Imagine the massive scandal that would hit your government if your people, for example through the media, found out that your own security forces have been murdering compatriots to cook the books on their effectiveness.
God forbid this would ever happen in your country, but if it did, the newspapers and television networks would be boiling with extensive reports on what would be by far the biggest scandal in the history of your country.
Consequently, your government would most likely take political responsibility and step down. If the government refused to voluntarily resign and call new elections, an impeachment process or a motion of no confidence would force new elections. Judicial authorities would be investigating the entire chain of command to establish who was culpable for the deaths of your compatriots.
I bet you can’t even imagine the rage and indignation that would sweep the nation after the unfolding of such a scandal.
In Colombia, we have actually had such a scandal; approximately 1,900 members of the army massacred at least 3,000 fellow Colombians across the country in a massive and widespread attempt to up their combat kills on the state’s military advances against guerrilla groups.
However, and this is what strikes me as weird, we have hardly seen any public indignation in Colombia and not one government official has stepped down. Opposition parties have protested fiercely in the House and Senate, but they were in no position to gather a congressional majority that could impeach then-President Alvaro Uribe or force then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos to resign.
So what the hell actually happened and why is nobody angry?
In 2006, then-senator Gustavo Petro denounced the systematic killing of civilians in Congress. Non-governmental and government organizations were also denouncing the practice. But nothing happened.
Not until two years later, when on March 30, 2008, The Washington Post reported that “under intense pressure from Colombian military commanders to register combat kills, the army has in recent years also increasingly been killing poor farmers and passing them off as rebels slain in combat, government officials and human rights groups say.”
In its report, the Post said that at that point the Prosecutor General’s Office was investigating 525 killings of civilians, “all but a handful of which occurred since 2002.”
Again, nothing happened and Colombian media stayed quiet.
It wasn’t until September 26, 2008 when weekly Semana came out with a detailed report about the kidnapping of young men from the city of Soacha, who were later found in mass graves in the north of Colombia, that other media picked up on the story and the killings began to have consequences for those in power.
27 members of the military were sacked and army commander Mario Montoya, a convinced apologist of the aggravated homicide of thousands of civilians, resigned and was appointed ambassador to the Dominican Republic.
Also at that point, what used to be called “extrajudicial killings” began being called “false positives,” a euphemism at best if you look at it linguistically.
I have been looking up on Wikipedia and dictionaries to find out what the right word would be to describe the ongoing massacring of civilians, because in my opinion as a journalist, it is important to attempt to correctly describe reality. By failing to correctly describe the truth, you contribute to the distortion of truth, either making it look worse or better than it actually is, and therefore disobeying the first principle of journalism dictating that “journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.”
Here’s a description of what I found in Wikipedia that came closest to what had been the reality in Colombia:
Mass Murder by a state
The concept of state-sponsored mass murder covers a range of potential killings. It is defined as the intentional and indiscriminate murder of a large number of people by government agents. Examples are shooting of unarmed protestors, carpet bombing of cities, lobbing of grenades into prison cells and random execution of civilians. (source: Wikipedia)
Mass murder, says Wikipedia, “is the act of murdering a large number of people (four or more), typically at the same time or over a relatively short period of time.” If I understand the English language correctly, the Colombian state has been guilty of “systematic” mass murder, as the different cases of army members killing civilians occurred across units and across the country.
In Colombia however, we do not speak of “state-sponsored mass murder” or the “intentional and indiscriminate murder of a large number of people by government agents.” Instead, Colombian media began using a term curiously derived from medical jargon:
Medicine/Medical . a test result that is incorrect because the test indicated a condition or finding that does not exist. (source: Reference.com)
Now, how the hell have we come from what is globally defined as “state-sponsored mass murder” to “false positives?”
Obviously, a government spin doctor came up with the euphemistic term “false positive” to conceal the more gruesome, but correct “state-sponsored mass murder.” I mean, geez, imagine what would happen if the Colombian people found out the army had systematically been murdering and terrorizing the same people they were supposed to protect in order to conceal its apparent ineffectiveness to fight illegal armed groups. From the then government’s point of view I can imagine that reality did indeed need a massive spin.
“They didn’t go there to pick coffee, they went with criminal intent.”
October 7, 2008
Initially, Uribe continued to lie about the already established mass murder of civilians, indicating that the victims were the criminals, while Santos refused to step down despite being asked to by the opposition.
One week after the Semana article was published, the term “false positives” was first publicly spun by Armed Forces commander General Freddy Padilla.
But how is it possible that the term became commonly used in all major media outlets within a period of a few weeks? What happened there? How come from one moment to the next all media started using the spin doctors’ newly invented term?
There is a massive discrepancy between the actual reality and the description of the reality. Are we, journalists and bloggers, not supposed to recognize when something is being spun into something that contradicts reality? Should we not correctly attempt to describe reality instead of promoting a distortion or denial of that reality?
And how is it possible that, six years after the government was alerted and investigators have been working around the clock, that public figures — those saying that the Prosecutor General’s Office has registered 3,000 victims — are chronically unmentioned in any news report and consequently unknown to the general public?
Do you know how easy it is to get the numbers? I just called the press office of the Prosecutor General’s Office asking for the public data and five minutes later had all the information on how many victims there were, how many cases were ongoing, how many soldiers had been convicted or absolved, everything. And believe me, I am really not that smart. It was all done in a jiffy and with minimal effort.
However, I have not found one Colombian who was able to tell me how many victims there have been. The media basically failed to either make the call that I made, or failed to inform their audience.
Colombia’s mass media, either because they are idiots or because they collaborated with the government in covering up the scandal, actively helped the government spin the term of “false positives” while systematically failing to inform Colombians on how many of their fellow citizens fell victim to this “state-sponsored mass murder.”
So, thanks to Colombia’s media outlets, public indignation was avoided, leaders were not forced to take political responsibility, and the army was able to claim they were the victim of stigmatization and are now dubbed “heroes of the motherland” who have “faith in the cause.”
Thanks to the despicable role of these media sources, and thanks to the media’s continued systematic refusal to do their job properly, nobody has a clue about why and under whose orders thousands of Colombians had to die.