The Peruvian Embassy Siege and What it Tells Us About the Media

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(Andrew Flood..Dublin...23/April...1997)

Last night the siege of the Japanese embassy in Lima ended when Peruvian state forces stormed the embassy and tore down the flags and banners the rebels had hung from the roof. The fact that single shots were heard after the compound had been takenand the low casualty figure among the attacking soldiers and hostagessuggests that at least some of the rebels were executed after they had been captured or wounded.

The action by the MRTA in seizing the Japanese in Lima, Peru in December and capturing a spectacular array of personnel from thePeruvian and international ruling class in doing so at first attracted considerable international media attention. For a period of time some attention at least was given to what was happening in Peruand by extension elsewhere in the post-cold war 'new world order'.

For the ruling class this coverage had the danger that one of the supposed success stories of neo-liberalism, Peru would be exposed by the revelations surrounding the MRTA. For the most part they had little to worry about, the media loyally portrayed the siege as anoutdated anachronism in a country undergoing rapid economic and democratic improvements. To be sure the more liberal elements hintedthat all was not perfect but nowhere was the truth hinted at, thatthe poor have become poorer and that the Peruvian governments use ofterror has and continues to exceed that of the Shining Path.

Arm the Spirit

On the internet a group called Arm the Spirit Web whichessentially acts as an independent media source for radicals createda web page of media reports for those interested in following thecourse of the siege. Unusually they also made available the fullcommuniques of the group which had seized the embassy, the MRTA and anumber of background interviews. If you were willing to do a bit ofwork wading through all these reports elements of what was reallyhappening in Peru started to show through.

During the second week this resulted in them becoming targets of asustained campaign in the mainstream media. Its central focus was tosay that because ATS had had put up information on the MRTA therewere somehow part of the MRTA, Reuters started this process on 3 Jan[1]. with an article that also implied those who provided webinformation on theZapatistaswere "among the first to stake out revolutionary cyberspace, andbecame enthusiastic guerrilla hackers." Similar articles werepublished by many papers over the following days, including the WallStreet Journal which added the 'enhancement' of ringing the employersof people who had put web pages up. The overall tone of these pieceswere that these people were clever terrorists exploiting loopholes incensorship laws.

As the media were fully aware this sort of approach could onlyhave two effects, firstly to create the atmosphere in which theproviders of information could be criminalised, through opening upthe acceptability of accusing them of being terrorists, secondly itimmediately threatened the future livelihood of those whose employershad been contacted. The desired end result was to deny the publicaccess to this information and force them to rely as always on the'news' as reported by 'safe' media that is either state owned orowned by the very wealthy.

The actual information you could find on these pages serves tounderline this point. The most frequently referred to one was theArm the Spirit page at But what information wasavailable on this page? The excited reader hoping to find instructionmanuals on storming embassies would have been disappointed, the mostradical documents were communiques and interviews from the MRTAalongside statements from various radical sources saying theyunderstand why the MRTA are doing what they are doing. Most of thematerial was numerous articles from mainstream news sources includingboth Reuters and the Wall Street Journal on the ongoing embassysiege. The mainstream media considers that it has a right to quotefrom communiques or interviews with 'terrorists'[2] whenever itwishes to you. One might be quite rightly puzzled in trying tounderstand what made web pages like Arm the Spirits 'terrorist' forquoting such sources but allowed the Wall Street Journal or Reutersto be 'respectable'.

The real terrorists

Indeed because of the way they were being targeted as terroriststhe Arm the Spirit collective felt it necessary to put out a pressstatement[3] explaining "All of the information displayed on our pagewas gathered from the public domain and sources are cited. We are aninformation collective. Our political work entails collecting,translating, and disseminating information. Our MRTA Solidarity Pageis nothing more than this. Much of the information on the page iseven from mainstream sources." They somewhat kindly attributed theidea put around by the media that they had "a direct communicationslink to the compound" as being due to "sloppy journalism".

If only life was this simple, in fact Arm the Spirit are thelatest victims of similar tactics that have been used against othergroups putting forward ideas both on the internet and in other media.In March of 1995 for instance identical tactics were used on theother side of the Atlantic by the Sunday Times and large circulationtrade journal Computing to attack the anarchist internet libraryknown asSpunkPress [at]. Themethod here again was also to imply a link between the informationproviders and terrorists (this time on the basis of one publiclyavailable Red Army Faction communique being among the 1000+ documentsSpunk Press archives!) and to go after the employer of the then SpunkPress co-ordinator in order to manufacture a situation where his jobwas threatened. Again all of the material on Spunk Press is the sortof stuff you could buy in a bookshop or library in most countries inthe world and again the media publishing this story would have beenaware of this. Some people on the Spunk Press collective pointed outthat some of the journalists who published the story were suspectedof being MI5 assets[4], a more cynical interpretation of media'mistakes' perhaps then the Arm the Spirit one.

