A lesson in keeping quiet?

By bogotapost January 27, 2015

SAM_1320Adriaan Alsema argues that French media could look very different after the Charlie Hebdo attacks

Following the massacre at the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France’s publishers are entering a new era in which nobody dares to doubt the fact that self-expression can lead to deadly retaliation.

Colombian journalists, cartoonists and publishers have had to live with this reality since the 1980s, when Pablo Escobar taught the world how to terrorise a press corps who dared to disregard the interests of the criminally insane.

The Colombian terror has been carried out with hardly any religious pretensions. It has long been nothing more than a deliberate attempt to coerce journalists and columnists into simply shutting up about stuff that could get them killed.

Since 1992, 45 Colombian journalists have been murdered. More than half of them were targeted because of their reporting on corruption. Other “beats” covered by journalists killed on the job are politics, human rights and crime.

The 1998 assassination of journalist and comedian Jaime Garzon was particularly traumatic for the country, as the massively popular celebrity generally did nothing but make fun of Colombia’s politics and was arguably the most popular journalist in the history of Colombia.

Even though the killing of journalists has largely ended in Colombia, the fear instilled by the anti-press violence, which was particularly heavy between 1997 and 2003, is still very much alive today. Although the number of journalists killed in Colombia today is only a fraction of what it was 10 years ago, ongoing death threats keep the fear of being murdered for doing your job very much alive.

It’s this fear that makes every journalist think twice before publishing something they know will get the attention of those who kill as a means to secure their personal or political interests.

Having set a few deadly examples, the need to actually kill journalists in Colombia has vanished. The press corps has learned its lesson and a simple death threat will now do the job. There’s not a sane person in the country who won’t acknowledge the possibility that these threats could be followed-up on, even though in most cases they aren’t.

This fear, combined with a lack of adequate protection for journalists, has ensured that the vast majority of journalists in Colombia are unable to do their job without a certain level of perceived threat. It is common knowledge among Colombian journalists that the biggest threat to reliable journalism is the potentially life-saving self-censorship journalists are forced to exercise.

France’s journalists covering Islam will now have the same fears, as they struggle to find a way to deal with this traumatic event which left 17 innocent people dead within 52 hours.

There is now not a publisher in France that doubts the possibility of being killed. Charlie Hebdo has become France’s Jaime Garzon.

Islamist extremists will likely learn that – having added 17 fatalities to their curriculum vitae – their death threats will now prove a lot more effective.

Because Charlie Hebdo was already receiving police protection due to previous threats, the fear is only fuelled by the fact that the government appears unable to effectively protect threatened individuals. After all, a bullet is an almost invisible deadly object that can be fired from every possible angle.

The lessons that can be learned from Colombia are unfortunately very few. It is evident that the French authorities will have to take the protection of potential terrorism victims a lot more seriously, but that’s really the only concrete action that can be taken.

What France has learned, and Colombia learned 20 years ago, is that journalists are vulnerable, easy targets.

The journalists themselves will soon learn the psychological effects of the killings, as it becomes more difficult to dismiss the further threats that are almost certain to follow.

Unless French journalists are braver than their Colombian colleagues, they will soon learn what self-censorship is like. Like Colombians back in the 1980s, the French public will see their journalism becoming less reliable because journalists can no longer do their job fearlessly.

Be sure to read our full Charlie coverage here, here and here

Adriaan-ColombiaReportsAdriaan Alsema is the founder and editor-in-chief of Colombia Reports, South America’s largest news website in English. Born and raised a Dutchman, Alsema has been living in Colombia since 2008.