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Media : Patriotism and Public Relations Paying Off for Escobar : * Colombia’s media have been surprisingly uncritical of the newly jailed drug lord. ‘I’m not reading anything about how (he) has killed a lot of people,’ complains a U.S. official.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The wave of euphoria generated by last month’s surrender of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar has blurred the critical focus of much of the country’s news media on him and other drug bosses, government officials and journalists here charge.

Escobar turned himself in under a government leniency program, which critics say means he will receive an inordinately light sentence. But Colombia’s newspapers, radio stations and television networks don’t seem to care.

“I think we have lacked the coolheadedness necessary to show the public what Escobar’s surrender could mean for the country in both positive and negative terms,” said Amparo Ponton, a reporter for Colombia’s evening “News At Seven” program. “We have all been talking about how wonderful it all is without stopping to think about how we are going to judge this criminal.”

She and others say that Escobar’s surrender has underscored the Colombian media’s tendency to stress patriotism over criticism, sensationalism over analysis and reliance on dubious sources over patience.

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Escobar and other traffickers have killed journalists and bombed newspapers in the past. But the drug bosses have recently adopted a subtler approach that may be yielding better results, the critics say.

In this view, Escobar has used the national news media and a Roman Catholic priest in a devastating publicity campaign to recast the trafficker’s violent image into that of a returning prodigal son.

“Pablo is a good guy right now,” said one U.S. official. “The drug traffickers have run a very effective publicity campaign. The mindset for accepting Escobar and letting bygones be bygones is certainly there.”

“I don’t know who is behind Pablo Escobar, but he has to be a publicity genius like Goebbels,” added Ana Maria Cano, a Medellin city councilwoman and former journalist, referring to the propaganda minister in Nazi Germany in World War II.

Only months ago, the drug trafficker--accused of killing hundreds of people in a campaign of bombings and assassinations--was Colombia’s avatar of evil. But then a renowned, 84-year-old priest in this 90%-Catholic country called him a good Christian, helped negotiate freedom for the drug cartel’s last two hostages and later accompanied Escobar on his way to jail.

Ponton charged that Colombian journalists have gone overboard in their pursuit of Father Rafael Garcia and his sound bites calling Escobar “a good Christian” and “a man who wants peace for Colombia.”

A frustrated U.S. official agreed, adding: “Escobar has recruited this priest as his personal P.R. man. Millions of Colombians are hearing this garbage, and I’m not reading anything about how Escobar has killed a lot of people.”

While many Colombians say they, too, are outraged by Garcia’s statements, others are taking the priest at his word.

“Pablo Escobar has already paid his debt to Colombian society by surrendering and asking forgiveness,” said Luis Enrique Monroy, a Medellin sales representative. “Even one year in jail is too much for Escobar considering the price he has already paid.”

“I maintain that Pablo Escobar discovered the only person in Colombia who could take him out of his demonic role and pardon him,” said Camilo Borrero, a political scientist and investigator for a Catholic church research center in Bogota. “Escobar’s image had deteriorated so much as a result of his indiscriminate terrorism that a religious petition was the only alternative left for him.”

If the priest planted the idea of Escobar as penitent sinner, the drug boss started tilling the ground long before. Escobar’s quest for popular support dates back to the early 1980s. The drug boss promoted himself as a public patron on his own Medellin radio show, reinforcing the image by building soccer fields and low-income housing in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

But police charges that Escobar ordered the 1984 killing of Justice Minister Rodrigo Lara Bonilla forced the cartel leader into hiding. Police pressure heightened after gunmen allegedly working for the cartel leader shot and killed the popular presidential candidate, Sen. Luis Carlos Galan, in August, 1989.

Polls at the time showed that a majority of Colombians supported the extradition of traffickers to face charges in the United States--despite misgivings that the policy was an affront to national pride.

Escobar was clearly down, but far from out. In the following months, the cartel terrorized Colombia with a campaign first of indiscriminate bombings, then selective assassinations of Medellin police and finally kidnapings.

At the same time, the cartel was accusing police of human rights violations against traffickers and their families in frequent communiques faxed to the national media, which often published or aired the material with no editing or comment.

One paper that refused to publish the communiques was Bogota’s El Espectador, the only Colombian news organization still favoring an all-out war on the cartel. “I’m absolutely all for a free press,” said Alfonso Cano, El Espectador’s general manager and columnist. “But to publish these ‘Extraditables’ communiques as if they were a type of advertisement is to give criminals a voice they shouldn’t have.”

It is true that unidentified groups have assassinated suspected cartel sympathizers in Medellin, where the organization is based. And police have shot and killed several cartel terrorists--operatives, according to cartel leaders, who were unarmed. Based partly on the cartel’s accusations, the attorney general’s office demanded the dismissals of five police officers last April.

A senior Colombian official said recently that Escobar has successfully used the human rights issue to damage the government’s credibility.

“The media here is far too concerned about the latest news, be it a cartel communique, Escobar’s surrender or something else,” the official said. “There is not nearly enough background about criminals and what they have done previously. This contributes to Colombia’s collective forgetfulness.”

Critics also fault the Colombian press for the way it has handled stories about human rights abuses against Colombian prisoners in the United States--stories that appeared against the background of efforts here to rewrite Colombia’s constitution to prohibit extradition. The accounts were denied at a news conference by Foreign Minister Luis Fernando Jaramillo. (The National Assembly approved an extradition ban hours before Escobar’s surrender.)

“Many here cannot separate their role as journalists from their role as patriotic Colombians,” said Ponton at the “News at Seven” studios. “I think we in the news media have ended up feeding the country’s chauvinism and anti-Americanism, rather than helping the public realize what type of assassin we finally have in jail.”

Much of the Colombian media have also indirectly defended Escobar by attacking foreign press criticism of government concessions to the drug boss. When several U.S. newspapers made an issue of the large, converted ranch house which Escobar handpicked to be his jail, for example, Bogota’s Semana magazine retorted that the then-unfinished prison was “spacious, but austere.”

Enrique Santos Calderon, a columnist at El Tiempo newspaper, says anti-drug hard-liners in the media are also guilty of distortion. He charged that El Espectador, which headlined its Escobar surrender story “Terror Won,” had failed to adequately acknowledge government efforts to ensure a stiff sentence for the cartel kingpin.

Meanwhile, the debate over whether it was Escobar who surrendered--or the Colombian government--will continue.

“We have to try to give the Colombian public the best information possible or we are all lost,” said the Colombian official.

Cano at El Espectador agrees, saying that the cartel leader is certain to keep trying to manipulate public opinion from jail.

“Pablo Escobar has already convinced many Colombians that drug trafficking is not a crime,” Cano said. “At this rate, I seriously believe he may be president some day.”


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