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Essay
Last Updated: 06/21/2017
Common Things: Communication, Community, Communal Peacebuilding
Lina Patricia Forero Martínez

“I do not have thin fingers, as a farmer, my hands become part of the land and its fruits… I need this thick tombs for nurture the vegetables.” Maria Emma Prada is a “countryside lady” in her own words. A woman which has stood up for the rural women in Colombia.

She is one of the most important leaders in Colombia of ANMUCIC (National association of indigenous, afro -descendent and peasant women of Colombia) a main organization of women of the country.

Maria Emma is a refugee in Costa Rica since 2000. Her life and her family were threatened, on the one hand, by paramilitary groups, fuelled by the false news that emerged about her as part of the guerrilla in the national media. On the other, given her efforts to gain access for her organization to the peasant production and infrastructure government projects, the guerrillas believed that she was a collaborator and informant to the Colombian army. She had no choice but to leave the country.

There is an abysm between the facts and the human rights discourse in Colombia. Despite that the National Constitution consecrates Human Rights as a part of the fundamental rights of Colombian people, reality is way too far of the written laws.

Media is part of this huge gap, owe that, instead of promoting the citizen participation in accordance with an attempt of a negotiation of the armed conflict through peaceful means, it has contributed to the re -victimization of people in the countryside and people of social movements, as well that it has facilitated to all sides – guerrillas, paramilitaries and the government – to legitimate the atrocities of war by focused in heroes and villains actions.

It is necessary that media and journalism help to rethink the country that we are and the country we want to be from a human right´s perspective in the new Colombian post – conflict scenario.

Keywords: Colombian conflict, media propaganda, evil, grassroots media, women organizations, victims, communication.


In recent years, the peasant movement in Colombia has played an important role in social struggles; in the defence of the right to land, food security, autonomy, human rights and in the negotiated political way out of the armed conflict. Women specially have been developing processes of resistance against the illegal armed groups as paramilitaries and guerrilla groups, trying to keep life itself, within the war, within the lack of recognition of their valuable work in the rural areas, within the absence of policies that favour peasant, afro and indigenous women.

“It is amazing, even though women on the countryside work a lot, keeping the concept of home, being the real economists in each family, women always have to be the secretary, the person who cooks in the community meetings, or to arrange all the logistics aspects… men take all the visible positions in the social organization… I was tired of this and I just organized myself with a lot of women of my small village… we are trustable, our words are always honest, we can mobilize people with the organization of activities… more action, less words than men”[1]

Maria Emma remains a tireless activist, a precursor of her history, a citizen of a thousand achievements, always ready to link other women to contribute with their own knowledge and experiences in a decisive and hopeful moment for the future of Colombian society.

She is an example of how women resilience lies in its historical role as caretakers of community, as nourishment givers, as support of their families to resist the ravages of war. Their role as caregivers, protectors of life, childhood lookouts, midwives, as the ones who know traditional and native medicine, and their leading role in the household economy, have been contributory in rebuilding the social texture of communities’ victims of war in Colombia.

By 2000, national media never talk about how ANMUCIC work was changing the fate of the communities submerged in the conflict and crossfire among guerrilla, paramilitaries and the Colombian army. They didn’t report how Maria Emma went to a little town nearby the border with Venezuela to build projects with the women to replace coca crops. No. The secretary of government of Norte de Santander Department accused her to be “friend of the guerrilla” and to be “part of the political advisers of Tirso Vélez, a well-known terrorist of the FARC that militates in the UP party[2]”(Prada, interview 2016).

Two weeks after Maria Emma received in her home an obituary, announcing the ceremony of the burial of her daughter, husband and herself. It was given a month to leave their farm.

She left everything she had and with her family she went to the department of the Amazons, and months later she received a call from the same person who gave her the obituary, telling her that she knew what she had done with her UP fellows, and that they would hound her. She decided to ask for help from an NGO that managed to get her an asylum in Costa Rica.

Before Maria Emma left Colombia, she sought the local press to do an article cleaning the name of ANMUCIC, because she knew of threats that other women had received. The local press ignored her request, and all the time, until 2011, ANMUCIC has been the victim of many threats and two of its leaders were killed.

Press and media in the conflict context is a representation of the political postures of the moment. Owners of the media have invisible bosses – senators, majors, the political party in the government – and sometimes, especially in rural areas, the owners are the same landowners, cattlemen, coffee growers, politicians, traditional power-holders; “when considering media and particularly media in tension areas, media structures usually reflect the political structures existent in the society at large”. (Blondel, 2003, pp. 14)

To that traditional power, FARC guerrilla was more than a menace: kidnapping and the steal of livestock were the menu of the day. Meanwhile, peasants organized themselves to recover the lands that actually these men took from them. Therefore, the idea of sell the rural movements as part of the guerrilla had a great effect in the public opinion.

