Oct 1 2009

Whitewashing the Colombian Army

CBS Evening News takes cues from Washington

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/ValentinaM-

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/ValentinaM-

The selling of the Afghanistan War and the whitewashing of the Colombian military came together in a recent CBS Evening News report (7/27/09), a story so faithful to the U.S. propaganda lines that one might have mistaken it for state television.

“U.S. forces are about to get some much-needed help as they fight the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Evening News anchor Katie Couric cheerily announced. “Teams of elite foreign commandos will soon be headed there. They’re U.S.-trained and battle-tested, having defeated terrorists in their own country, Colombia.”

Even if the American public supported the war in Afghanistan (an August 6 CNN International poll found 54 percent of Americans opposed the war, with just 41 percent supporting it), Couric’s approving remark about how more forces were “much-needed” would constitute the sort of editorial comment that reporters and anchors say they try to avoid.

But the story was really about the Colombian military. Following her fawning intro, Couric handed off to star CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who maintained the upbeat tenor. Logan gushed that U.S.-trained Colombian forces “have become some of the finest soldiers in the world,” having used their skills “to devastating effects against their enemy in the jungle, breaking the back of a 45-year-old insurgency.” Logan credited the military’s role in helping turn Colombia away from a chaotic and bloody past: “This is Colombia today. The economy is thriving. Order has been restored.”

Logan’s only quoted sources in the segment were military and government officials, including U.S. ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield, who was cited as claiming that “Colombia is the best investment of U.S. taxpayer money this century” and “the most successful nation-building exercise that the United States of America has associated itself with perhaps over the last 25 or 30 years.”

But oddly inserted into what was an otherwise perfect example of U.S. propaganda, Logan remarked that “critics point out the military has been implicated in the killing and disappearance of civilians.”

How does that square with Couric’s claim that the Colombian military had defeated terrorists in Colombia? Or Logan’s claim about the Colombian military being among the world’s finest soldiers?

In reality, Colombia has the worst human-rights record in the Western Hemisphere, and it remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a union member, political activist or journalist (Extra!, 2/09). Amnesty International’s 2008 report on Colombia found that while killings by Colombia’s military-backed paramilitary death squads had diminished following a demobilization deal, Colombia’s formal military forces had become more deadly. And as Amnesty’s 2009 report on the country documented, those killings are only getting worse:

At least 296 people were extrajudicially executed by the security forces in the 12-month period ending in June 2008, compared to 287 in the previous 12-month period. The military justice system claimed jurisdiction over many of these cases. In November, during a visit to Colombia, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said extrajudicial executions in Colombia appeared to be systematic and widespread.

One of Colombia’s most recent human rights horrors, dubbed the “false positives scandal,” broke in 2008, revealing that Colombian army units were executing innocent civilians and falsely claiming they were guerrilla combatants, in order to pad their kill totals and win pay bonuses and extra vacation time. At least 28 officers lost their commissions over the scandal, but as Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs told Extra!, “Almost no Colombian military officials have ever been prosecuted for human rights violations.”

Logan closed her report: “The U.S. is looking to Colombia as it struggles to make headway in Afghanistan. As one top U.S. official said, ‘the more Afghanistan can look like Colombia, the better.’” While Colombia may indeed be in better shape than Afghanistan, isn’t the country with the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere a poor choice as a model?

It’s not surprising that the U.S., which is directly involved in training the Colombian military, would whitewash its record right now—just as U.S. officials are trying to establish military bases in Colombia, bring Colombian forces to join them in Afghanistan and, perhaps most importantly, break a congressional impasse that has held up a vote on the Colombia Free Trade Agreement until the country’s human rights record passes muster with legislators.

As I.F. Stone put it, “All governments lie”—and it’s journalists’ job to challenge the official story. Instead, CBS News is helping to broadcast the lies. U.S. journalists routinely downplay Colombia’s dismal human rights record, but crediting Colombia’s military with delivering its people from terrorism? That may be a first.