“Chiquita in Colombia: Terrorism gone Bananas?”

Cincinnati Enquirer vs. Chiquita Brands International

Chiquita in Colombia: Terrorism gone Bananas?” reads the news article published on April 3, 2007 by a Latin American online news magazine, drawing to our attention the possible illegal connections that Chiquita Banana Company may have to terrorist organizations in Latin American countries (Upsidedownworld, 2007). This follows the recently settled court case of US v. Chiquita Brands Intl. whereby Chiquita was forced to pay a fine of $25 million on account of breaking the U.S. anti-terrorism law by channelling a total of $1.7 million to a formally declared terrorist organization, the United Self-Defense Forces of Columbia (AUC), between 1997 and 2004 (JusticeNewsFlash, 2010). Swiftly after the publication of this article, we can once more find the following headline: “ERI Launches New Lawsuit against Chiquita for Funding, Arming, and Supporting Colombian Terrorists” where Chiquita admits to having made similar payments to FARC between 1989 and 1997 (CorpWatch, 2010). If we were to read this article and then provide a summary, it would look something like this:

Columbian families are suing Chiquita Brands International, Inc. for funding and arming brutal terrorist organizations which lead to the death and targeted killing of thousands of “trade unionists, banana workers, and political organizers” (EarthRights, 2007); and all to maintain its profitable control in Latin American’s banana growing regions. All in all, Chiquita managed to violate not only Colombian and U.S. laws, but also International laws prohibiting crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killing, torture, and war crimes (EarthRights, 2007); not a small feat!

Having plead guilty to the allegations of funding and arming the AUC, an organization that is made up of the most brutal death squads that Latin America has seen since the dirty wars in El Salvador and Argentina [and which has] been among the most active drug traffickers in Colombia since the mid-1990s” (Arturo Carrillo, cited in Earthrights, 2007), Chiquita executives nonetheless claimed the following: “The company believes the plaintiffs’ claims are without merit and is defending itself vigorously against the lawsuits” (Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, 2010).

To an observer and the strong believer in media’s ability to shine a light on the injustices of this world, the twenty year time period of Chiquita’s transgressions being left in utter darkness, or at the most, murky grey tones, would seem unexplainable. Yet, at this point, the same individual might feel the gentle but persistent threads of memory tugging their consciousness back through time to 1997, where they find a very similar story; a story it seems that has been thoroughly and sufficiently buried as to allow for the current lawsuits to be received with surprise by the wider public.

In the pages that follow and after a brief run-through of the story itself, I intend to use the 1997 Cincinnati Enquirer’s initial uncovering and subsequent burying of Chiquita’s dirty secrets as a Case Study to flush out several concepts that not only relate to this story, but to the larger Media Network as a whole.

Cincinnati Enquirer v. Chiquita Banana Company: David v Goliath

The year is 1997 and the Cincinnati Enquirer had just simultaneously published an 18 page report based upon the yearlong investigation of journalist ‘Mike Gallagher and team’ of Chiquita’s dealings in Latin America (Cincinnati Enquirer, 1997). In a nutshell, here is what they had found out:

  • Chiquita anonymously controlled dozens of individual banana companies that acted as fronts for its undercover dealings a system that negated Trade Union power as well as prevented lawsuits and child-labour law violations
  • Chiquita subsidiaries sprayed plantations with highly toxic pesticides banned in the U.S. while workers were not given protective gloves/masks and communities drank contaminated drinking water
  • Chiquita security guards used brute force to impose authority while villages were bulldozed, its citizens evicted under gunpoint
  • Chiquita’s ships had been used to smuggle cocaine into Europe and bribed foreign officials to affect trade deals
  • Working conditions on Chiquita plantations were significantly below world standard

All in all, a solid story based on months of investigation. Yet, just eight weeks later, the story was retracted, Gallagher fired and Gannett, the parent company of the Enquirer, paid Chiquita $14 million without ever being sued (Democracy Now, 2007). All this merely because Chiquita had claimed that Gallagher had obtained 2000 voice mail recordings illegally and that the story itself was thereby tainted or in other words: absolutely wrong. After all, if he lied about this aspect, what else could he be fabricating?? As accusations flew, both Gallagher and his lawyer refused to comment and remained silent. While the Enquirer’s retraction, Gallagher’s upcoming sentencing and Chiquita’s heated accusations stole the limelight, the only aspect that truly mattered slowly started fading into the background, namely the fact that, after having “blacked out every instance where [the Enquirer] used voice mail, [it] still had a great story” with only the part about bribery being lost (American Journalism Review, 1998). Thus, with the Enquirer and Gallagher’s story discredited and Chiquita’s prompt and efficient show of muscle, the truth was buried and reporters feared to delve deeper into the subject (Observer, 1998).

Ethics in Journalism – Servant of truth vs. Respect for privacy

This case study brings to mind a crucial debate within the media establishment, namely, to what extent should a reporter be guided by ethics and then, what should these consist off? In response to the first we might all agree that yes, journalists, just like the rest of us, should be guided by a strong set of ethics of right and wrong. The latter question however remains controversial. In the search for truth, where is the line drawn between right and wrong? Was it ethically right for Gallagher to have hacked into Chiquita’s voice mail system to illegally obtain information that would later reveal the company’s misdoings? While Chiquita sued for libel, trespass and violations of wiretapping laws, there are many precedents that might help contextualize this question. Edward R. Murrow’s documentary “Factories in the Field” would not have been filmed, Ida Tarbell’s uncovering of Standard Oil Company’s transgressions not revealed and Willbrook State Hospital’s mistreatment of its psychiatric patients not uncovered, had investigative reporters not trespassed private property and broken privacy laws. Furthermore we might recall the famous Pentagon Papers and the clear ruling by the Supreme Court on New York Times Co. v. United States that allowed the New York Times to continue to print the illegally obtained information gathered by army insider Daniel Ellsberg. Finally we find, in retrospect the most valid argument, being emphasized vehemently by none other than George W. Bush, the president of the United States and most vigorous enemy of terrorism. He insisted that anyone financing a terrorist organization should be prosecuted as vigorously as the terrorist. Knowing now what we should have known then, it becomes clear that Gallagher, having pleaded guilty to one count of unlawful interception of wire communications and one count of unauthorized access to computer systems, (NYT, 1998) ultimately had ‘right’ on his side. Unfortunately in our corporate dominated world, having justice on one’s side rarely counts for much.

