to readers complaints was entirely taken up with responses to these articles that criticised the one-sided and poor quality nature of the reporting. In her dismissive reply Rico made the surprising, and absolutely false, claim that Interpol had certified that the computers concerned belonged to Reyes. They did no such thing, and anyone who actually reads the Interpol report will know that this was only a technical report on whether the documentation had been manipulated since the day on which Reyes was killed. Nothing else, in fact the report makes it clear that there was no investigation of any kind carried out concerning either the origin of the laptops or the content of the documentation. So either Rico hasn’t read the Interpol report or she just decided its conclusions needed a bit of embellishment. The idea that Interpol has “authenticated” the laptops and their contents has become quite widespread, when all they have done in reality is state that there is no evidence of the documents having been subsequently altered. Which is not the same as saying it didn’t happen, and is certainly not the same as saying that the documentation is genuine or belonged to Reyes.

Apart from anything else I wouldn’t mind having one of these laptops, they survived a significant military bombardment entirely unscathed; as did the external hard drives also said to have been recovered from the scene. Now if I wanted to be malicious I could suggest that the reason for the timing and bias of the El País reports is because the owners of the paper, Grupo PRISA, are engaged in a bid for a licence to operate a television station in Colombia. However, my anonymous sources tell me that this is just an interesting coincidence.

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