#17 sharing
Hildegard Willer

Truth Is the First Casualty

Local journalists in Peru often work in very hostile atmospheres. Can they positively influence conflict resolution?

On 27 April 2004, the marketplace in the small city of Ilave on Lake Titicaca in the Peruvian Andes appeared completely abandoned. The only inhabitants were a few old men perusing the latest newspapers from Lima on display at the news stand. Nothing even hinted at the fact that just a few days before, around 10,000 angry protesters had crowded the square to express their frustration with Ilave's sitting mayor. Only the headlines in the papers revealed that just yesterday, on April 26, the mob lynched Mayor Fernando Robles – in the bright light of day as the watching crowd applauded. The mob's anger had been inflamed by one local journalist's radio broadcasts, who took to his heels immediately following the lynching.

In Peru, “Ilave” has become a synonym for brutal conflicts in the indigenous “hinterlands”, which have become increasingly common in Peru in the last 15 years or more. Local Peruvian journalists working as reporters often find themselves at the centre of the fray. They research, manipulate, mediate, inform the public, or try to maintain balance. Whatever role they play, their impact on understanding and moderating social conflict is significant. Interviews with 12 local journalists in the Peruvian region of Puno, a hot spot of social unrest, reveal the difficult conditions journalists are subjected to, their power to shape the public sphere, and the inherent risks that come with it.

A large number of social conflicts is not an indication of a healthy democracy, but rather a clear sign that the democratic process is not functioning properly.

As the number of people who feel forced to take to the streets to demand their rights or make their opinions heard rises, the peril to democracy increases. A large number of social conflicts is not an indication of a healthy democracy, but rather a clear sign that the democratic process is not functioning properly.

The current, on-going wave of social conflicts in Peru was not spawned by scarcity and/or dictatorship. Its root cause was an excess of democracy. The global raw materials boom of the past 15 years has brought growth rates of up to 8% to the Andean country. Social conflicts have boomed right along with this growth. In recent years, the Office of the Ombudsman in Peru has never recorded fewer than 200 social disputes at any given time. Large mining consortiums are tearing up the Andes in search of copper, tin and gold, while tens of thousands of informal gold miners are felling the Amazon forest to get at the tiny grains of gold in its sandy soil.

Working as a local journalist in this environment of social conflict has become something akin to war journalism.

As the economy grows, so does greed, accompanied by disputes over who gets which piece of the pie. There is an inherent paradox in this development: While Peru's riches are being generated in the godforsaken mountainous mining areas, they are being distributed in Lima, the capital on the coast. So most protests do not take place in the capital, but in the small villages and towns scattered throughout the Andes and the rainforest. Working as a local journalist in this environment of social conflict has become something akin to war journalism: “When you are in the midst of the conflict, when the stones are flying from one side and tear gas from the other, you try to keep reporting even when people are trying to push you in one direction or the other. The tension was so immense in Ilave that any outsider was seen as the enemy,” says Giovanni Manrique from Radio Onda Azul in Puno.

“El Sinchi”

…people in the provinces still primarily listen to, read and watch local media.

Mario Vargas Llosa created the most famous depiction of a Peruvian local journalist in his novel “Captain Pantoja and the Special Service”: In the Amazonian town of Iquitos, “el Sinchi” rules the airwaves – and the hearts of the Iquiteños – with simpering pathos. He uses his microphone to demolish his victims, then offers to redeem them in the eyes of the furious masses for a price. Although el Sinchi is a caricature of local journalism in Peru, the character still reveals two important conditions that impact the work of journalists today. First, people in the provinces still primarily listen to, read and watch local media. Radio is the most popular of these, a fact often ignored by the powers that be and the media in the capital. Second, those who operate local media are only interested in maximising profits, so whoever pays the most controls the airwaves. This is an explosive combination that has triggered or exacerbated many a social conflict.

Turning a blind eye to the provinces

Many social disputes involve at least one party associated with the government in Lima: a ministry, a regulatory body, or a multinational corporation. Local journalists from the provinces have very limited access to these sources, and their requests for information are continually blocked by receptionists and secretaries. They have responded by developing counter-strategies: “When I'm told for the third and fourth time that Engineer So-and-So will be happy to return my call, I simply put the phone up to the microphone so all my listeners can hear too,” says Germán Alejo from Radio Pachamama in Puno. Kevin Moncada, former Editor in Chief of the “Correo” daily newspaper, says succinctly: “Of course I know both sides of the story must be told. But if they are not available, what am I supposed to do, invent a statement to uphold my journalistic ethics?”

Culture can also be a trap

The public sphere in a small Andean region like Puno is influenced by the capital, not physically present but omnipresent both politically and in the minds of the people, and the cultural context of the province itself. The people of Puno are mostly indígenas who speak Quechua and Aymara, and the traditional indigenous forms of decision-making and justice are still very present in their rural communities. Journalism as we know it, and as it is taught in Peruvian journalism schools, emerged in the context of Western democracies in the 19th century though. Local journalists working in Puno often experience first-hand how difficult local indigenous traditions make reporting in keeping with this Western model.

