The editor's corner

Peru: When the media doesn't listen

By Nick Rosen

As Peru’s media reports the violence in Espinar, it must confront the fact that it has failed a fundamental responsibility.

Peru: When the media doesn't listen

A police officer during the protests at Espinar (Sebastian Castañeda/El Comercio)

I have been following a lot of coverage of the unrest in Espinar over the last few days. Professional responsibilities aside, many of the images beamed in from that barren corner of Cusco have been really powerful.

One moment in particular, however, has stuck with me. The morning after the state of emergency was enacted, as a small crowd gathered around a news correspondent, a woman, a campesina, made a plea to the camera. In a wailing voice, bordering on tears, she seemed to pour out her heart, talking about how Ollanta Humala had betrayed her and her neighbors, asking for his help to stop the violence in the community.

Whether you believe that she is being used as a pawn in a nefarious political game or that her grievances are legitimate, it was an amazing moment of television. This woman was baring her soul. When she had finished, the local correspondent threw it back to the studio in Lima and asked the anchor, Christian Hudtwalcker, if he had any questions. Hudtwalcker did not. Instead, he lectured the locals gathered there that due to the state of emergency, they did not have the legal right to congregate in the street. By all appearances, he had not even been listening to the woman.

This is not to pick on Hudtwalcker, because his case is really just emblematic of a larger problem. For much of the national press, Peru goes as far north as Ventanilla, as far east as La Molina, and as far south as Asia (from January to April; only to Chorrillos the rest of the year), and most of what happens outside those boundaries goes unnoticed, unheard.

How else can we explain the absolute shock that many prominent journalists expressed at the start of the protests in Espinar? They said that as far as they knew, relations between the community and Xstrata Tintaya were great.

Every major media outlet (and Peru this Week, for that matter) missed the fact that Mayor Oscar Mollohuanca had traveled all the way to Switzerland to ask Xstrata shareholders for changes in the way the company operated. That was just a month ago. The national media missed the years of local complaints that had been documented by the press in Cusco. Those grievances never got heard in Lima.

For too much of the media, the Peru that lies beyond Lima’s outskirts only comes alive during a disaster. While the media could serve as an important conduit between the local populations and the powerful decision-makers in Lima, it usually ignores that responsibility until the situation has exploded into violent conflict.

Even then, for the journalists in Lima, so far removed from the reality of what is happening, there is a reluctance to dig beyond political talking points. How many Lima-based journalists have been spending the week confidently explaining Mollohuanca’s secret motives, when, two weeks ago, they couldn’t have picked him out of a line-up of two people? How many journalists, these last few days, have passionately debated the levels of pollution around Espinar when, two weeks ago, they’d have been hard-pressed to find it on a map?

The press has, rightfully, condemned the violence in Espinar. But it hasn’t shown any more willingness to ask questions or to listen with an open mind.

At the very moment when Hudtwalcker had the chance to ask a protester why she was risking arrest, what she wanted, what she was thinking, he passed on the opportunity.

If we want to understand these conflicts, or better still, help prevent them, we need to stop missing these chances.

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.