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AUTHORITIES SUPPRESS COVERAGE OF INDIGENOUS PROTESTS

At least one person was killed and more than 130 were wounded during indigenous demonstrations last week in several departments in Colombia. But with multiple press freedom violations being committed, you would be hard-pressed to find out what's going on.

Indigenous community media groups in the department of Cauca complained recently that several of their websites have been blocked, and a local community radio station has reported suspicious power outages - at a time when indigenous communities have been protesting to protect their fundamental rights, reports the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), IFEX member in Colombia.

Thousands of indigenous Colombians, mainly in the southwest and northwest, mobilised last week on a five-point plan. It calls for the reestablishment of their territorial rights as laid out by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and rallies against the Colombian free-trade deal with the U.S., Canada and the EU and the increasing militarisation of the country by the government and paramilitaries.

As part of the protests, indigenous groups blocked several roads last week, including the Pan-American Highway, the country's main north-south thoroughfare, in at least four locations between Colombia's third largest city, Cali, and the city of Popayán, 135 kilometres to the south.

But they were met with a repressive response. Violent clashes broke out between protesters and security officers on 14 and 15 October, when officers attempted to reopen the highway, allegedly firing into the crowds and assaulting them with tear gas and hand grenades. According to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), the clashes have resulted in one death and more than 130 people injured, many gravely.

On the same day, the websites of the Association of Indigenous Councils of Northern Cauca (ACIN) and the Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC), two of the main organisations that have been mobilising through their own media channels, went out of service, reports FLIP.

CRIC told FLIP that its website was down for more than 12 hours until staff temporarily transferred it to another server. CRIC said, "It's very coincidental that the website crashed at exactly the same time that the demonstrations began." The websites of both CRIC and ACIN have previously been down during demonstrations.

Several radio stations had their power cut while they were broadcasting information about the demonstrations. La Libertad radio station, based in the municipality of Totoró, says power outages are common in the area. "However, it appears suspicious to us because this has happened several times when we are broadcasting this type of information," La Libertad said.

Sources in Cauca told FLIP that they believe the obstruction of the independent media outlets may be aimed at preventing the dissemination of allegations of excessive use of force by security forces during the demonstrations.

Meanwhile, journalists who have been covering the demonstrations have expressed concern over their safety. "We are in the line of fire," one journalist told FLIP.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), foreign journalists have been stopped and questioned and even expelled for "taking part in political activities". Julien Dubois, a French journalist planning to document the protests in Cauca Valley, was detained on 13 October, expelled the next day and banned from Colombia for five years.

Colombia has a long tradition of community, citizen-based media projects that consistently present an alternative narrative to the corporate media. They are linked to a broader network of national, alternative media (such as Indymedia-Colombia and SICO, among others). But as concluded at International PEN's recent World Congress in Bogotá, their perspectives are rarely heard through mainstream channels, which often give an unfiltered voice to the official authorities.

The mass media have been mainly echoing the government's perspective: that the protests have been infiltrated by "destabilising forces" - the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The accusations have been denied by protesters.

"The (Álvaro) Uribe government continues to make the unsubstantiated link in an attempt to avoid any dialogue with the communities. This fact does not come through in any of the coverage whatsoever, leaving the audience in a permanent state of being misinformed," said Mario A. Murillo, a respected professor at Hofstra University in New York, who has been documenting the protests on his blog in Colombia.

"The government's claims... have almost become conventional wisdom in the last few days because of the capacity of the Uribe administration to set the agenda, present its arguments to domestic journalists with indignation and authority, and come off as the victim once again," he added.

In some respects, the indigenous groups have defied the odds and have been successful in gathering support on an international level, and getting other rights groups to take notice. An open letter demanding an international mission go to Colombia, addressed to Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has already garnered more than 150 signatures, including some from Canada's First Nations groups.

In the meantime, at least 12,000 indigenous people started a march from La Maria, Cauca to Cali on 21 October to continue to pressure President Uribe to address their concerns. They have vowed to continue marching to Bogotá if he doesn't show. Despite talks over the weekend with three ministers and the promise by Uribe to buy land for the indigenous peoples, there was no deal made between them and the government.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) recalls that the protests occur within a general context of grave, systematic and repeated violations of the rights of indigenous peoples in Colombia. According to FIDH, in the last month, 29 indigenous persons were killed in the country, and over the past six years more than 1,240 indigenous persons have been murdered and at least 53,885 displaced.

Visit these links:
- FLIP: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/97745/
- RSF: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/97757/
- International PEN: http://tinyurl.com/5ourg7
- Mario A. Murillo's blog, with "Media Representations of Popular Mobilizations Ignore the Movement's Message": http://mamaradio.blogspot.com
- Statement by President Uribe (15 October): http://tinyurl.com/6czykk
- FIDH: http://tinyurl.com/6ojjsd
- ACIN: http://nasaacin.org
- CRIC: http://www.cric-colombia.org/
- ONIC: http://www.onic.org.co/
- Indymedia-Colombia: http://colombia.indymedia.org/
(Photo: Demonstrators blocking the Pan American Highway last week clashed with security forces. Luz Edith Cometa/nasaacin.org)

(22 October 2008)

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