Media Continues to Treat Unsubstantiated Allegations as Facts

Over the last month, the Colombian government's strategy has involved a
media campaign with timed leaks of new documents to the New York Times,
the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald and other outlets, many of
whom relied on the Colombian interpretation of their meaning, and with
little acknowledgement of the deep controversy surrounding them.

By Greg Grandin and Forrest Hylton
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May 14, 2008,
To the Media:

On April 25, twenty-one Latin America scholars released this letter (reprinted below) to the media with regard to the documents allegedly recovered from a laptop captured from Colombian guerrillas. Although some newspapers, including the Miami Herald, cited our warning, it nonetheless has proven to be all too prescient. Much of the media, even before any statement was released from Interpol, has continued to treat unsubstantiated allegations as facts. For example, a May 9 Wall Street Journal article stated: "The documents suggest Mr. Chavez is personally involved in helping the guerrillas."
 
We once again appeal to the media for objectivity, and to treat unsubstantiated allegations the same way they would treat such allegations if they were made against the United States government -- i.e. to have some standards of evidence. Interpol cannot and will not verify the validity of any charges made against the Venezuelan government.. There are as yet no allegations that would hold up in a court of law.

Over the last month, the Colombian government's strategy has involved a media campaign with timed leaks of new documents to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Miami Herald and other outlets, many of whom relied on the Colombian interpretation of their meaning, and with little acknowledgement of the deep controversy surrounding them.

Even if the documents were indeed produced by the FARC, this does not mean that the information is accurate. As Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy, who has analyzed the documents, noted, "We are forced to rely on accounts from far-flung guerrilla leaders who have a strong incentive to portray their overtures to Venezuela as successful. For the FARC, getting material support from Caracas was probably the main benefit they hoped to win from these contacts, so anything that even appeared to hint at progress toward getting arms or cash was prominently reported, possibly in an exaggerated way."

The Interpol investigation cannot and will not confirm the veracity of the documents. We once again appeal to journalists and editors to distinguish between facts and allegations and to make that distinction more clear to their readers.

Sincerely,

Greg Grandin, New York University - Professor of History
(212) 998-3534

Forrest Hylton, New York University - Department of History
(718) 366-9182


*********************************************
**********************************************

April 25, 2008

An Open Letter to the Media:

Interpol Analysis of FARC Laptop Authenticity Will Not “Prove” Links Between Venezuela, Rebels

Colombian interpretation of documents discredited by analysts, OAS Secretary General

Later this month, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) will publicly determine the “authenticity” of laptops recovered from a rebel encampment in Ecuador after a March 1 raid on the camp by the Colombian government. Based on previous press coverage of the incursion and the documents, we are concerned that the media take extreme care in interpreting the Interpol findings.  In the first round of media coverage of the event, significant problems of inconsistency surfaced precisely as a result of the gap between Colombia’s exaggerations and what the documents actually say.[1] 

Even if the laptops are found to have belonged to members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), there is no evidence that the publicly available documents support any of the extreme claims by the Colombian government that Venezuela and Ecuador had any sort of financial relationship with the rebels. In fact, independent analyses of the documents indicate that the Colombian government has substantially exaggerated their contents, perhaps for political purposes. Any media coverage of the Interpol findings must make clear that many of the Colombian allegations have already been largely discredited. 

The Colombian interpretation has already proven so weak that OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza, testifying before the House Subcommittee on Western Hemispheric Affairs on April 10, stated unequivocally that there is “no evidence”[2] linking Venezuela to the Colombian rebels, yet Insulza’s statement has gone virtually unreported in the English language press.

Analysts cite three primary flaws in the Colombian government’s charges linking Venezuela and the FARC:
The “Dossier”:  The notion that the Venezuelan government provided—or intended to provide—$300 million to the FARC is based exclusively on this passage from a letter sent to the FARC secretariat from Raul Reyes:

“With relation to the 300, which from now on we will call "dossier," efforts are now going forward at the instructions of the boss to the cripple which I will explain in a separate note”[3]

There is no clear description of what the “300” represents. While the Colombians claim it is a reference to three hundred million dollars, it could just as easily refer to three hundred dollars or even three hundred hostages. Note that this letter was dated December 23, 2007—two weeks before the first wave of FARC hostage releases.

The Contact: To believe that Hugo Chavez was providing material support to the FARC—beyond his role as a hostage negotiator—one must accept the premise that the person referred in the FARC documents under the code name “Angel” is indeed Hugo Chavez. Yet the documents reference both “Angel” and “Chavez”—sometimes in the same paragraph. It appears that the documents are referring to two different people.

The Timing: The most extensive evaluation of the available documents has been done by Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy[4]. In addition to the concerns above, Isacson concluded that the uptick in communication between the Venezuelan government and the FARC coincided almost exclusively with the timeframe in which Chavez had been invited to mediate hostage negotiations.

As Isacson put it, “When considered in chronological order, the guerrilla communications regarding Hugo Chávez and Venezuela appear to reveal a relationship that was cordial but distant until the fall of 2007,”[5] exactly the time that negotiations began.

