(en) The Peruvian embassy siege and what it tell us about the media

Andrew Flood (andrewflood@geocities.com)
Wed, 23 Apr 1997 15:08:58 +0000


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The Peruvian embassy siege and what it tell us about the media (Andrew Flood..Dublin...23/April...1997)

[This article is also available on the www at http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/2419/peru_mrta _seige.html ]

Last night the siege of the Japanese embassy in Lima ended when Peruvian state forces stormed the embassy and tore down the flags and banners the rebels had hung from the roof. The fact that single shots were heard after the compound had been taken and the low casualty figure among the attacking soldiers and hostages suggests that at least some of the rebels were executed after they had been captured or wounded.

The action by the MRTA in seizing the Japanese in Lima, Peru in December and capturing a spectacular array of personnel from the Peruvian and international ruling class in doing so at first attracted considerable international media attention. For a period of time some attention at least was given to what was happening in Peru and by extension elsewhere in the post-cold war 'new world order'.

For the ruling class this coverage had the danger that one of the supposed success stories of neo-liberalism, Peru would be exposed by the revelations surrounding the MRTA. For the most part they had little to worry about, the media loyally portrayed the siege as an outdated anachronism in a country undergoing rapid economic and democratic improvements. To be sure the more liberal elements hinted that all was not perfect but nowhere was the truth hinted at, that the poor have become poorer and that the Peruvian governments use of terror has and continues to exceed that of the Shining Path.

Arm the Spirit

On the internet a group called Arm the Spirit Web which essentially acts as an independent media source for radicals created a web page of media reports for those interested in following the course of the siege. Unusually they also made available the full communiques of the group which had seized the embassy, the MRTA and a number of background interviews. If you were willing to do a bit of work wading through all these reports elements of what was really happening in Peru started to show through.

During the second week this resulted in them becoming targets of a sustained campaign in the mainstream media. Its central focus was to say that because ATS had had put up information on the MRTA there were somehow part of the MRTA, Reuters started this process on 3 Jan [1]. with an article that also implied those who provided web information on the Zapatistas were "among the first to stake out revolutionary cyberspace, and became enthusiastic guerrilla hackers." Similar articles were published by many papers over the following days, including the Wall Street Journal which added the 'enhancement' of ringing the employers of people who had put web pages up. The overall tone of these pieces were that these people were clever terrorists exploiting loopholes in censorship laws.

As the media were fully aware this sort of approach could only have two effects, firstly to create the atmosphere in which the providers of information could be criminalised, through opening up the acceptability of accusing them of being terrorists, secondly it immediately threatened the future livelihood of those whose employers had been contacted. The desired end result was to deny the public access to this information and force them to rely as always on the 'news' as reported by 'safe' media that is either state owned or owned by the very wealthy.

The actual information you could find on these pages serves to underline this point. The most frequently referred to one was the Arm the Spirit page at http://burn.ucsd.edu/~ats/mrta.htm. But what information was available on this page? The excited reader hoping to find instruction manuals on storming embassies would have been disappointed, the most radical documents were communiques and interviews from the MRTA alongside statements from various radical sources saying they understand why the MRTA are doing what they are doing. Most of the material was numerous articles from mainstream news sources including both Reuters and the Wall Street Journal on the ongoing embassy siege. The mainstream media considers that it has a right to quote from communiques or interviews with 'terrorists'2 whenever it wishes to you. One might be quite rightly puzzled in trying to understand what made web pages like Arm the Spirits 'terrorist' for quoting such sources but allowed the Wall Street Journal or Reuters to be 'respectable'.

The real terrorists

Indeed because of the way they were being targeted as terrorists the Arm the Spirit collective felt it necessary to put out a press statement3 explaining "All of the information displayed on our page was gathered from the public domain and sources are cited. We are an information collective. Our political work entails collecting, translating, and disseminating information. Our MRTA Solidarity Page is nothing more than this. Much of the information on the page is even from mainstream sources." They somewhat kindly attributed the idea put around by the media that they had "a direct communications link to the compound" as being due to "sloppy journalism".