A further twist was to follow for on January 10th ATS received anemail from Reuters telling them to immediately remove Reutersmaterial from their web pages or face immediate court action! It maybe co-incidence that this email arrived even as ATS were using thepresence of such 'mainstream' media on their site as proof that thereinformation was gathered from public sources. Forcing ATS to removemainstream material and leaving them with MRTA communiques,interviews and statements of support from other groups only would ofcourse make future attempts to label them as 'terrorist' due to therebias more credible[5].

The real reason the ATS were targeted is easy to find. If onelooks at mainstream media reports through the embassy siege a rangeof opinions deemed acceptable soon emerges. At one end of this rangeis the die hard 'Peru is a modern democracy with a booming economy,the MRTA are outdate terrorist die-hards and any flaws in thePeruvian state are due to there presence alone'. However in anycountry that claims to have a free press you'll find a range of moreanalytical looks at the Peruvian situation, at there most 'radical'these will approach 'The MRTA may be terrorist die-hards but thereare flaws in the Peruvian democracy and economy, particularly inrelation to the poor'. What you won't find in the mainstream mediaare statements like the ATS made in their Jan 10 press statement,that "Of course, our political stance is not a neutral one. Wesupport the MRTA's call for the release of all MRTA politicalprisoners in Peru and fundamental changes in Peru's economic system."

Now if you express this last sort of opinion, that the systemrequires fundamental change in a 'flawed democracy' to your friendsin Peru your liable to end up in a military court, in front of threehooded judges who will sentence you to up to 6 years in prison for"defending terrorism". In most 'developed democracies' you canexpress this to your friends providing your talking about somewherethat's a good distance away and the country you in has no stronginterest in. Caution would be advisable however if its a bit closerto home, substituting IRA for MRTA and saying this in London mightwell end up with you being on the sort of list that gets peoplestopped at airports and held for a couple of days 'questioning'.

However you'll never get a chance to express this opinion to largenumbers of people through mass circulation newspapers, radio ortelevision unless its in the context of not being given time toexplain such an outlandish opinion and being bracketed with a muchgreater volume of material attacking you for being a 'terroristfellow traveller'. In short we are allowed to say there areinjustices and problems with any economic or state system. We are notin general allowed to express the idea that the economic system orthe state is itself the problem, at least not in the mass media.

Who owns the media

There is a simple reason for this, the mass media is all eitherowned by the state or owned by the very rich. Its production anddistribution requires the owner to court business interests foradvertising revenues. This of course effects what the media says.

Now of course there will be those who will acknowledge that thereis some truth in this but say 'anyone can publish a paper, there isno law against it'. This is true but its interesting to note that youcan't say 'anyone can run a radio station', almost all states havelaws that mean in effect only the state and the wealthy are allowedto broadcast. Those who have being trying to set up local micro-powerbroadcasters in the US for instance can tell you that this is notallowed, that even short range transmitters outside the control ofthe wealthy elite are quickly stamped on.

If it is true that anyone can publish a paper then the experienceof activist groups that do so reveals that the act of publication isnot the most difficult task. An article no matter how well writtenwill have limited impact if it is only read by a tiny percentage ofthe population. By definition anything that is published by groupsoutside the ruling elite will be at an immediate disadvantage when itcomes to competing with the publications of the elite. It will lackfunds to employ staff or to subsidise a long start up period when itestablishes a readership, it will lack the funds to advertise itspresence, it will probably be so limited by lack of funds and lack oftime to produce good articles that it will appear infrequently andbecome more in the way of a magazine then a paper. It will probablyalso lack sufficient money to gain a circulation through mainstreamdistribution. Without this circulation the only choice will be theold one of selling on street corners and at demonstrations andmeetings, further cutting into the time of those who produce it.

Advertisers which are after all companies or state bodies will beunwilling to advertise in a publication that constantly seeks toundermine the very system that guarantees there existence. It willlack funds to fund journalists to travel to cover a story, to payinformants or to buy stories from mainstream press agency (althoughsuch stories written to be sellable to the papers owned by the stateor ruling elite are unlikely to be suitable anyway). The lack ofadvertising revenue and of large scale distribution means that interms of a selling price it will be unable to compete on that basisalone with the publications of the ruling elite. Those who buy itwill be doing so for one reason only, that is that they are so pissedoff with the current system that they are already looking for arevolutionary alternative. So the current system while speaking of afree press instead results in a media where all you hear are theopinions acceptable to the ruling elite. You don't come acrossopinions outside this spectrum unless you go looking for them.

This is not to say there are no alternative media, every where yougo in the world you will find groups of people putting huge amountsof unpaid work and even larger amounts of the meagre wages intoproducing and distributing radical press. Commonly they are linkedinternationally in an attempt to tackle some of the news deficienciesI mention earlier but when the cost of every phone call and every faxis a added burden these contacts cannot be anything but weak andslow. At times of mass struggle these media can flower and perhapsstart to gain some influence, but when this happens we rapidly findthat our free press is only free providing the sections that sayawkward things are insignificant. Every developed country has seen atleast one period where the state moved to ban a 'free press' that wasproviding too many readers for publications other then thosecontrolled by the wealthy elite.