Note too that other laptop-related Colombian allegations have already been proven false or dubious. Notably, claims that the FARC were conspiring to build a “dirty bomb” were publicly dismissed[6] by the U.S. government as well as terrorism experts throughout the region. Also Colombia’s allegations that a photo found in the laptops showed a meeting between FARC leaders and an Ecuadorian cabinet official were also proved to be false[7].

The discussion here is about state support of terrorism, and in the current political climate the stakes could not be higher. Given the sensitivity and potential implications for peace within hemisphere, it is crucial that the media exercise a more critical eye in its reporting than has been demonstrated to date. Any fair-minded coverage of the upcoming Interpol announcement would make clear that the authentication of the laptops does not mean the validation of the Colombian interpretation of their contents, and should make note both of the independent analyses of the documents and the statement from the OAS Secretary General.

Sincerely,

Charles Bergquist, University of Washington, Seattle – Professor of Latin American History
http://depts.washington.edu/history/faculty/bergquist.html
 
Larry Birns, Council on Hemispheric Affairs - Director
http://www.coha.org/cohas-director/

Amy Chazkel, Queens College, City University of New York – Assistant Professor of History
http://web.gc.cuny.edu/dept/bildn/about/Amy_Chazkel.shtml
 
Avi Chomsky, Salem State College - Professor of History and Coordinator of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean Studies
http://www.salemstate.edu/profile/employee_details.php?id=409

Luis Duno Gottberg , Florida Atlantic University- Director & Associate Professor Caribbean & Latin American Studies

James Early, TransAfrica Forum, and Institute for Policy Studies - Board Member
 
Samuel Farber, Brooklyn College, City University of New York - Professor of Political Science
http://www.brooklyn.edu/pub/Faculty_Details5.jsp?faculty=496
 
Sujatha Fernandes, Queens College, City University of New York - Assistant Professor of Sociology
http://web.gc.cuny.edu/dept/bildn/about/SujathaFernandes.shtml

Lesley Gill, American University - Associate Professor in Anthropology
http://american.edu/cas/anthro/whoswho.html

Greg Grandin, New York University - Professor of History; Director of Graduate Studies
http://history.fas.nyu.edu/object/greggrandin

Daniel Hellinger, Webster Universit y-Director & Professor, International Relations
http://www.webster.edu/depts/artsci/gp_intrelations.htm
 
Forrest Hylton, New York University - Department of History (author, Evil Hour in Colombia)

Diane Nelson, Duke University – Associate Professor, Cultural Anthropology
http://fds.duke.edu/db/aas/WomensStudies/faculty/dmnelson

Jocelyn Olcott, Duke University – Assistant Professor of History, Latin American and Caribbean Studies
http://fds.duke.edu/db/Provost/clacs/faculty/olcott
 
Diana Paton, University of Newcastle, UK - Senior Lecturer in Caribbean History
http://www.ncl.ac.uk/historical/staff/profile/diana.paton
 
Fred Rosen, North American Congress on Latin America- Senior Analyst
http://nacla.org/node/4568
 
T.M Scruggs, University of Iowa- Associate Professor, Ethnomusicology
http://www.uiowa.edu/~music/bios/MUSYscruggs.htm

Sinclair Thomson, New York University- Associate Professor of History
http://history.fas.nyu.edu/object/sinclairthomson
 
Miguel Tinker Salas, Pomona College- Professor of Chicano and Latin American Studies
http://www.pomona.edu/communications/media/featuredexperts/tinkersalas.s...
 
Mark Weisbrot, Center for Economic and Policy Research - Co-Director
http://www.cepr.net/index.php/mark-weisbrot/

John Womack, Harvard University- Robert Bliss Professor of Latin American History and Economics
http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~history/facultyPage.cgi?id=37


Notes:
[1] For instance, The Washington Post claimed in a 5 March editorial that  “Chávez had recently given the group $300 million” ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/06/AR200803... );  days later, the New York Times reported that “Colombian officials have said that information seized in the raid shows that the Venezuelan government may have channeled about $300 million to the FARC.’ ( http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B04E1DF1638F937A25750C0A... ).” See our discussion in this letter below of the source of this erroneous interpretation.  

[2] “OAS chief to US Congress: no Venezuela-terrorist link,” AFP, March 10, 2008. http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5ipNXwHOq34tlujMqpPj9OZVXwznw

[3] “$300 Million from Chavez to FARC a Fake,” by Greg Palast, TomPaine.Com http://www.gregpalast.com/300-million-from-chavez-to-farc-a-fake/

[4] See “About those FARC Documents…” by Adam Isacson, Center for International Policy http://www.cipcol.org/?p=556 and “A Fairy Tale from a Guerilla Laptop,” by Adam Isacson, Center for International Policy http://www.cipcol.org/?p=555

[5] “About those FARC Documents…” by Adam Isacson, Center for International Policy http://www.cipcol.org/?p=556

[6] “Colombia links uranium to FARC rebels,” by Chris Kraul, Los Angeles Times, March 27, 2008. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-dirtybomb27mar27,1,5...

[7] “Unraveling the ‘New’ FARC Announcement,” Inter Press Service, April 4, 2008 http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=41870

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