Blondel accurately illustrates this idea, talking about the roles of media in violent conflicts, within the four key components of the conflict, especially the attitudes, in which media is closely related. “The conflict component related to attitudes encapsulates the psychological aspects and those related to “soft power” resources such as the credibility of actors and the legitimacy of norms” (Blondel, 2003, pp 13). In fact, the position of media, its “attitude” of suggestion, of be suspicious regarding the political state of social movements was enough to grow distrust to organization as ANMUCIC, and of course, for blaming Maria Emma as part of the guerrilla.

“I wasn’t being friend of FARC, of course, you need to have a permission to go in to the territories controlled by them… I asked for the permission, they knew what had been up to, and they guaranteed my safety in their zones… but I had a problem with them, because I was asked to be in the Congress tv channel talking about the programmes of the rural secretary of the department and how that helped ANMUCIC… then the guerrilla ordered me to never come back because I was supposedly a government informant, so I was threatened by all the illegal armed groups” (Prada, interview 2016.

The above paragraph of the interview shows the political arena in which media was playing in to. Media just was being part - and actually structuring – the competition dynamic of promoting their own version of the stories. “For example, in order to be able to point out who is “good” and who is “bad” and thereby justify policies and actions” (Blondel, 2003, pp 20).

In this case for media, bad guys are the guerrilla, represented in the unknown of the far away rural areas from Colombia, and Maria Emma, that peasant, was of course part of that bad guys. It was a representation of the evil. And for the paramilitaries, she also was the bad person. And even worse, the person who needs to die to accomplish the idealistic idea of “clean” the country of communists.

“The third cause of evil is idealism. In some ways this is the most disturbing and tragic because the perpetrators are motivated by the belief that they are doing something good. Idealists of both the left and the right have sometimes believed that their noble goals justify violent means.” (Baumeister, 2010, pp 12)

For media, they were doing right talking about Maria Emma and the work of ANMUCIC as related to FARC; perhaps they believed they were accomplish a task of the media: to keep informed the population of what is bad. Or perhaps they were told to publish her story with that bias.

“When I was in the Catatumbo[3], helping that women to eradicate coca crops and replaced by food crops, I had with me an “adopted” young boy, he was, let´s say, our local reporter. He tried to attract attention by the regional media… he took a lot of pictures, and went to community radio stations to broadcast what ANMUCIC was doing. He also give an identification card to the women who felt that they belong to something: ANMUCIC. He had clear ideas of the importance of women work. He talked about community, about the importance of going out of the illegal crops, he was happy and helpful… when the guerrilla made us leave because I was friend of the government according to them, he decided to stay, and help to consolidate the project of replacement… one month after was assassinated” (Prada Interview, 2016)

Undoubtedly, languages are social practices. Maria Emma referred in the interview how Jonathan the “local” reporter could connect with the women of that conflictive zone of Colombia: discourse is a way of signifying a specific field of action in which specific situations, institutional frameworks and social structures are included. Together, Jonathan and Maria Emma build a new meaning of being part of an organization, and to be part of the change, re framed the discourse of the guerrilla, and making a retaining wall against the rumours of “Maria Emma is selling ANMUCIC to the guerrillas”.

Matheson (2005) explain how close analysis of language seeks to show precisely how a group of words carries a particular meaning, which we can then identify as performing a political role in reinforcing or challenging power. Media of Colombia achieve perfectly the part of reinforcing.

Discursive practices are shown in Media as elements that can contribute to producing and reproducing unequal power relations between social classes, women and men, and cultural and ethnic majorities and minorities, through the way of how objects are represented and people are placed.

Maria Emma said in the interview how the press was specially focused in her existence as “guerrilla friend”, and when the intimidations of ANMUCIC where publicized by several ONG´s and Human Rights defenders, the press diminished the seriousness of the threats by the non-identification of those responsible with a proper name, using an aseptic and depoliticized language - by the constant use of euphemisms and colloquial expressions - that subtracts gravity from the events and is part of a policy of anaesthesia with the language that normalizes the situations and decontextualizes them.

Meanwhile society just buy all the propaganda of the evil of guerrilla. Headlines in newspaper treated guerrilla with all the gravity when the guerrilla was the responsible, and when the paramilitaries were the responsible of the most unimaginable atrocities, the press often refer to them as “an armed group massacred 6 people in a rural zone”. Media also talked about the peasantry life, about their suffering when the guerrilla attacked communities.

Eventually, “the job of the propagandist is, as always, that of knowing the audience and who and what the audience will find credible, then adapting the message accordingly” (Randal, 2003, pp 88). To say, when the paramilitaries attacked populations, media usually set a doubt whether the community was guerrilla helper.

