Civil War in Black and White ; A Novel Approach, as Colombia's News Media Debate How to Cover Violence

Article excerpt

The kidnapping of a journalist would be headline news in most countries. But here in Colombia, the reporter's own news organization said nothing.

"We refused to treat it as news, that's all," says Jos Vicente Arizmendi, director of a noontime news program here in Cali, Colombia's second city.

That's not to say the crime wasn't important. But Mr. Arizmendi, and Colombia's media in general, are going through a remarkable change in how they cover violence.

Increasingly, editors and reporters here are asking themselves if they're helping or hurting the country climb out of a spiral of violence now in its fourth decade. The situation involves drug cartels, paramilitaries, an Army propped up by US aid, and rebels including Tirofijo, or Sureshot. In his 70's, he is perhaps the oldest Marxist-in-the-mountains, leading an estimated force of 15,000.

Regarding the abduction, Arizmendi says, "We knew they were pressuring us to deliver a message through his kidnapping. We considered it absurd that the rebels would use this method, and so we became involved in his rescue, but didn't report on events as they unfolded."

Arizmendi says that due to his program's refusal to cover the abduction, the rebels got into the habit of sending press releases - just like the other actors in what is now the Western Hemisphere's longest-running civil war.

Several weeks ago, Felipe Zuleta, another a television news director, came up with his own unusual decision. While editing footage from the sort of massacre that usually rules headlines in this nation that sees 20,000 murders annually, he decided his program was giving the war too much attention, or perhaps the wrong kind. Above all, he thought, there was too much blood.

So Mr. Zuleta decided to depict the violence in black and white and to preface the images with the words No Mas (No More). The slogan has been appearing on banners around the country for about a year as citizens protest the more than 200 kidnappings that occur each month. Most are carried out by three major leftist rebel groups, who finance their war against the government and rightist paramilitaries with ransoms, taxes on the cocaine and heroin production chain, and extortion.

Zuleta wanted to protest the violence. "This is the correct way to use the mass media: for showing solidarity with the people of this country, all of whom are victims of violence," he says.

The proposal initially won consensus among newspaper and television news chiefs. But only a few programs have gone black-and- white so far. While El Tiempo, the leading daily newspaper, has added a small black rectangle emblazoned with the protest slogan to its layout, El Espectador, second in circulation, has preferred not to adopt it.

The strongest impact has been the debate swirling in opinion and letters pages of newspapers and on TV talk shows. One reader complained, "This is a campaign that won't transcend its own publicity-seeking spirit."

Lus Can, editor in chief of El Espectador, also believes the issue goes beyond a slogan. …