Views of the Other Colombia


Hollman Morris is a veteran journalist from Colombia who visited Canada to receive the International Press Freedom Award from the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE). His career spans more than two decades, and includes his role as producer of the weekly program CONTRAVIA, correspondent for the channel RCN, editor of the Peace and Human Rights Section of El Espectador, (one of Colombia’s two most prominent newspapers) and founder of the university journal El Universitario.

As producer for CONTRAVIA, Hollman Morris gave visibility to the most marginalized voices of Colombian society, the peasants, the Afro-Colombians, the indigenous people, and their movements. He has demonstrated courage and integrity that puts most North American journalists, who work out of offices or, when they go to the field, hotels, to shame. In addition to awards, Morris’s work has earned him threats, including threats from the very President of Colombia.

On May 16, 2005, when Morris was at the office in Bogota, his babysitter, at home with his child, received a package. The package held a bouquet of flowers with a card offering “condolences for the death of Hollman Morris”. Two other journalists received similar bouquets at their homes that same day.

One month after that incident, Morris was working for the BBC on a documentary on Plan Colombia. When the guerrilla group FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) attacked a Colombian Army outpost on the Ecuadorian border, Morris and his camera crew traveled to the scene to report. Days after Morris’s report, on June 27, 2005, Colombia’s President, Alvaro Uribe Velez, went on a national radio program during drive-time in the morning and claimed that some journalists with “international cameras” had advance notice of the FARC attack, had known three days before the attack, because they have “links” to the terrorists. The radio interviewer, Dario Arismendi, asked Uribe if he was referring to Hollman Morris. Uribe replied – I don’t know, Dario, but they were there in three days. Morris has not been the only victim of this type of personal smear by the President himself: in recent months it has been used against members of Congress, and previous to that against human rights defenders and activists. It is always followed by more direct threats. In Morris’s case, after using the radio to make a public smear, the President issued a short retraction on the internet – where very few would see it.

Over a year later, Morris continues to face threats and harassment, including a recent discovery that his office phone calls are being intercepted. But like the Colombian movements who he has helped give a voice, Hollman Morris will not be easily silenced. I talked to him in Toronto.

JP: Perhaps the best way to introduce your kind of journalism to our readers is by example. Tell us about the last program you produced.

HM: First of all I have to say this is a comical, paradoxical, contradictory moment for me. They’re giving us a prize for the trajectory of our work, especially for CONTRAVIA – and yet it’s had to leave the air for lack of resources.

I think the most recent work that gives a sense of what we do is a program called “Montajes” (could be translated as frame-ups). The week we did the program, an investigation by journalists revealed that the Colombian Army had planted car bombs to accuse FARC of a terror campaign in Bogota to scare people, build support for the Army and against FARC. It turned out these bombs were not planted by FARC, it was all a frame-up by the Army. One of the bombs actually exploded and killed one civilian and wounded 26 soldiers. The commander of the army went out and said that the bombs had been planted by the Army. The details appeared in the print media, and they involved the purchase of false witnesses and false confessions. The use of money to get witnesses and confessions is part of the perverse politics of rewards for information.

JP: This is an integral part of Uribe’s ‘Democratic Security’ policy.

HM: Part of ‘Democratic Security’ is paying people for information and it has led directly to arbitrary detention and false accusation. And inside the army it’s created a career for finding ‘positives’ – ‘positive’ evidence of guerrilla activity that, in many cases, turn out to be ‘montajes’. This craziness for finding ‘positives’ is a product of the president’s own pressure on the armed forces. In Antioquia, 2002-2003 a military brigade killed 20 people, accusing them of being guerrillas, to show ‘positives’. This particular massacre was eventually publicized and denounced by the UN, because the government continued to deny everything.

JP: What was CONTRAVIA’s role in the investigation for ‘Montajes’?

HM: The interesting thing is that CONTRAVIA did not reveal anything new. It didn’t reveal something Colombians didn’t know. We used our time to show something that couldn’t be shown in 40 second slots. Reality has a past, present, and future. It has a context. CONTRAVIA collects these facts and puts them in context. And we showed the politics of “montajes” had a history. The president’s appearances were systematically hiding the truth. You put this together in 30 minutes, and the public gets it clearly.

