SOLOMON: U.S. Media Miscast as Human-Rights Watchdogs

During Hong Kong's first days under the Chinese flag, many American journalists speculated on the future of human rights in the former British colony.As the royal yacht Britannia sped away from Hong Kong, network anchors worried aloud. A front-page New York Times headline asked: "Will Beijing Honor Vows?" And so on.Recent coverage might leave the impression that U.S. media outlets are vigilant watchdogs for human rights in other countries. That's a pleasant image -- but it has little to do with reality.For instance, the media establishment in the United States has barely stifled a yawn at the Western Hemisphere's worst ongoing human-rights disaster. In Colombia, many lives are shadowed by carnage:* Journalism is a hazardous profession for Colombians. Last spring, attackers took the lives of newspaper editor Gerardo Bedoya and photographer Freddy Ahumada. The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists cites "evidence of renewed violence."The committee says that Colombia's journalists face "death threats, physical attack, bombings and kidnapping at the hands of a broad range of players -- drug barons, the military, paramilitary groups and guerrilla terrorists -- all intent on silencing them."* While receiving $169 million in annual military aid from Washington, the Bogota government maintains direct ties with paramilitary death squads in the Colombian countryside. Abductions, torture and grisly mutilations are common. Punishment is rare.A Human Rights Watch report -- released last fall but virtually ignored by the U.S. press -- showed that the Clinton administration is equipping "killer networks" operated by Colombian military and paramilitary units.* The media myth is that drug traffickers are to blame for most of Colombia's murder and mayhem. Guerrilla insurgents, who are guilty of atrocities, also get a lot of bad press.But independent monitors, such as the Colombian Commission of Jurists, have documented that the government's army, police and allied armed groups commit about two-thirds of Colombia's political murders -- which occur at an average rate of 11 per day. Among those killed in recent years: more than 3,000 elected members of the alternative Union Patriotica party.* "The most atrocious violence that we are experiencing comes from the state and its secret affiliates, which are the paramilitary groups," says Father Javier Giraldo. He's a Jesuit priest who heads the Inter-Congregational Commission for Justice and Peace, a panel formed by 55 Catholic religious orders in Colombia.Father Giraldo points out that "the United States continues sending military aid to our government without conditioning it on respect for basic human rights."Irked at Colombian President Ernesto Samper's drug policies, Washington has halted some assistance to his government. But the cutoff hasn't interrupted the flow of U.S. aid to Colombia's military and police.In theory, the Yankee dollars are earmarked for anti-drug efforts -- but in practice, they fund militarized repression aimed largely at popular organizations, labor unions and the poor. For good measure, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies keep hundreds of advisers in Colombia.Such aid is reassuring to foreigners with a huge economic stake in Colombia. These days, the country's biggest legal export isn't coffee -- it's oil. Companies like Texaco, Chevron and Occidental Petroleum are heavily invested.Overall, as the Wall Street Journal noted last year, U.S. firms "are responsible for more than half of all foreign direct investment in the country." As far as they're concerned, Colombia's status quo is worthy of protection.In contrast to Hong Kong's uncertainties, some nightmarish realities arrived long ago in Colombia -- where violence takes about 35,000 lives yearly in a country of 37 million people.The dire shortage of media attention to those realities is especially tragic because the Colombian military is hyper- sensitive to negative publicity in the United States.A few months ago, a high-ranking Colombian officer, General Rito del Rio, angrily denounced a World Wide Web site operated by the Colombia Support Network based in Madison, Wisconsin. The human-rights information on the web -- at -- has infuriated commanders of the Colombian armed forces.But the top brass of Colombia's murderous military don't have much to complain about when it comes to U.S. media coverage of human rights.

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