Peru: The Mass Media and Reconciliation

The Mass Media and Reconciliation: A Peruvian case
Peru is a land of stark contrasts. Defined ‘by the World Bank as an “upper-middle-income economy’ this categorisation fails to reveal the bellowing inequality historically and continually separating the wealthy, largely coastal, population and the impoverished populace often inhabiting the Andean and Amazonian regions (Arana, 2013). Such polarizations principally contributed to a brutal twenty year civil war, ending little over a decade ago. Throughout the conflict ‘print and broadcast media parted from objectivity’, unable or unwilling to attempt a narrative of neutrality under such divisive circumstances (Laplante & Phenicie, 2010: 1). The media’s influential involvement, like within many post-conflict societies, did not simply end following the official conclusion of conflict, thus bringing into question their responsibility following periods of systematic violence, characterised by anger, fear and sectarianism. In Peru past memories contribute to polarizing the nation, though some argue the Peruvian ‘mass media plays a direct role in this ongoing societal tension’ failing ‘to adequately mediate conflicting views of the country‘s history—its causes and consequences’ (Laplante & Phenicie, 2010: 252).

The media’s prominence as a tool for public education is beyond question. Helping to frame debates and cultivate social opinions, the media’s operation within post-conflict situations remains highly influential, thus constituting a key aspect of any post-conflict transitionary agenda. However for whom will this education benefit? Does it lend itself to enhancing a reconciled society, critical thinking and attempting to resolve the structural problems that led to the conflict? Or, are such concerns secondary to bolstering ratings and preserving a profitable narrative of the status quo? Considering the daily reproduction of its opinion, debate and knowledge, the media’s role must be factored into any move towards reconciliation.