So “Montajes” starts with the information from the investigation of the Bogota bomb plot. But then we showed other montajes in recent history, like the case of. Cajamarca. There, a family was killed and the president called it an “accident” of the army. The president effectively made himself the judge to absolve the army. He went on television immediately after the massacre, during prime time, and spoke for half an hour, to explain how it was a mistake made by the army. The truth is that those soldiers had never made a mistake – they planned the killings in detail, including who was going to kill who. It was a young campesino family, including a baby and parents in their twenties. It was a murder, a homicide, an assassination. And when the truth came out, a year later, this news weren’t worth 3 minutes of commercial television on the air. After a year of profusion of lies, we were treated to a fragmented 3 minutes of truth. This is how the media prevents memory.

So we showed the elements of the truth of the case of Cajamarca, the case of the recent “montajes”, and we showed how the President justified both.

JP: Now perhaps we could move from the specific to the general. What is the philosophy that motivated CONTRAVIA?

HM: I believe that journalists are every day distancing themselves from the people. Our technological advances have only placed us more firmly behind our desks in the cities. Journalism isn’t about technology, it’s about the will to face reality. And to journalists today, reality is far away. We think of ourselves as enlightened in our distance from the people. But that distance makes us irresponsible and it makes us defamers. The essence of what we do is to get closer to people, communities, to another word, another truth. To go there, to touch it, to live it. CONTRAVIA exists in Colombia – a context of 25 million poor (out of a population of 42 million), 3 million internally displaced. What we do is show this reality of 25 million poor. The war, the victims of the war. We let the victims speak, not the victimizers. CONTRAVIA walked the country: the rivers, the mountains, the indigenous, black, the peasant communities, the other leaders. Our philosophy was to show the other Colombia that doesn’t get into the big press.

JP: And how did you accomplish it, financially?

HM: CONTRAVIA was always based on international cooperation. Because of our human rights focus in a country where they killed people who talk of human rights, we argued the whole reality of Colombia is crossed by human rights – the right to health, the right to life, the right to protest. And we received funding from a European Union human rights program. When this program ended, we received some funding from Holland. After that dried up, we took a forced vacation. We got some funding from the UK, for 3 months worth of programs, and then one month’s worth – 4 programs – from Canada.

We never had private funding, maybe because we couldn’t look for it for lack of time. We were naïve. We thought because of our support for democracy, they would come to us. We didn’t have the people or time to sell ads. We are in the 11pm time slot, and advertising was cheap. You’d have to spend time asking, convincing businesses, that this was necessary for democracy. The businesses would reply that it was perhaps this $3-4 to sell Coca-Cola or McDonalds. We decided it was better to give these minutes to the program itself, to a social leader, to some situation in a region of Colombia. We kept it going by our fingernails, but we kept our hands clean.

JP: Contrast CONTRAVIA with the rest of the media landscape.

HM: What we tried to do in CONTRAVIA was rescue some of the dying forms of journalism. Reporting, documentary, and debate have been dying in journalism. In Colombia with the big media that control 90% of the audience offer opinion programs from 12-1230 am, featuring debates in a studio in Bogota. They never take their cameras out to see. They don’t do documentary, reporting, or chronicle. With far fewer resources, we offered these forms. We went out to see the country, to show that Colombia is a diverse reality – plural.

JP: Has the media always been so bad, or has it gotten worse.

HM: In 1998 there were two public channels that had daily debate programs in prime time and news and analysis from different perspectives. With privatization in 1999 things got steadily worse. Private television captured 90% of the audience. Now it’s reality shows and soap operas. That’s happening all over the world. But in the developed world, you usually have one solid public station: BBC in the UK is the best example. In Colombia there is only private television.

JP: In your 11pm time slot, with your lack of resources, did you have a small audience?

HM: Colombia is not an easy place to do reporting emphasizing people’s movements  and human rights. That’s not a reason not to do it. They’ll stigmatize you, sure. They’ll attack you. But CONTRAVIA had a rating of 3 million people. And we tried to show the Colombia of the regions. We tried to create a culture of respect of others, of respect of diversity. And people used our material. We found people were rebroadcasting our work in universities, we heard of use of the material at conferences, classes. So our work was used in ways that aren’t reflected in ratings, which were themselves good.

The experience with the indigenous mobilization in Cauca is a good one. We produced a program on the mobilization and we found the indigenous peoples were using it! They said look, this presents us and our philosophy is here. In fact, the nomination for this award came from the roots of this program. We were showing the reality of the 2 million indigenous Colombians. And it’s that much more satisfying to win this award because we were nominated by the Nasa indigenous movement of Northern Cauca. That means the award isn’t just a recognition of our work, it’s a recognition of them, and their philosophy of ‘Caminar la Palabra’ (translated ‘walking the word’).