If only life was this simple, in fact Arm the Spirit are the latest victims of similar tactics that have been used against other groups putting forward ideas both on the internet and in other media. In March of 1995 for instance identical tactics were used on the other side of the Atlantic by the Sunday Times and large circulation trade journal Computing to attack the anarchist internet library known as Spunk Press [at http://www.cwi.nl/cwi/people/Jack.Jansen/spunk/Spu nk_Home.html]. The method here again was also to imply a link between the information providers and terrorists (this time on the basis of one publicly available Red Army Faction communique being among the 1000+ documents Spunk Press archives!) and to go after the employer of the then Spunk Press co-ordinator in order to manufacture a situation where his job was threatened. Again all of the material on Spunk Press is the sort of stuff you could buy in a bookshop or library in most countries in the world and again the media publishing this story would have been aware of this. Some people on the Spunk Press collective pointed out that some of the journalists who published the story were suspected of being MI5 assets[4], a more cynical interpretation of media 'mistakes' perhaps then the Arm the Spirit one.

A further twist was to follow for on January 10th ATS received an email from Reuters telling them to immediately remove Reuters material from their web pages or face immediate court action! It may be co- incidence that this email arrived even as ATS were using the presence of such 'mainstream' media on their site as proof that there information was gathered from public sources. Forcing ATS to remove mainstream material and leaving them with MRTA communiques, interviews and statements of support from other groups only would of course make future attempts to label them as 'terrorist' due to there bias more credible[5].

The real reason the ATS were targeted is easy to find. If one looks at mainstream media reports through the embassy siege a range of opinions deemed acceptable soon emerges. At one end of this range is the die hard 'Peru is a modern democracy with a booming economy, the MRTA are outdate terrorist die-hards and any flaws in the Peruvian state are due to there presence alone'. However in any country that claims to have a free press you'll find a range of more analytical looks at the Peruvian situation, at there most 'radical' these will approach 'The MRTA may be terrorist die-hards but there are flaws in the Peruvian democracy and economy, particularly in relation to the poor'. What you won't find in the mainstream media are statements like the ATS made in their Jan 10 press statement, that "Of course, our political stance is not a neutral one. We support the MRTA's call for the release of all MRTA political prisoners in Peru and fundamental changes in Peru's economic system."

Now if you express this last sort of opinion, that the system requires fundamental change in a 'flawed democracy' to your friends in Peru your liable to end up in a military court, in front of three hooded judges who will sentence you to up to 6 years in prison for "defending terrorism". In most 'developed democracies' you can express this to your friends providing your talking about somewhere that's a good distance away and the country you in has no strong interest in. Caution would be advisable however if its a bit closer to home, substituting IRA for MRTA and saying this in London might well end up with you being on the sort of list that gets people stopped at airports and held for a couple of days 'questioning'.

However you'll never get a chance to express this opinion to large numbers of people through mass circulation newspapers, radio or television unless its in the context of not being given time to explain such an outlandish opinion and being bracketed with a much greater volume of material attacking you for being a 'terrorist fellow traveller'. In short we are allowed to say there are injustices and problems with any economic or state system. We are not in general allowed to express the idea that the economic system or the state is itself the problem, at least not in the mass media.

Who owns the media

There is a simple reason for this, the mass media is all either owned by the state or owned by the very rich. Its production and distribution requires the owner to court business interests for advertising revenues. This of course effects what the media says.

Now of course there will be those who will acknowledge that there is some truth in this but say 'anyone can publish a paper, there is no law against it'. This is true but its interesting to note that you can't say 'anyone can run a radio station', almost all states have laws that mean in effect only the state and the wealthy are allowed to broadcast. Those who have being trying to set up local micro-power broadcasters in the US for instance can tell you that this is not allowed, that even short range transmitters outside the control of the wealthy elite are quickly stamped on.

If it is true that anyone can publish a paper then the experience of activist groups that do so reveals that the act of publication is not the most difficult task. An article no matter how well written will have limited impact if it is only read by a tiny percentage of the population. By definition anything that is published by groups outside the ruling elite will be at an immediate disadvantage when it comes to competing with the publications of the elite. It will lack funds to employ staff or to subsidise a long start up period when it establishes a readership, it will lack the funds to advertise its presence, it will probably be so limited by lack of funds and lack of time to produce good articles that it will appear infrequently and become more in the way of a magazine then a paper. It will probably also lack sufficient money to gain a circulation through mainstream distribution. Without this circulation the only choice will be the old one of selling on street corners and at demonstrations and meetings, further cutting into the time of those who produce it.

