Manipulating Truths: Media Coverage, Democracy, and the Colombian Referendum

Carlos Fonseca Sánchez continues our ongoing symposium on peace and justice in Colombia after the referendum. Carlos is a researcher in international criminal law, humanitarian law and human rights law. Adv. LL.M graduate in Public International Law from Leiden University. He was previously a stand-by Defence Legal Intern in The Prosecutor v. Radovan Karadzic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

A young "yes" campaigner. (Photo: Fernando Vergara / Associated Press)

A young “yes” campaigner. (Photo: Fernando Vergara / Associated Press)

Do you support the Final Agreement for the Termination of the Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Lasting Peace?

On 2 October 2016, that was the question that 6,432,376 people in Colombia answered. In doing so, they voted, by a tiny margin, against the agreement between the Colombian government and the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces – People’s Army (FARC-EP). Did this amount of people have the intention to reject a peaceful solution to the Colombian 52 year-long armed conflict with Latin America’s oldest guerrilla group? Obviously not. The plebiscite did not ask Colombians whether they wanted a military solution to the armed conflict. In fact, when the current government sought its reelection, two years ago, the negotiated settlement became its rallying flag. In the end, the support of a coalition comprising the government and opposition parties (but not the one created by former president Alvaro Uribe who lead the ‘no’ campaign) and the goal of peace ensured the reelection of President Juan Manuel Santos. That day, 15 June 2014, more than 7.8 million people supported Santos and the peace process that had started two years earlier, incidentally more than a million than the turnout for the referendum.

Many of the headlines following the referendum stated that the Colombian people rejected peace and, logically, preferred war with the FARC-EP. Although the government and many supporters of the agreement argued that a renegotiation of the agreements wasn’t possible, today the cease-fire remains, and both those for and against the agreement have showed signs of calm. Both the Colombian and the international community were shocked by the result, especially with surveys pointing for a clear win for the “yes”. But the overall coverage of the peace negotiations, referendum and its results painted a sloppy, and inaccurate picture of realities on the ground.

Between Reality and Fiction

Although the international media and the international community’s support of the agreement was well-meaning, it failed to recognize the complexities of the agreement, the polarization of Colombian society and the disconnection many of the voters had with the plebiscite.

The 297 page-long peace agreement covered a multiplicity of issues such as a comprehensive rural reform, the political participation of the former combatants, the conditions for the final ceasefire and dereliction of weapons, the reincorporation of the former FARC combatants to civilian life, the creation of a multiplicity of bodies that would ensure the implementation of the agreement, provide protection to political minorities and prosecute the successors of paramilitaries. Perhaps the most polemic issue was the one related to the victims of the armed conflict. The agreement created what it called a “Comprehensive System of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Non-repetition” that integrated a Truth Commission, a Unit for the Search of Missing Persons, a Special Jurisdiction for Peace, Measures on Comprehensive Reparation, and Guarantees of Non-Repetition. The implementation of the agreement would require the creation of a separate judicial entity, the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, that would have the power to review all the prior judicial decisions related to the conflict.

Before the vote, the negotiators and the government constantly repeated that the agreement was imperfect, but that it was the best one possible. The final text of the agreement was released on 24 august 2016, merely one month before the plebiscite. Most of the voters wouldn’t have the time to carefully read the agreement.

Since most wouldn’t read the agreement, many relied upon the media and the opposing sides to communicate the advantages and disadvantages of the peace deal. Since the negotiations were private, people also couldn’t tell how the negotiations had proceeded or which proposals were incorporated, discarded or not even presented. The role of the media and the main political leaders was crucial. As has happened on previous occasions around the world, they presented a combination of lies mixed with reality.

Political opponents of the peace deal successfully used a handful of assertions to move the population against the agreement. They took advantage of the long and sometimes ambiguous text to raise concerns regarding impunity. They also argued that the agreement would harm the integrity of family values, a position that moved many Christian pastors to oppose the treaty. Surprisingly, the chief of campaign for the “no” has recognized the manipulations used to influence people. He stated that it was the cheapest and most effective campaign in history and that the “no” strategy was directed to generate indignation amongst the voters. He also acknowledged that the use, and abuse, of social media proved fruitful to them. Their message directed to high and middle class was based on the “impunity” allegedly generated by the agreement, the political participation of FARC leaders, and the tax increase that would follow the agreement. They also argued that Colombia would turn into Venezuela if the agreements were accepted by the public. On the other hand, the message directed towards the working class focused on the salaries that the FARC members would receive. The attorney general’s office recently opened an investigation on this matter, fueling uncertainty on the subject.