“In the end, I do believe that media can be different, they can narrate the whole reality, giving the space to everybody to express themselves, and of course, I think that media has also a responsibility in broadcast the ideas of people taking care of how it are saying and be aware of the consequences… I reckon that ANMUCIC, as a national organization needs of media as well, but a proper one, our own media, to spread our alternatives for peacebuilding, now that we can, being a subject of collective reparation owe our condition of victims” (Prada interview, 2016)

In Colombia, over the enactment of the Law of Victims and Land Restitution in 2011, collective reparation of victims is a fundamental right of groups, peoples, or social and political organizations. That types of communities are called a Collective Reparation Subject (hereinafter CRS). There are CRS as syndicates, journalists, Colombian NGO’s, peasantry communities and many ethnic groups such as the indigenous, Afrocolombians, Raizal, Palenque[4] and Rrom (gipsy) people, who suffered all kind of violation of Human rights.

ANMUCIC is one of the CRS and the aim of their collective reparation, in words of Maria Emma is to contribute to the reconciliation of Colombia, “giving voice and real chances to women that help to build peaceful territories bases on their autonomy and own development proposals which the collective rights of women of ANMUCIC are respected on the basis of the recognition of their dignity”. (Prada Interview, 2016)

To do that, among other proposals they have, ANMUCIC wants a communication strategy. Indeed, media is part of the democracy. As Schoemaker and Stremlau point out (2014), media has to go beyond itself. Its more about ”focussing on understanding what people do whit the media they have access to and the importance of moving beyond simple metrics of access or assessments of their functionality in relation to western –based state functions“ (Schoemaker and Stremlau, 2014, pp 188).

To conclude, the core of the change that media needs to be a real tool of peacebuilding is the communication itself, and the appropriation of such by the citizens. Whether or not communities are organized, are victims, or they just live in a place, people need to take media and messages and make those their own.

ANMUCIC is working towards grassroots journalism, discovering their communications abilities, which go from theatre skills to have digital community manager among children of women’s organization;

“The tools of grassroots journalism run the gamut from the simplest email list, in which everyone on the list receives copies of all messages; to weblogs, journals written in reverse chronological order; to sophisticated content management systems sued for publishing content to the Web”. (Gillmor, 2006)

Moreover, ANMUCIC has understood that communication as one of the more powerful ways of shape democratic citizenship:

“To me, building a communal peace is possible if the media communicate from a perspective of sustainability. That sustainability refers to the search and construction of comprehensive alternatives of life, which allow the peaceful coexistence of cultures with the natural processes and other life forms that accompany them and sustain those cultures, and community and media communicate the idea of respect of all these cultures and ways of living of all the different population of my country”. (Prada interview, 2016)


References:

Blondel, Ylva Isabelle. (2003). Violent Conflict and Roles of the Media. Uppsala University report commissioned by Sida and UNESCO. pp. 1-37.

Schoemaker, Emrys and Nicole Stremlau. (2014). Media and Conflict: An Assessment of the Evidence. Progress in Development Studies Vol. 14 No.2, pp. 181-195.

Baumeister, Roy. (2010). Human Evil: The Mythical and the True Causes of Violence. Conference paper presented at a symposium on the “Social Psychology of Morality: Exploring the Causes of Good and Evil.” IDC HERZLIYA. Available online: http://portal.idc.ac.il/en/symposium/hspsp/2010/documents/21-baumeister.pdf

Gillmor, Dan. (2006). We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People. O’Reilly. Chapter 2: “The Read-Write Web: Technology that Makes We the media Possible.” pp. 23-43.

Matheson, Donald. (2005). Media Discourses. Berkshire, GB: Open University Press. Introduction: The Big Ideas about Language, Society, and the Media. pp. 1-14.

Marlin, Randal. (2003). Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion. Broadview Press. Chapter 2: “History of Propaganda”, pp. 43-94.

Notes:

[1] Interview made by the author with Maria Emma Prada Granados, via Skype the 13th of November 2016

[2] The Patriotic Union remains as a big-tent, leftist political party born out of peace negotiations between the government of President Belisario Betancur (1982 - 1986) and rebel groups, (M 19, EPL, including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It is not the political arm of FARC, but press never let of give the message about UP as a part of FARC.UP was chased throughout decades. Still now the few survivors of the party are victims of persecution. The exact number of the victims is not clear. It is usually an accepted figure to state that allegedly some 2,000 to 3,000 of its members were murdered.

[3] Is one of the “red areas of Colombia”. There the guerrillas of the FARC, the ELN and the EPL, as well as redoubts of paramilitary and clan gangs that are dedicated to drug trafficking. Its proximity to the border of Venezuela and its geography makes the access difficult, reasons for the absence of the State.

[4] Palenque refers to walled communities which were founded by escaped slaves as a refuge in the seventeenth century. Of the many palenques that existed in former times in Colombia, only the one of San Basilio has survived until the present day and developed into a unique cultural space.


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