Advertisers which are after all companies or state bodies will be unwilling to advertise in a publication that constantly seeks to undermine the very system that guarantees there existence. It will lack funds to fund journalists to travel to cover a story, to pay informants or to buy stories from mainstream press agency (although such stories written to be sellable to the papers owned by the state or ruling elite are unlikely to be suitable anyway). The lack of advertising revenue and of large scale distribution means that in terms of a selling price it will be unable to compete on that basis alone with the publications of the ruling elite. Those who buy it will be doing so for one reason only, that is that they are so pissed off with the current system that they are already looking for a revolutionary alternative. So the current system while speaking of a free press instead results in a media where all you hear are the opinions acceptable to the ruling elite. You don't come across opinions outside this spectrum unless you go looking for them.

This is not to say there are no alternative media, every where you go in the world you will find groups of people putting huge amounts of unpaid work and even larger amounts of the meagre wages into producing and distributing radical press. Commonly they are linked internationally in an attempt to tackle some of the news deficiencies I mention earlier but when the cost of every phone call and every fax is a added burden these contacts cannot be anything but weak and slow. At times of mass struggle these media can flower and perhaps start to gain some influence, but when this happens we rapidly find that our free press is only free providing the sections that say awkward things are insignificant. Every developed country has seen at least one period where the state moved to ban a 'free press' that was providing too many readers for publications other then those controlled by the wealthy elite.

The media is quite aware that they can only be a mouthpiece for the opinions favourable to the elite, essentially this is one of the first things any journalist learns as if they fail to do so they will be quickly out of a job. It's a rare thing for them to admit this though and indeed in general it is a rule that does not need to be stated. But at times even those near the top of this food chain get fed up with their role, perhaps most famously in 1953 when John Swinden, the then head of the New York Times when asked to toast an independent press in a gathering at the National Press Club said

"There is no such thing at this date of the world's history in America as an independent press. You know it, and I know it. There is not one of you who dares to write his honest opinion, and if you did, you know beforehand it would never appear in print. I am paid weekly for keeping my honest opinion out of the paper. Others of you are paid similar salaries for similar things. and any of you who would be so foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streets looking for another job. If I allow my honest opinions to appear in one issue of my paper, before 24 hours, my occupation would be gone. The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it, and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and the vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks. They pull the strings, and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes."

Why the internet

This review of the historic media brings us back to considering the attacks on Arm the Spirit, Spunk Press and other types of the new media active on the internet. The internet is providing a real headache for the mechanism of news control that has been developed by the wealthy elite. The problem is its too cheap and accessible to those providing information. The cost of putting up a web page read by 100,000 people is no more then the cost of putting one up that is read by five people. International communication is now far cheaper and within the grasp of many groups in the developed world through the net.

The users of the internet are from the better paid sections of the developed world and from students and education workers on a more international basis. But these users spread well outside the far, far more limited sphere of the owners and controllers of the mainstream media. The vast bulk of these people have no objective reason for preserving the system of the ruling elite, they may occupy relatively privileged positions on the global level but it is still the case that the elites system only benefits the very narrow layer at the top of it.

The communication of information between groups of people is not merely an abstract thing that has no effect on those that communicate. Information can cause outrage, hope, a sense of the possible, it can lead to people taking action. This in fact is the reason the wealthy elite are so keen to maintain a monopoly over the information most of the population are exposed to. They use their strangle hold on the media to create a picture of A world where other people are dangers to your liberty rather then potential allies in the fight for liberty: A world where the state protects you rather then oppresses you: A world where if you work hard enough and obey without questioning you can succeed: rather then a world where people have almost no control over their economic live and are hired and fired at the whim of their employers.

The Netwar is coming

The ruling class is fully aware of the dangers of a free press and some of their discussions in relation to the dangers for them inherent in the dangers of the masses using the internet have been made public. Perhaps the best know of these is a document by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt of the International Policy Department, RAND called Cyberwar is coming [6.] This discusses the problems of he new methods of communication for an elite holding on to power both in terms of its effects on actual warfare (the Cyberwar of the title) but also in its effects on access to information, which they term Netwar.

Although the discussion is about future information conflicts it clearly also relates to the way the ruling class has held a strangle hold over information in the past.

"Netwar refers to information-related conflict at a grand level between nations or societies. It means trying to disrupt, damage, or modify what a target population knows or thinks it knows about itself and the world around it."

The simple exercise of substituting the word 'classes' for 'nations or societies' reveals an awareness for the ruling elite of the problems of a 'free press'. The paper goes on to discuss strategies in such an information war

"It may involve public diplomacy measures, propaganda and psychological campaigns, political and cultural subversion, deception of or interference with local media...."

