In the Eyes of the Media, Not All Hostages Are Created Equal

Colombia’s revolutionary guerrilla group known as the FARC has always been highly stigmatized for its involvement with kidnapping, and rightly so. Since shortly after the group’s official inception in 1966, the rebels have targeted politicians, security enforcers and business moguls as fair game for indefinite sequestration in the jungle. Over the years, thousands of individuals have been held captive by the group, for lengths exceeding a decade in some cases. Like the prisoners whose only option is to be patient and wait, the same holds true for their families who are typically left uniformed in the dark while appealing to the deaf ears of the government and FARC commanders.

Despite the historical precedence of the FARC and its habitual kidnapping tendencies, the Colombian media cartels seem to demonstrate a preference for the high-profile variety hostage. While all kidnappings are initially reported in some form or another, only a fraction of these continue to make headlines with the passing of time. Indeed, most captives are lucky to receive follow-up stories of their time in FARC captivity. A select few, however, manage to remain in the media’s spotlight throughout their tenure as prisoners.

Case in point, the most recent high-profile captive who was liberated this past 2 July, Ingrid Betancourt. Throughout her 76-months in FARC custody, Ingrid seemed to be the focus of a perpetual story being run by one of Colombia’s numerous papers, television or radio broadcasts, and the trend persisted internationally. For more than six years, she was unarguably the poster child for FARC prisoners. Her notoriety as a Colombian ex-presidential candidate for the 2002 elections being held captive catapulted her to rock star status which drew both international attention as well as criticism against the government and her captures.

Consistent media coverage of Ingrid’s captivity turned constant as her health began to decline about a year ago. Her fame finally became iconic when a photo of her was released depicting a fragile woman who appeared thinly malnourished and depressed – reports claimed that she was on the verge of death and a letter addressed to her family was made public. Physicians were subsequently brought in to the FARC camp where she was being held in order to evaluate her health and substantiate the reports. In fact, media coverage made it appear that her days were numbered, and until her liberation the world also believed this to be true. Yet on 2 July, Ingrid stepped off the plane in Bogota as a woman who had gained weight and seemed perfectly healthy with a glowing smile. What happened to the frail woman who was on the verge of death? It seems the media overlooked reporting her miraculous improvement in health over the past several months approaching Operation Check.

While estimates range anywhere from 700 to 3,000 hostages being held in custody of the FARC to date, Ingrid appears to have been the only captive who turned ill in the jungle and was thus deemed even more worthy of media attention. It makes one wonder how all the other incarcerated victims have managed to evade illness while in captivity, or if the media simply picks its preferences on which to report. Chances are the latter scenario merits more consideration.

The truth is, not all FARC hostages are created equal. As tourists, security officers, defense contractors, politicians and businessmen are still being held in captivity, it is nearly a sure bet that none of them will ever receive the same press coverage as Ingrid did while in captivity. Even Jhon Frank Pinchao, the police officer who was captured in 1998 and escaped on his own in May of 2007, didn’t receive as much coverage as Ingrid. The ex-prisoner consequently wrote a book to share his nine-year ordeal with the public.

All the media frenzy over Ingrid raises suspicions as to the motives of the press and its supposed adherence to fair reporting. Analyzing Ingrid’s capture by the FARC on 23 February 2002 reveals even more absurdity. While on her presidential campaign in 2002, Ingrid was warned in advance by the Colombian government, the military and police forces not to enter the southern, demilitarized zone (DMZ) of Caqueta in order to pursue her campaign. She was repeatedly advised not to campaign in the DMZ, but nonetheless their warnings went unheeded. Lack of cooperation from the government and military to fly Ingrid into the DMZ at her request brought the candidate to decide that ground travel into the department was her only option, despite the known risks. After the last security stop before entering Caqueta, she was kidnapped by the FARC. Somehow, it would become the government’s responsibility to liberate the stubborn politician who apparently knew better than her advisors.

Like a child who gets burned playing with fire despite parental warnings, Ingrid’s decision as a severe critic of the FARC to enter the DMZ resulted in a difficult lesson to learn over the course of the next 76 months. She, however, would not be subject to biding her time alone without media coverage as so many captives are forced to endure. Contrary to the majority of hostages being held by the FARC, Ingrid’s victim role took on a new level of media coverage that surpassed any other hostage and resulted in her eventual liberation.

While there are demands from France, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and on around the world that all remaining hostages be set free, the media have seemingly traded in their Colombian jungle captive for the French cosmopolitan, debutante variety. For now, the public will be receiving their news reports on Ingrid from France, and a new star will eventually be born in Colombia for the media cartels.

David A.G. Fischer is a high school English teacher who lives in Colombia. He is also a lifetime student who contributes socially as a free-lance writer, volunteer, and activist. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. evie said on July 17th, 2008 at 7:06am #

    “seemed perfectly healthy with a glowing smile.” If she looked perfectly healthy – get an eye exam. Who wouldn’t grin/smile after release from 6 years in captivity. Has the “left” always been this petty and shitty?

    “She was repeatedly advised not to campaign in the DMZ, but nonetheless their warnings went unheeded. Lack of cooperation from the government and military to fly Ingrid into the DMZ at her request brought the candidate to decide that ground travel into the department was her only option, despite the known risks.” —- Lemme see, what’s that phrase the “left” screams a lot? Oh yes, you’re “blaming the victim.”

