I found this a very strange title** from the Washington Post for their piece on the release last Wednesday of French reporter Romeo Langlois:
"Freed French reporter has no apologies for covering Colombian conflict from all sides"
What apologies should there be, I wonder, from a journalist for trying to cover his topic from all sides ? Isn't it exactly the duty of any journalist to try and do so and shouldn't those who try to live by this deontology not rather be lauded instead of being expected to offer apologies ? I truly wonder what the WaPo was hinting at here, but it does give a feel for the complexity of the situation on the ground in Colombia and for the personal situation of Langlois in particular.
It was a bit of a coïncidence that I was just reading Garry Leech's "Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia", which narrative is centered around the capture of the author in August 2006 for eleven hours by members of the FARC, right on the day when French reporter Romeo Langlois, working in Colombia for television station France24 and newspaper Le Figaro, was also captured by the FARC during a firefight with the Colombian military. While Leech at the time was reporting on the consequences of fumigation of coca crops in eastern Colombia, Langlois was embedded with an army platoon that, on April 28 last, went out on a counter-narcotics operation to destroy some drug labs that had been discovered, when, on their mission, they were attacked by rebels of the FARC. In the shoot-out between the two camps, several army soldiers got killed (4 according to army sources, up to 17 according to FARC reports) at which point Langlois, who got shot himself in the arm, allegedly threw off his helmet and bullet-proof vest, apparently to make himself known as a civilian, and ran to the FARC attackers. That was the point where the world lost track of him, until the FARC officially announced on May 6 that the reporter was in their custody as a "prisoner of war".
Both of these men had dived head-first deep into the Colombian conflict and into the reasons and conditions that make this war perpetuate with no immediate solution in sight. As he was waiting for an approval from a local FARC commander to visit the fumigated coca fields in La Macarena National Park and talk to the local peasants working those fields, Leech describes how he hoped that his FARC captors would be aware of or take a look at his earlier reporting and conclude that he tried to do a fair and objective job. I think very similar thoughts must have raced through the head of Romeo Langlois during his month-long detention as well. Langlois was likewise not the type of reporter that covered what was happening in Colombia from behind his desk in Bogotá: he went out in the field and as such, for instance in this documentary "Pour tout l'or de Colombie", now being aired on different stations all over the world, he can be seen as having contact with all players involved, including FARC troops. Trying to report "from all sides", in that case, may well have been what saved these two reporter's lives.
The strange thing is, from both these accounts, I have the impression that it is all but impossible to cover the different sides of the Colombian puzzle. Having a background of living in China for a couple of years myself, I was always surprised reading Leech's accounts about setting out to a certain area where a story was developping and then, for instance, heading straight to the local army garrison, requesting to meet the commanding officer ... and very often see his request granted and having an interview. Same thing at the other side, though of course the initial contact would be somewhat more cumbersome. Idem for Langlois. The documentary is the only piece I've seen so far from his hand, but he also gets access to most, if not all of the parties involved. I simply can not imagine that being possible in a country like China, where it would require an enormous amount of cutting through red tape, screening etc ... to be allowed to conduct such interviews. Last thing I heard from a journalist-friend of mine based in Beijing is that he still had to report to authorities and ask authorisation to, for instance, go and cover an event in Shanghai.
Yet the whole Langlois-episode also epitomizes the total quagmire that is this conflict.
First of all, almost to the day two months after the FARC had made a pledge via their website that they would stop the kidnapping of civilians "for financial ends", they apparently see no problem in holding captive for over a month a journalist that runs straight into their arms . What would have been the problem in letting him walk right after the clash ? Were they perhaps afraid they would be held liable under the law for not administering medical care to a person in need ? Don't think so. But so what was the real purpose of this captivity for an organisation that has repeatedly in the recent past called for peace negotiations with the government ? It's not like this will do any good to their credibility, both inside and outside of Colombia.
Next, the future does not bode well for the inhabitants of the village of San Isidro as well. Since the release was arranged in their village with a certain amount of pump -stage, banners, speeches from the local FARC commander and -noblesse oblige, whether forced or not- Langlois and even a barbecue to celebrate the "happy event"-, these people are now afraid that they will be a target of retaliation by the government forces for being considered as cooperating with the FARC rebels. This of course remains to be seen, but history has plenty of examples where things indeed worked out this way. In the Colombian conflict, the adagium "If you're not with me, then you're against me" is still very much alive.