The labelling of information provides as terrorists or the targeting of their employers in order to get them shut up clear falls into the strategy outlined above. But although this piece was written before the latest piece of Netwar the authors target international support groups in another case when they say

"In some respects, the U.S. and Cuban governments are already engaged in a Netwar. This is manifested in the activities of Radio and TV Marti on the U.S. side, and on Castro's side by the activities of pro-Cuban support networks around the world."

Change the names above with Reuters pitched against Arm the Spirit and we can see a clear parallel.

The "political-support networks" referred to below can only refer to the anti-war movements that opposed the US aggression in Vietnam

"More recently, a relatively minor military power that defeated a great modern power--the combined forces of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong--operated in many respects more like a network than an institution; it even extended political-support networks abroad."

The authors are careful to avoid the issue of class but in the abstract they feel it is safe to hint at the war that dare not speak its name, for instance we are told

"Some movements are increasingly organising into cross-border networks and coalitions, identifying more with the development of civil society (even global civil society) than with nation-states, and using advanced information and communications technologies to strengthen their activities."

In all likelihood the above paragraph was drafted with the international movement in support of the EZLN in mind which also talks of 'Civil Society' on an international level. Just in case we miss the point that this conflict does not happen just on the state level but also between internationally organised opposing factions (and what are these if not classes) the authors underline this point with

"Non-state actors should also be considered as opponents, including some millennialist, terrorist, .... organisations that cut across national boundaries. We expect that both Cyberwar and Netwar may be uniquely suited to fighting non-state actors."

or again

"The revolutionary forces of the future may consist increasingly of wide-spread multi- organizational networks that have no particular national identity, claim to arise from civil society, and include aggressive groups and individuals who are keenly adept at using advanced technology for communications, as well as munitions."

Of course the authors are careful to always include 'violent' groups as part of their list but it is quite obvious that being on their lists does not require any use of violence, merely a willingness to tell a side of a story that does not favour the ruling elite. Towards the start the authors explain why the control of access to information is so important

"The analogy is rather like a chess game where you see the entire board, but your opponent sees only his own pieces; you can win even if he is allowed to start with additional powerful pieces."

We are sitting at a very old chess board called class society where 5% or less of the population can see the whole board. Maintaining this advantage for the ruling class in the face of the threat of new technology is what 'Netwar' is all about.

For the ruling class the illusion of a free press has to be maintained at all times. If this illusion crumbles then so too do many of the advantages of controlling the news. People distrust openly censored news or start off with the assumption that the news is the reverse of reality. Such a feeling would only accelerate the demand for an alternative and if necessary underground press.

So rather then resort to open censorship the state is instead waging 'Netwar' on different levels. It is taking advantage of the fact that the information providers must work for a living to target their employers and get them sacked. It is labelling them as terrorists so people will be afraid to look at what they are saying and so in the future action can be taken in the name of 'public safety' against them. It is conducting a campaign against internet privacy so that news from countries which lack a 'free press' cannot be sent out without the fear that it will be intercepted and the source silenced. It is introducing service fees on the net to make it more expensive and so less accessible to those other then the wealthy elite. It is planting stories in the press about the 'dangerous information' being available on the net despite the fact that the same information can often be found in bookshops and libraries. It is creating scares around children accessing pornography on the net or being targeted by child abusers..

What happened around the siege of the Japanese embassy in Peru is but one example of this. Finally let us return to this siege and consider what it is that the state and capitalism fears the mass of the population would find out about the siege and the situation in Peru. The myths of capitalism

Capitalism has relied on one of two myths in order to reduce opposition to it. The first one is that bad though it is the alternative is worse. This was the major myth of the 20th Century and involved implying that the only alternative to western style democratic capitalism was eastern European style state capitalism. The myth was that there was no other alternative to these two 'choices' so western workers were frightened from looking for social change with the bogey man of the KGB and the Gulag. Eastern European workers were frightened with the bogey man of the death squads of Latin American capitalism and the institutionalised racism of South Africa. Of course both these bogey men were very real, what was not real was the idea that we had to choose one or the other.

A remarkable feature of the first myth is how it successfully blamed state terror in the state capitalist countries on the state there while at the same time ignoring state terror in western client states in Latin America and Asia or presenting this terror as being the consequence of civil war. Thus while eastern European dissidents quite rightly attracted considerable attention, those being murdered by the death squads in Latin America remained for the most part as anonymous statistics, if they were known of at all. So while the terror of the Kahmer Rouge in Kambodia was rightly highlighted and condemned the comparable terror of Indonesia in East Timor slipped quietly by the attention of the world media, year after year. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 is widely known about, the British invasion of Egypt in the same year is almost unknown and referred to as the Suez crisis. The list could go on to include the 100,000 killed in Guatemala by the military in the 1980's or the 500,000 killed in Indonesia with the help of the CIA in the 1950's or many other examples.