In Peru, reconciliation principally refers to the civil-war during 1980-2000, fought primarily between the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas and the Peruvian military, said to have resulted in 70 000 deaths (Theidon, 2013). Born in the impoverished, largely indigenous Andes, Shining Path soon hijacked this suffering for their own cause, preaching to overthrow feudal and capitalist systems of power in order to create their communist utopia. Characterised by ruthless zealots, Shining Path ‘built a top-down organisation with its Spanish-speaking, educated intellectuals out ahead of the indigenous masses’ assimilating ‘many of the same feudal and colonial divides it had intended to destroy’ (Cheek, 2010, p.307). The armed forces responded with a ‘brutal counterinsurgency war in which “Andean peasant” became conflated with “terrorist”, resulting in massive indiscriminate violence against the indigenous population’ (Theidon. 2010, p.93). The chaos of the war ended with the resounding defeat of Shining Path along with the downfall of President Fujimori whom during the earlier conflict orchestrated a coup, propped up by media propaganda and violence.
Following the conflict, Peru attempted a complex peace building process, held up by a precarious democracy. Many social problems that led to Shining Paths support endured, while much of the entrenched elitism remained. Although shortly after the conflict Peru established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), arguably ‘the most ambitious truth-telling project’ in Latin America, this work remained highly controversial and somewhat lacked necessary supported of other bodies of public pedagogy particularly to fulfil its healing potential (Mendez. 2006, p.135). A key split within post-conflict Peru is over both the justification and investigation into state brutality and the causes for Shining Paths rise to infamousness. These issues continue to reduce reconciliation to sectarianism, a split some argue mainstream media often helped consolidate by, at best, ‘merely reporting what each side says’ in ephemeral and shallow observations, failing ‘to lead to the establishment of collective memory and national reconciliation’, while leaving the population unengaged with the deeper questions and problems (2010, p.209). Indeed ‘during the Truth Commissions operation, local headlines tended to highlight procedural and administrative aspects of its work…merely portraying surface issues that took on tones of scandal, distracting the public attention away from the content’, while some papers such as La Razon, ‘continually reported on the commissioners salaries’ (Laplante & Phenicie. 2010, p.216). This kind of reporting, while perhaps conducive to improve ratings, does little for moving towards reconciling a divided society.
Although in 2007 Fujimori was imprisoned, somewhat helped by various progressive media stations, the decade following the war tells a different story as despite most of Shining Paths key figures dead or imprisoned, very little military or political personnel have been convicted, despite their involvement in nearly half the casualties and the majority of sexual crimes (Querol. 2013). Furthermore many ‘media directors and owners form part of the powerful elite whose business and political connections have a vested interest in smokescreens, sensationalism and even censorship’ with the ‘legacy of Fujimori’s presidency’ said to have somewhat institutionalized itself within much of the Peruvian media (Laplant & Phenicie. 2010, p.228). Thus with much of the free press in the hands of exclusive sectors of society, Peru continually manufactures the views of these groups, largely neglecting the narratives and opinions of Peru’s vastly multicultural populace, particularly its Indigenous and Afro-Peruvian populations.
The absence of multiply voices within mainstream Peruvian media, particularly from the Indigenous sectors, remains a major problem in attempting to reconcile with the memory of the civil war: especially considering the Indigenous Peruvians made up the majority of casualties. Further problematic however, is the ‘ethnically saturated category of terrorist’ somewhat perpetuated by sectors of the Peruvian media (Theidon. 2010, p.109). Because Shining Path ’remain monolithically demonized in Peru’, pragmatic approaches to deal with both the memories and suffering of those previously connected to Shining Path or those who suffered state brutality are often discredited as an ‘apology for terror’ (Theidon. 2010, p.99; Rojas-Perez. 2013, p.152). The Statement of a senior political figure – ‘with Shining Path there can be no pact, no political solution and no form of reconciliation’ – is reflected throughout much of Peruvian higher society, often as an excuse for upholding structural inequalities, as ‘demands for social justice are frequently denounced as rekindling the ashes of terrorism’ (Theidon. 2010, p.99). For example, in 2007 then-President Alan Garcia denounced ‘nationwide social protests involving thousands of rural Peruvians demanding to share in the benefits of the growing economy’ as ‘pro-Shining Path terrorists’, a statement which became ‘frequently cited by the media…tapping into the continued societal divisions’ (Theidon. 2010, p. 99). Indeed ’the image of the violent ethnic “other” became a remarkably resilient personae of the war’ and its causes, particularly among sectors of society not willing to acknowledge the contributing role of inequality (Theidon. 2001 & 2010, p.20). Thus many Peruvians ‘view the thousands of slain and disappeared victims- largely indigenous farmers- as terrorists deserving their punishment’- an attitude often leaving the imagined Andean regions and their people, devastated by poverty, considered dehumanised enough to deserve their fate (Laplante & Phenicie. 2010, p.273). Consequently much of the mainstream press within Peru utilises the historically lingering sentiments of discrimination to solidify a profitable status quo. This is particularly pertinent in undermining support for indigenous anti-mining campaigns. One example of this occurred during a 2009 peaceful anti-mining protest turned violent where ’22 police and at least 40 protesters were killed’ (Gilbert. 2009). However ‘widely circulated by the media’ was the number of police killed, ‘preferring to report what would seem to be an authorless or inexplicable confrontation’ by indigenous citizens, instead of protesters ‘defending their ancestral and communal lands’ (2009). This incident is not an anomaly but part of a regular occurrence in the decade following the war as mining projects continue to penetrate Peru’s indigenous inland, while the memory of the civil war becomes used to justify this action, perpetuating indigenous otherness. While these sections of the media do not create discrimination or the coloniality of power, both historically present, they do contribute to the ‘reproduction of ethnic prejudice’ (Van Dijk. 2012). Ideally following periods of systemic violence the media could have an impact humanizing the population, ‘assisting in breaking down stereotypes and cultivating empathy and respect’ (Laplante & Phenicie. 2010, p.273). Unfortunately in many post-conflict societies, such as Peru, this process rarely occurs, and often the free press merely becomes a speaking platform for elite sectors and their considerations.
Hence, given the media’s centrality to enhancing democracy and critical thinking, should stronger emphasis be placed upon their role following traumatic upheavals? Should the attempted objectivity be rethought considering the frequent claim ‘neutrality is not possible in a context of a tug of war over the past’ where previous offenders and injustice remain? (Laplante & Phenicie. 2010, p.225)? Furthermore does so-called press freedom compromise the search for reconciliation if such free press, relying on advertising and ratings, has little desire in furthering legal and hegemonic reconciliation they may undermine private benefits? In Peru, despite the 2011 ‘law introduced against explicit racist discourse in the media’, the framing of stories, rarely from subaltern viewpoint, often perpetuates otherness and glorifies a particularly way of viewing reality (xxxx). Further reproduced within Peruvian media is the inflexible hatred of Shining Path, summed up by the often sited declaration of former President Alan Garcia that ‘Peru would neither forgive, nor forget, nor enter into dialogue’, a statement that captures the sentiments of many involved in the Peruvian mainstream media (Theidon. 2006, p.455). Theidon calls this attitude ‘distance and indulgent’ for those same social elites dominating the mass media often ‘live in enclaves of wealthy neighbourhoods’, not living ‘with the daily legacies of a fratricidal conflict’ where prior adversaries constitute neighbours, friends, colleagues and family- indeed ‘intimate Enemies’ (2006, p.436). Therefore can the media intentionally engage towards reconciliation and if so does this compete with freedom of the press whereby acrimonious and possibly misrepresentative assertions ought to be consciously censored or downplayed? Hence does ‘freedom of the press’ constitute ‘an absolute value’ or is it ‘limited by certain higher or competing objectives’ (Laplante & Phenicie. 2010, p.225)? Does outside involvement in the free press, to censor or break down media empires, undermine democracy if such free press, uncontrolled, is itself harmful to democracy? As Laplante and Phenicie explain ‘Germany took this route following the Second World War, seeking a balance between free speech and mutual respect and equality through various regulations on hate speech’ (2010, p.226). Naturally outside involvement must attempt neutrality, perhaps from the United Nations, and while this contradicts ‘international norms of freedom to receive and impart information’, the frequency of reported press involvement in ‘provoking violence and assisting repression’ during conflicts proposes that ‘a balance must be struck’ post-conflict (Laplante & Phenicie. 2010, p.282). The case of Peru suggests that the role of mass media must be given paramount consideration in attempting to reconcile post-conflict societies whereby the stakes of rebuilding democracy or the foundations of future conflict, are high.

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