And then there is the position of Langlois himself. Walking out of his captivity, Romeo Langlois was delivered by the FARC into the hands of the reception committee consisting of former senator Piedad Cordoba, French diplomat Jean-Baptiste Chauvin and Red Cross country chief Jordi Raich. According to all reports, he seemed relaxed and issued a statement that he had been treated very well, "as a guest", a privilege many a hostage before him had not been so lucky to partake in. The question however that immediately comes to mind, and notwithstanding his statement that "one must continue covering this conflict", is whether the journalist will still be able to do that himself. For clearness sake: I agree the full one hundred percent with his words, but because of this episode, it in my opinion has now become very doubtful that Langlois, as in the past, will be an acceptable partner to work with or talk to. Twitter fanatic and former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe today already fired off the first shot:
“Langlois: journalistic curiousity is one thing, identification with terrorism another”
Though Uribe has been known to behave himself as of lately like the proverbial elephant in the porcelain shop when sharing his tweets with the world, his accusation no doubt will resound with quite a number of Colombians for whom he's still very popular. While I again want to voice my strongest opposition to this allegation of "identification with terrorism", I have to admit that Langlois, sad as it is, is tainted. I can not imagine that the FARC rebels in those thirty-three days have not tried to obtain the maximum of intelligence out of a journalist that was embedded with troops that were on their way to destroy the rebels' labs and even if this has not been the case, the mere shadow of suspicion that it might have happened will be damaging already. Also the fact that, through this highly mediatized release operation, he has been used as a pawn in the propaganda efforts from the FARC will not help him, I'm afraid, once the first wave of hooray's over his liberation has worn off.
There's also his quite extraordinary way of having been caught by the guerilla: he ran towards them himself, while he had set out on that trip as an embedded journalist with an army platoon. I will not even try to imagine what happens in the mind of a man being caught in the crossfire between two fighting parties and if Langlois in the coming days will tell us that, according to him, this was for him the best (only ?) way to try and survive the ordeal, I'm not going to question that judgement ... but other people for sure will. Because this is going to be a walk in the park for all those who want to rehash the event as someone "defecting" his protectors for the "security" offered by the enemy. Judging from the now seemingly prevalent perception of Colombians on the capture by FARC of Ingrid Betancourt, i.e. that by taking that trip to San Vicente del Caguan by car over the road she basically delivered herself in the hands of the FARC, I'm afraid there will be no way that Langlois will be able to overcome this perception to such an extent that he would manage to function normally as any reporter in Colombia again.
And last there is the army, which I presume must have a serious dose of resentment over this entire episode as well. In this case, I would call it only human. With all the attention, both national and international, that has focussed on the person of Langlois, the world tends to forget that in that battle at least four people died: Sargent José Cortés Viveros, entrusted with the protection of the French reporter and who paid for it with his life, soldiers Eduar Rodríguez Rueda and Walter Camacho Serpa and 27-year old police officer Juan Andrés Rodríguez Suescún, who leaves behind a wife five months pregnant. These men didn't die because of Langlois. In Colombia, every soldier, every policeman, every guerilla, due to the nature of the work they do or the ideas they fight for, has a rendez-vous with death every single say. It is their very "condition humaine". In most cases, that "date" doesn't show up. Sometimes it does. With or without an embedded journalist within their ranks, this platoon would have been attacked anyway. Yet, since due to the presence of the reporter and what happened next, this has become such a high-profile case, covered in the media worldwide, it would have been only fair that the fallen also got the attention they deserved ... and, in my feeling at least and from my remote position, they didn't.
Every day that I'm reading more about this Colombian conflict, I'm getting more and more overwhelmed by it's enormous complexity. Langlois, through his twelve year career as chronicler of this conflict, has helped to keep it on the radar of the global community, has helped to lift a tip of the veil of what is going on there. It would be a pity that someone like him would no longer be able to do just that. Yet, with what we have seen in the past and the sensitivity of anything related to FARC in a war-weary country, it may very well be that, by showing up for this particular rendez-vous and trying to do his job, the reporter who got wounded in the arm by others, inadvertently shot himself in the foot.
Let's hope he proves me wrong.
** Maybe the WaPo had the same feeling, since I couldn't retrieve the article from their site anymore since Thursday, the day after it appeared there.