Yet the campaign that supported the agreement also manipulated the truth in order to gain support. On 21 September 2016 President Santos, conveniently forgetting about the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the criminal bands that succeeded the paramilitaries, addressed the UN General Assembly and assured the world that the war in Colombia had ended. He also argued that the agreements were no longer negotiable and that the victory of the no would mean a return to war. Clearly he was wrong.

The negative vote requires all parties to present clear and novel proposals to modify the existing agreement and, ultimately, reach a peace settlement. Otherwise, their ferocious opposition won’t be understood as anything but a search to achieve political dominance. The different strands of the negative campaign have a duty to explain clearly their reasons to reject the agreement. It is troubling to think that some of the proposals would make it almost impossible to reach a negotiated agreement. Currently the main issues are the necessity of imprisonment and the exclusion from holding public office during the serving of sentence. Notably, former President Uribe, and the leader of the ‘no’ campaign, has proposed that the FARC can serve their sentences in agricultural farms.

Democracy in a Divided and Victimized Society.

Many have rightly pointed out how the majority of the populations affected by the FARC and the armed conflict voted in favor of the final agreement. Nevertheless, according to the national registry, even in those populations the winner was the abstentionism. Colombian society is clearly disconnected from the political debate around the peace deal. Within the 63% that didn’t vote could have been “yes” voters that, confident on their victory, preferred to stay home and watch the result on their TVs. Some others could have felt, or actually been, disenfranchised. Amongst them we should consider the more than six million forcibly displaced persons who have migrated to bigger cities in search of peace and refuge. All of them share a common trait, their skepticism in democracy. Democracy, without any doubt, was the biggest loser in the vote for the plebiscite.

This was an election that, for all the reasons mentioned, failed to reach the majority of the electorate and convince them to vote “yes” for an agreement that would have ended the armed conflict with the oldest guerrilla in America. The peace process in Colombia is at a point of no-return, but that doesn’t mean that those in search for power cannot stall the end of the conflict or even put it in risk. It is the role of the media to distinguish the serious arguments from the fallacies that seek to manipulate the electorate.


About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
This entry was posted in Colombia, Guest Posts, Peace and Justice in Colombia Symposium, Peace Negotiations, Peace Processes, Transitional Justice and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Manipulating Truths: Media Coverage, Democracy, and the Colombian Referendum

  1. el roam says:

    Thanks for that interesting post . I can live with that assertion that there were manipulations in the Media, but hey, say: politics, say: Media, and the result shall always be: sort of manipulation. However , both under oath , even if it was an agreement of 3 pages , it wouldn’t do !! Most of the people , wouldn’t really understand anyway . People all over the world, sign even lousy mortgage agreements, without understanding many essential issues in it, what to do then?? would it help to explain even ?? objectively even ?? and how objectively ?? Really problematic ! Even in trivial general election all over the world , endless manipulations , and lack of real understanding occur .

    Yet, what I miss in this post , are both :

    First : illustrations for such manipulations , could help us better understand the main subjects or issues in this regard , and :

    Second : In the media all over the world , reigns the idea , that : vengeance , took over peace and reconciliation . Does the author of the post , also think so ?? because if so , then , understanding the agreement , or manipulations , weren’t such crucial factor then , one may presume .

    P.S : I have bothered some , to trace potential illustrations of manipulations of such , and here :
    In the following link , Santos warns of bloodshed consequences , if negotiation and referendum fails , here :

    While , after the failure , the Farc leader , declares his commitment to truce , here :

    So , we can ask ourselves , whether , he had known , that whatever , they ( Farc ) would stick to the truce terms regardless of failure .


  2. Les yuno says:

    The farc are terrorists, anyone who defends these terrorists should take a look in the mirror. Do you know how many family’s have to pay the farc monthly so they aren’t killed? My mother and father in law were both kidnapped for missing one months payment to them, again a payment that enables them to live.

    Another Colombian friend whose parents own a place in northern bogota are forced to pay 5000 usd a month to the farc for the right to live there. They are scum, they are the mafia x10. Uribe should have eliminated all these goons. U should do real research before commenting on a peace deal that would have destroyed colombia

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