Between the Microphone and the AK-47: Journalists Share Risks of the Job

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Violence triggers one of two reactions—an escape to safer grounds, or a desire to fight to see improvements.

Journalists risk their lives documenting the course of violent events, often becoming a part of the story they once sought to report. Some media organizations succumb to the threats of reporting massacres, particularly when it is not in the government’s interest to be held responsible for reported incidents. Yet, for decades several journalists have held their ground and investigated crime, disappearances and mass murder regardless of the risks implicated with the job.
Carlos Henriquez Consalvi, most commonly recognized by the pseudonym “Santiago,” is thought to be one of those valiant journalists and he visited USF at the beginning of April.

His inclination toward journalism was paved by social circumstances. Government raids at his university in Venezuela pressured Consalvi to put a pause on his journalism studies, so he went to Argentina. Seeking refuge from the violence back home, he bumped into journalists whose bodies had been left mutilated on the streets of Buenos Aires during Argentina’s dictatorship in the seventies. Capturing the graphic scenes with his camera lens got him arrested, but that didn’t scare him from photographing bloody scenes elsewhere. Aware of the United States’ intervention in Central America, which sought to placate revolutions the country perceived as communist, Consalvi travelled to Nicaragua and later El Salvador. In the latter country, he co-founded El Salvador’s major outlet of guerrilla communication, Radio Venceremos (“We will overcome radio”) where he took on his pseudonym. Consalvi’s reports were heard clandestinely throughout Latin America and the United States.

At a Spanish language event held at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts (MCCLA) a day prior to Consalvi’s visit to USF, Consalvi said young journalism students often tell him they wish they could follow in his footsteps but feel their resources are limited. Consalvi, who only completed two years of journalism as an undergraduate in Venezuela, tells them, “You don’t need a lot of resources to communicate the truth and carry out a creative work. What you need is the will to report the truth.”

The radio that made Consalvi an icon of the revolution in El Salvador was constructed from a 40-year-old World War II transmitter, a microphone, and not much else.

Consalvi’s Radio Reports Mobilize Audience
The events held at the cultural center and USF, both in Spanish, gathered similar faces, many of them ex-combatants and war survivors from El Salvador.
“He is my third commander,” said Ismael Palacios, 84, who listened to Consalvi’s broadcasts in California. “He’s worthy of having that merit. He risked everything for El Salvador even though he is from Venezuela,” Palacios said. The reports he heard on Radio Venceremos encouraged Palacios to organize manifestations in San Francisco demanding an end to U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government fighting the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) Salvadoran guerilla in the eighties.

Constantly on the move avoiding being ambushed by the Salvadoran military, Consalvi reported on the losses and advances of the government and guerilla , often reading long lists naming those who had fallen while boosting the FMLN’s morale when he announced their victories.

Tito Amaya, 43, heard Consalvi’s broadcasts from Costa Rica, where he was a political refugee. “I got up at 6 in the morning to listen to Consalvi’s station. He would talk about the latest updates on the armed conflict, the danger people faced, the government’s bombings and they would play revolutionary songs,” Amaya said in Spanish. Having been musically inclined from a young age, Amaya performed songs narrating the stories about the civil war during an event with Consalvi at MCCLA.

For those that lived in the midst of violence during the time Consalvi broadcasted, his visit conjured memories of the scary times they survived.

Jorge Lopez, now in his forties, remembers being 14 during the armed conflict in El Salvador. “One of my cousins was tortured. He came home one day and told us everything with details. They put hot cigarettes on his legs and back. Then they would shock him with electricity currents. They had him there without food. They would spout names, asking him if they knew who they were.” Lopez’ stoic eyes looked off to the side, “My cousin cried. He survived.”

As a teenager Lopez said he felt very sad not knowing how he could help. Today he is a photojournalism student at City College inspired by Consalvi’s journalistic work.
Luisa Moge, 47, who fought with the FMLN Salvadoran guerilla, said her attendance at the Mission Cultural Center brought back her days in combat. “It’s like a gathering with people from the past,” she said as she waived to a friend sporting a red FMLN cap. Yet for Moge, the struggle is not over. “The recovery of memory is very important. I am interested in knowing where they are, the disappeared, because that is a topic that is unresolved,” she said.

After the peace accords were signed in 1992, ending the civil war in El Salvador, Consalvi transitioned from reporting the war to preserving its memory. He founded the Museum of Words and Images in El Salvador which showcases the old transmitter of Radio Venceremos.

How Much Violence Should Be Reported?
Consalvi spoke at two Spanish language events held on campus, one of them being a panel which included professors and radio journalists who debated regarding the media’s responsibility to report violence.

Antoni Castells-Talens, a professor and researcher from the University of Florida said the government’s ownership of media in Mexico leads reporters to self-censor their content. Increased militarization in Veracruz, the Mexican state where he researches may also frighten journalists in the region. Castells-Talens said store owners in Veracruz have recently posted signs that read “No AK-47s” next to no-dog signs outside their establishments.

Yet, Laura Mora, who represented Radio Teoselo from the same Mexican state , said people often demand for the radio station to help them find their disappeared relatives. “Fulfilling that request would make the station a clear target,” said Mora, “We don’t have a protocol for dealing with these situations but there is a consensus that radio has to be a voice for the victims of violence.”

But the consequences of not reporting such events have the potential to trigger more violence according to Dr. Clemencia Rodriguez, a professor and panelist who spoke about Colombian media. She said journalists who have been trained in a climate of constant warfare are accustomed to reporting violence. “Mistrust grows, use of weapons is normalized, intolerance of differences increases if you don’t report, “she said. Rodriguez also insinuated that there might be such a thing as too much coverage on violence. “People’s humanity disappears; it is reduced to their role in the war. Are they a victim, guerilla member or survivor?” she said.

Bay Area journalist Chelis Lopez reinforced the media’s responsibility in balancing their coverage of violence with uplifting stories when she said, “The objective of radio is to encourage the community to do something for itself.”

Consalvi, surrounded by followers from his Bay Area visit, said: “Violence is in the interest of the powerful, those who sell weapons. The last names of the powerful are tied to politicians interested in seeing the violence continue. Alternative media outlets play a large role in promoting change.”

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