The second myth is that although things have been bad and abuses were committed this is now stopping and things are getting better. Because things are getting better there is no need for people to actually struggle for a better society, they should just concentrate on working hard and wait for the wealth to 'trickle down' to their level. A corollary of this is that anyone who is standing up and struggling for a better society is in fact only making things worse and deserves a hostile treatment.

Back to Peru

Which brings us to Peru. The media message is quite simple with regards to Peru. The Peruvian state committed abuses but this period is over and the economy is booming. Actually sections of the media will actually leave this as the whole story. The more liberal end will go on to admit that the booming economy might be leaving the poor behind and that there are still problems with democratic rights. All sections of the media however have described the MRTA as terrorists who are responsible for the troubles Peru has passed through but whom are now outdated and without any support. Again the more liberal sections may go on to state the rebels despite their fearsome reputation have been polite to their hostages or even compare them to some romantic but misguided Robin Hoods.

The Washington Post of December 19, 1996[7] neatly summarises this 'analysis' when it says "Fujimori's administration had largely quelled the violent rebellion that terrorised Peru for a decade, involving both MRTA and the much larger Shining Path guerrilla group."

In this weird phraseology the Fujimori's administration seems to be almost a neutral body rather then the chief cause of the terror. Amnesty International figures for the decade referred to, 1981 to 1992 suggest a somewhat different picture for they attribute most of the extrajudical killings to the Fujimori's administration, 53% in fact. The Peruvian states method of quelling rebellion it appears was to kill more people then anyone else. The MRTA hardly figure at all in these killings being responsible for a mere 1%. The almost universally reviled Shining Path were responsible for the remainder and almost inevitable the Washington Post seems to imply they were engaged in some common project when they said "MRTA took up arms in 1984 but never joined forces with the Maoist Shining Path group because of ideological differences. " Presumably the intention here is to blame the MRTA for some of the Shining Paths killings on the grounds that whatever they say there all guerrilla's anyway.

The MRTA in a widely available interview describe their relationship with the Shining Path as follows "Sendero is a very domineering force. They claim to be the sole possessors of the truth and the only standard bearers of revolution in Peru. That's why they have never accepted the existence of other revolutionary organizations in Peru. At the least, they have described us as "armed reformists" and "traitors". But Sendero has also, in the past, described us as their main enemy and murdered many MRTA activists. They have even ambushed MRTA units. These are crimes which cannot be justified in any way; they contradict the values of revolutionaries."

This would seem to contradict the cosy common purpose hinted at by the Washington Post. The media has become adapt at serving its master, ie to be "the tools and the vassals of rich men". So adapt that like a well trained dog its snaps at anything that threatens its servitude and no longer needs detailed control or instruction on what to publish. Almost nowhere for instance will you find mention of the laws which prevent Peruvians freely speaking their minds. Nowhere will you be told that in the period of Fujimori's economic miracle average calorie consumption actually fell by over 10%, that is until they stopped counting in 1992.

It seems that at the time of the attack some of the rebels were playing indoor football with some of the hostages. Now they are dead and Fujimori is parading over their corpses in a bullet-proof jacket. Despite the fact that the executed no hostages, even the current and former heads of the political police and Peruvian states first act was to execute them. Presumably this was to prevent any publicity that might surround a trial and reveal why they undertook such an obviously doomed venture. But whatever the flaws of the MRTA's politics they have succeeded in one thing, all over the world people will be wondering what drove a handful of people to stand up to the might of the Peruvian state with almost no chance of success or escape. They will look for the answers in the press but they won't find them there. And some at least will find themselves driven to find out more, more about Peru, the media and the world we all inhabit.

[This article is also available on the www at http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/2419/peru_mrta _seige.html ]

------ This article represents my views alone. Non-profit distribution of this article encouraged. I'm an anarchist and so am not a supporter of the MRTA or any other Marxist organisation but I do recognise why they found it necessary to take up arms against the Peruvian state. You can find other articles by me at http://www.geocities.com/CapitolHill/2419/andrew.ht ml

see web page for footnotes

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