JP: Returning to Colombian politics, Uribe is in his second term as President. How is “Democratic Security” shaping up this time around?

HM: You can learn a lot from a single component of it: arbitrary detention. That alone tells you the policy is not democratic and brings no security. A democrat ought not to tolerate benefits to himself at the cost of someone else’s freedom. You cannot build democracy on that basis. The industrialist, the elite, should not support a policy that benefits only them if it deprives thousands of others of freedom. But that is what democratic security is about.

A town called Quinchia is an illustration: One morning in 2003, at a cost of 100 million pesos the Colombian Army arrived at the town of Quinchia and detained virtually the entire town. 150 people, from the street sweepers to the mayor, from the children to the old blind man, were accused of rebellion and terrorism. This was rectified two years later. Two years later, they figured out that the blind man was not the instructor of bomb-making they had accused him of being. It took two years to figure out he couldn’t do that? Everyone was innocent. It was a “montaje”, one with its origins in some local political rivalry that used democratic security to mount a false accusation. One of the townspeople, a an in his fifties, died of a heart condition in jail. No one from the government ever apologized. The government never says sorry, never recognizes errors.

JP: When you describe these events I imagine North American journalists accusing you of being ‘biased’. Do they accuse you of being ‘biased’, or not ‘objective’?

HM: I’m not interested in objectivity. I am interested in impartiality, but I believe my job is to defend life. Facing attacks on people’s lives one can’t be objective. They accuse me of that and much worse. A country where the president calls human rights defenders terrorists, there will be these sorts of accusations from various sectors. When a president accuses hundreds peasants of being terrorists, a program like ours that shows their intelligence, what they are building, their proposals for the future, will be attacked as ‘biased’. And a sector of society will even believe the accusations that we’re ‘terrorists’.

JP: What is your personal approach to journalism?

HM: My role model is Ryszard Kapuscinski, who I had the chance to meet at a workshop with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Kapuscinski said that to be a good journalist you must be a good human being, a good person. A humble person. A person who is not afraid to bow his head, to ask permission to enter an indigenous community, to respect what you are given – this is a basic ingredient of journalism. This gives you the chance to feel and listen and respect the most humble and be unafraid in front of the most powerful.

Keeping this in mind, I’ve tried to work on CONTRAVIA outside of the big communication media. It has costs, suffering, but also many joys. Suffering, because of the threats that drove me out of the country once, but immense joys too. Some journalists get joy from being invited to the minister’s house or into the social lives of the powerful. For others, it’s getting to a remote part of the country and an indigenous peasant says thank you for what you’ve done.

CONTRAVIA has been our satisfaction and a headache, like raising a child: you have to raise them and let them go, no matter the joy and pain. They’ve threatened us – since May 16, 2005 the threats have never stopped. The latest, a month ago, we found the phone in our office was being tapped illegally. But CONTRAVIA is still alive. When we left the air, people in the country mobilized to try to get us back on. Each day we have more friends, people following the show to know what’s going on in Colombia. This was the kind of journalism that has been lost, and in Colombia, where they kill journalists, in the hardest place, we managed to rescue this type of journalism.

There are joys, and there are fears. For me, there are two kinds of fear. Whenever you write or present, you face the fear of the intolerant. This is a fear we always deal with. But much worse is the fear you face when you get to a part of the country after a massacre, a place where you, the journalist, are the only person who has a chance to break impunity and get these people’s story out, to shine this tiny light and break the official history of lies. The people put all their hope in the journalist. You get there – and you feel this fear. You feel so small before the hopes of these people. And this fear makes you feel responsibility.

JP: Another pattern that your work breaks is the presentation of Colombia as a hopeless country of victims.

HM: Some friends have told me they can’t sleep afterwards, they feel hopeless, after watching CONTRAVIA. But I have a different reading. I think we feel hopeless because we are looking for hope from the big characters, or big theories or books. But I’ve learned walking the country that hope is in each of those community leaders. The person who builds a school, a cooperative, the activist who links movements in different reasons,  the person who is trying to get the truth out. These leaders are a motive for hope. They are struggling for life. They are fighting for memory. The indigenous movement that is saying that Colombians must be dignified, recover land for everyone. The movement of victims, campesinos who are lifting their voices – for truth, justice, reparation despite the fact that the killers are in the government, in power, right now. They have the word and their memory and no other power. These are major motives for hope.

And it’s not that different from other corners of Latin America: Oaxaca is not far away and we are part of that, too.

Justin Podur is a writer and translator based in Toronto.

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