    If the Stockholm syndrome were to kick in and Ingrid defends her captors she’ll be the new darling of the “left.”

  2. Michael Kenny said on July 17th, 2008 at 8:28am #

    Here in Europe, “Saint Ingrid”, as she’s being called, has been hyped into a cross between Joan of Arc and Mother Teresa and all the talk is of her running for president in 2010.

    None of that is surprising, but it tends to confirm that the liberation was intended to be carried out behind Uribe’s back, while he was busy in Bogota looking after McCain. Logically Uribe should have wanted Ingrid Betancourt to die in that jungle. Betancourt, the dead martyr, was a political asset to him. Betancourt, alive and free, is a mortal threat to his ambition of a third term. If Uribe really did want to get her out, then he must be the world’s dumbest politician, something his political career up to now tends to contradict. Certainly, the things that Saint Ingrid is saying and doing, or more to the point, not saying and not doing, tend to suggest that she herself thinks he wanted her dead.

    The FARC people must be laughing their heads off! They’ve got rid of a political embarrassment, the “screwed” Uribe and the US and, to crown it all, they were paid 20 Mil to do it!

  3. Alejandro said on July 17th, 2008 at 10:09am #

    Ingrid’s family continually kept her in the news. Her husband in particular, carried out a campaign complete with life-size cutout poster, phone calls, interviews, etc.

    The French government also fueled the media’s interest in Ingrid’s plight. So not only is the media pulling for high-profile hostages to be on the news, but so are many people who are concerned for them.

  4. Pamela said on July 17th, 2008 at 11:37am #

    and what of the American hostages, including the pilot who was murdered as soon as the FARC approached the downed aircrew? And what of Cecilio Padron who was kidnapped in Panama?
    Were they too like children playing with fire? They are getting a lot of press as well, and there is really not such thing as bad press- it all makes people aware.
    No all hostages are not created equal, but the fact that Ingrid’s captivity brought ANY attention to the situation is a good thing…
    As for her health, I don’t know how you could possibly says she looked “glowing”…

  5. August said on July 17th, 2008 at 2:29pm #

    While it is true that Ingrid Betancourt received more attention from the press than other hostages, she is doing her best to raise awareness of the hostages left in the jungle. I think even though the media attention is a bit onesided, it will help the remaining hostages in the long end to have a strong advocate for their freedom.

  6. heike said on July 18th, 2008 at 7:23am #

    And who was it who got all the attention in South Africa during the Apartheid years? Nelson Mandela. Media campaigns tend to focus on an icon. Why was the “Diary of Anne Frank” so universally popular? Because the fate of one person was a proxy for the fate of millions. Yes, there are plenty of stories of captives turning ill in the jungle and being denied elementary medical attention. Actually, if the press fully covered events in Colombia, it would have focused on the statement by one FARC leader threatening to shoot down any planes involved in poppy eradication efforts.

  7. Aaron Aarons said on July 19th, 2008 at 4:34pm #

    1) Why are the prisoners held by the FARC called “hostages” while the leftist prisoners held by the Colombian state — and the thousands who have been murdered by that state’s paramilitary death squads — aren’t even mentioned?

    2) So “the rebels have targeted politicians, security enforcers and business moguls as fair game for indefinite sequestration in the jungle” Would it be better if they just killed ordinary people whom they suspected might support their enemies, as the state’s paramilitaries have done for decades — often with the open support of the official military?

    While I’m not unhappy about Betancourt’s release, the freeing of those captured U.S. mercenaries was a victory, if minor, for the imperialist enemy and will make it much harder for the FARC to win the release from U.S. prisons of its own kidnapped leaders. Of course, the fate of the latter, and of any leftist Colombians in the hands of the empire or its vassal, is apparently of no concern to the supposedly dissident voices on this page.

  8. hp said on July 19th, 2008 at 6:25pm #

    Hell, I remember in Macedonia when the Macedonian army had surrounded a group of the terrorist KLA near Skopje. To prevent them from being taken prisoner, NATO simply called a time out, brought in some buses from Kosovo and drove the KLA (and their 17 US “advisors”) to safety.

  9. Aaron Aarons said on July 22nd, 2008 at 2:40am #

    >’A few years ago FARC “issued” Law 002 which mandated that anyone with assets of $1 million pay “war taxes” or else they would be kidnapped.’

    I wish the U.S. government, or any capitalist government, would only tax people with assets of $1 million or more!

    >’Yearly estimates of FARC funds range between $200-300 million per year from ransom, drugs, crime.’

    I don’t know what, in evie’s mind, constitutes “crime”. My main concern would be what FARC does with the money. Presumably, they need a lot of resources to maintain the areas they still govern.

    >Why isn’t FARC targeting the Colombia military, major infrastructure and installations, government offices in the capital, etc.?

    I can’t answer that. Maybe they’re just trying to defend their territory against much greater force.

    >And, FARC will murder “ordinary people” if they do not support FARC, just as the Reagan contras murdered campesinos, teachers, aid workers, etc. The contras gave the young rural Nicaraguans a choice – join FDN or die as a Sandinista sympathizer.

    How many “ordinary people” have allegedly been killed merely for not supporting the FARC in the group’s ~45-year history? AmeriKKKa’s Contras killed tens of thousands of civilians in a much smaller country in only ten years. But what’s even more important is that the Contras were fighting for imperialism against a left-reformist government, while the FARC has been fighting against a vicious oligarchy backed by imperialism.