Ruth Ccopari is one of the few female journalists in Puno. Although the number of men and women who study communications at the University in Puno is fairly equal, Ccopari says “most of the women from my graduating class went into PR.” A native of Puno, Ruth Ccopari is tiny, just 1.55 metres tall and slender. She works for a monthly magazine published by a Peruvian NGO in Puno, travelling as a reporter to all the villages and hamlets around the province.
“I was once in the village of Huancané to report on a village meeting. The elders gathered in the village square and formed a circle to discuss a possible oil concession. They were speaking Aymara. When a young man spoke up, the elders were incensed and ordered him into the circle to be whipped – the traditional punishment among the Aymara. Suddenly one of the elders turned to me and asked: “And you, are you spying for the oil company? Take care or we'll have you in the circle for a whipping too.'” Just 25 years old at the time, Ccopari was able to talk her way out by insisting she was simply doing her job as a journalist, before fleeing the village as soon as she could.

Journalists at intermediaries

Local journalists sometimes surrender their journalistic objectivity to support one party to the conflict.

When social protests turn violent and hostile in Peru, the first victim is the free and reasonable exchange of opinions. In a total democracy of sorts, positions are staunchly defended over loudspeakers, in marches, and even with fists. Local journalists sometimes surrender their journalistic objectivity to support one party to the conflict. Even when they try to remain impartial, they can quickly become the target of the people's anger. This anger is expressed in attacks on cameras and the journalists themselves if a group feels their opinions are not being accurately depicted. In this environment, can journalists not only avoid adding fuel to the fire, but also contribute to conflict resolution?

Most of the journalists interviewed had to think about the question for quite a while before they recalled a positive example of journalistic influence, though it does happen. “A whole village marched into the regional capital of Puno to protest an unfinished road. They occupied the marketplace and demanded to be heard by the regional president. He completely ignored them, until we forced his hand by upping the pressure on the radio. Only then did he agree to meet with the village president,” recalls Germán Alejo from Radio Pachamama.

Giovanni Manrique from Radio Onda Azul once tried to bring two rival communities at odds about a mining concession to the table to take part in a public debate. The conflict had already turned violent, resulting in injuries and even a few deaths. But watching the two parties debate in a public forum was disillusioning: “We got them to talk to each other and we listened to both sides. But it was clear to everyone involved that government representatives should have been sitting there instead.”

Who is fighting whom?

In Peru today, the lion's share of social conflicts are environmental, followed by border disputes, classic labour disputes and local political disputes.

The Office of the Ombudsman in Peru (Defensoría del Pueblo) keeps a record of all social conflicts from start to finish, classifying them according to topic. This provides an instrument for intervening in a timely manner. In Peru today, the lion's share of social conflicts are environmental, followed by border disputes, classic labour disputes and local political disputes.

The issue at the heart of a dispute does not determine the role of local journalists though. The status of the parties to the conflict is the defining factor. Journalists can arbitrate a dispute between two local people or groups, or one local and one regional stakeholder. Disputes involving communities or regions and one national or international party almost always result in hostile polarisation, and local journalists have to take the part of the local stakeholders if they want to avoid being branded traitors. Local arguments fall on deaf ears, and truth is the first casualty.

What can be done?

The politically powerful in Lima often overlook the importance of local journalists and media. Government advertisements and communiques targeted at local populations are created in the capital “with absolutely no clue about our local language,” says Giovanni Manrique from Radio Onda Azul.

“…a few journalists reported on the 'violent nature' of the Aymara indigenas. This just fanned the flames and increased polarisation by driving it in a cultural direction that was not really a factor in the conflict.” (Aldo Santos, local journalist from Puno)

Like most local journalists from Puno, Aldo Santos had indigenous roots. He laments the fact that journalism students don't learn how to analyse conflicts and that programs ignore the intercultural component. “The lynching in Ilave shows just how vital analysis skills are. At the time, a few journalists reported on the 'violent nature' of the Aymara indigenas. This just fanned the flames and increased polarisation by driving it in a cultural direction that was not really a factor in the conflict.”

In order to calm hostilities and process social conflicts on the ground, we need to promote local journalist networks. They provide a space in which journalists can reflect on their journalistic practices, encourage and support each other, and guarantee the quality of their work, without an influence from the capital. An intercultural journalist network has since been formed in Puno.

This might be one takeaway from the lynching in Ilave eleven years ago. Thousands had occupied the Ilave marketplace for weeks to protest the mayor. The capital and its media and institutions did not deem the protests worthy of notice, and the authorities did not step in until after the lynching. A year later, the Peruvian comptroller's office released a report that found no irregularities in the murdered mayor Fernando Robles' accounts. Sadly this revelation came much too late.

Interview by Hildegard Willer

Photo: “Vendedor de periodicos” by Gustavo M
2007 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

Related Articles

A Traditional Shareconomy

Indigenous communities in the Andes traditionally manage commons such as water. Their potential is still not exhausted.

» more

The People’s Victory

The recent elections in Myanmar led to a victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) over the military - an outcome of an open access to information.

» more

We Are All Journalists: The Future of Reporting

When everyone can be a reporter, who are the journalists?

» more