Power in the Media World – Independent journalism under attack  

The American Journalism Review began its analysis of the Enquirer incident by writing “To fully grasp what the Enquirer was taking on when it began its in-depth look at Chiquita…” (American Journalism Review, 1998). The sentiment being that Chiquita Banana Company and its CEO Carl Linder Jr. had significant political and financial clout and could seriously impede the Enquirer’s investigation. In retrospect, we see that this was an understatement. By analysing the Enquirer story we can answer two questions: where does this corporate power come from and what does it mean for journalism? The Chiquita Banana Company has its beginnings in the United Fruit Company that operated throughout the South America’s and was famous for its Great White Fleet, the largest private shipping fleet at the time (Democracy Now, 2007). Chiquita’s CEO, Linder owned and was publisher of both the Enquirer and its parent company Gannett, from 1971-1975, while retaining a large voting share in Gannett until the mid 80’s. In 1997, Chiquita was the largest company in Cincinnati while Linder was one of the most politically influential people in the U.S. (Democracy Now, 2007). To answer the first question then, power comes predominantly from having the financial means to influence law makers and through employment, the public; Chiquita was not lacking in either aspect.

In addressing the second element to corporate power, an argument by Noam Chomsky seems crucial: Media networks are corporations and sell products to a market. The audience is the product; the market is the advertisers. Furthermore, he states that media companies don’t make money if we buy newspapers, arguing that they are “glad to offer them free on the internet”, but make profit by attracting advertisement (Chomsky, 1997). The Enquirer showed great courage by initially publishing the report on Chiquita.  Once it felt the repercussions however, it quickly caved in and abandoned its stance. Analysts claim that the initial 18 story report gained little attention when it first came out, only gaining coverage once Chiquita had forced the Enquirer to print a retraction of their story. Even then the findings themselves were not focused upon, but the scandal and Gallagher’s misdeeds appeared on the majority of news headlines. In other words, while the Enquirer itself was under attack and discredited, other media organizations had no excuse to not delve into the true story to determine if the facts, in fact, were true! Or did they? After all, why would profit oriented media companies risk their reputation and financial advertisement revenues over a story that a) is far from home, b) attracts small audiences and c) is rapidly forgotten? In the end, we can state that serious in-depth journalism is hampered, often intentionally and with surprising efficiency, when operating in a profit oriented media network culture where individuals such as Linder can have huge influence over published content. At this point, another question arises, namely why such an impact laden story gains little attention and is so soon forgotten.

The Undervalued story – The Impact of ‘Distance’

 

Ben Bagdikian, author and media critic, by expanding on Chomsky’s argument that the audience is the product, points out that it is also the consumer. In other words, media companies are “giving the audience what they want” (Ben Bagdikian, cited in GloablIssues.org, 2008) while targeting those readers that are able to afford the products that are advertised. This would mean that the “content of media is not as important as the type of person being targeted by the ads” (Ben Bagdikian, cited in GloablIssues.org, 2008).

One fundamental component of this idea is that media companies must know audience preferences; foreign vs. national, analytical vs. opinion-based, similar vs. ‘the other’, entertaining vs. informative, the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, a story that impacts the poor South American working class ranks low on the average person’s radar, while a scandal involving a western journalist and a prominent American company contains more attractive elements. One underlying explanation of this phenomenon is the concept of ‘distance’; geographical as well as more importantly the cultural, historical, ideological and religious distance between two societies. The average western individual feels himself to be more involved in a story if he can relate to it. The less he can, the less it affects him and the less attractive a story will become. This lack of empathy for ‘the other’ reveals why the story about the abuses of Colombian workers gained little attention, soon to be forgotten, while the scandal itself remained prominent.

At this point, it is worth mentioning that the western audience’s lack of empathy towards the Colombian worker or for that matter, Muslims, Africans or Asians, stems from a lack of knowledge and information. Since Media is one of the largest medium for information, we can see that the problem takes a circular path:

  •   Media does not report on ‘the other’ since audiences prefer stories they can emphasize with
  •   The audience lacks empathy due to a lack of information

The result being, that ‘the other’ remains ‘the other’ and that the story about abuses in Colombia soon gets forgotten.

Conclusion 

In the end we can see the widely accepted comment “Today’s guilty plea by the lead reporter, Michael Gallagher, clearly supports the fact that these stories were false, misleading and lacking credibility,” (Cincinnati Enquirer, 1998) uttered by a representative of Chiquita in regards to the 1997 scandal, for what it truly is: false, misleading and lacking credibility! It represents the culmination of corporate influence in media society and showcases the large control that money has on selecting or deselecting mainstream news stories. The Cincinnati Enquirer’s exposé of Chiquita’s transgressions and abuse of Colombian workers is just one of the many news stories that are either ignored, covered up or discredited. This case study showcases the dire need for a separation of news reporting elements from profit seeking corporations so that truth and not money retains the ultimate value.

 

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