The media is quite aware that they can only be a mouthpiece forthe opinions favourable to the elite, essentially this is one of thefirst things any journalist learns as if they fail to do so they willbe quickly out of a job. It's a rare thing for them to admit thisthough and indeed in general it is a rule that does not need to bestated. But at times even those near the top of this food chain getfed up with their role, perhaps most famously in 1953 when JohnSwinden, the then head of the New York Times when asked to toast anindependent press in a gathering at the National Press Club said

"There is no such thing at this date of the world's history inAmerica as an independent press. You know it, and I know it. There isnot one of you who dares to write his honest opinion, and if you did,you know beforehand it would never appear in print. I am paid weeklyfor keeping my honest opinion out of the paper. Others of you arepaid similar salaries for similar things. and any of you who would beso foolish as to write honest opinions would be out on the streetslooking for another job. If I allow my honest opinions to appear inone issue of my paper, before 24 hours, my occupation would be gone.The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lieoutright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon and tosell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it, and Iknow it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press? We arethe tools and the vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are thejumping jacks. They pull the strings, and we dance. Our talents, ourpossibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We areintellectual prostitutes."

Why the internet

This review of the historic media brings us back to consideringthe attacks on Arm the Spirit, Spunk Press and other types of the newmedia active on the internet. The internet is providing a realheadache for the mechanism of news control that has been developed bythe wealthy elite. The problem is its too cheap and accessible tothose providing information. The cost of putting up a web page readby 100,000 people is no more then the cost of putting one up that isread by five people. International communication is now far cheaperand within the grasp of many groups in the developed world throughthe net.

The users of the internet are from the better paid sections of thedeveloped world and from students and education workers on a moreinternational basis. But these users spread well outside the far, farmore limited sphere of the owners and controllers of the mainstreammedia. The vast bulk of these people have no objective reason forpreserving the system of the ruling elite, they may occupy relativelyprivileged positions on the global level but it is still the casethat the elites system only benefits the very narrow layer at the topof it.

The communication of information between groups of people is notmerely an abstract thing that has no effect on those thatcommunicate. Information can cause outrage, hope, a sense of thepossible, it can lead to people taking action. This in fact is thereason the wealthy elite are so keen to maintain a monopoly over theinformation most of the population are exposed to. They use theirstrangle hold on the media to create a picture of

A world where other people are dangers to your libertyrather then potential allies in the fight for liberty:

A world where the state protects you rather then oppresses you:

A world where if you work hard enough and obey without questioningyou can succeed:

rather then a world where people have almost no control over theireconomic live and are hired and fired at the whim of their employers.

The Netwar is coming

The ruling class is fully aware of the dangers of a free press andsome of their discussions in relation to the dangers for theminherent in the dangers of the masses using the internet have beenmade public. Perhaps the best know of these is a document by JohnArquilla and David Ronfeldt of the International Policy Department,RAND calledCyberwaris coming [6.] This discusses the problems of he new methods ofcommunication for an elite holding on to power both in terms of itseffects on actual warfare (the Cyberwar of the title) but also in itseffects on access to information, which they term Netwar.

Although the discussion is about future information conflicts itclearly also relates to the way the ruling class has held a stranglehold over information in the past.

"Netwar refers to information-related conflict at agrand level between nations or societies. It means trying to disrupt,damage, or modify what a target population knows or thinks it knowsabout itself and the world around it."

The simple exercise of substituting the word 'classes' for'nations or societies' reveals an awareness for the ruling elite ofthe problems of a 'free press'. The paper goes on to discussstrategies in such an information war

"It may involve public diplomacy measures, propagandaand psychological campaigns, political and cultural subversion,deception of or interference with local media...."

The labelling of information provides as terrorists or thetargeting of their employers in order to get them shut up clear fallsinto the strategy outlined above. But although this piece was writtenbefore the latest piece of Netwar the authors target internationalsupport groups in another case when they say

"In some respects, the U.S. and Cuban governments are alreadyengaged in a Netwar. This is manifested in the activities of Radioand TV Marti on the U.S. side, and on Castro's side by the activitiesof pro-Cuban support networks around the world."

Change the names above with Reuters pitched against Arm the Spiritand we can see a clear parallel.

The "political-support networks" referred to below can only referto the anti-war movements that opposed the US aggression in Vietnam

"More recently, a relatively minor military power thatdefeated a great modern power--the combined forces of North Vietnamand the Viet Cong--operated in many respects more like a network thanan institution; it even extended political-support networks abroad."

The authors are careful to avoid the issue of class but in theabstract they feel it is safe to hint at the war that dare not speakits name, for instance we are told

"Some movements are increasingly organising intocross-border networks and coalitions, identifying more with thedevelopment of civil society (even global civil society) than withnation-states, and using advanced information and communicationstechnologies to strengthen their activities."

In all likelihood the above paragraph was drafted with theinternational movement in support of the EZLN in mind which alsotalks of 'Civil Society' on an international level. Just in case wemiss the point that this conflict does not happen just on the statelevel but also between internationally organised opposing factions(and what are these if not classes) the authors underline this pointwith

"Non-state actors should also be considered asopponents, including some millennialist, terrorist, ....organisations that cut across national boundaries. We expect thatboth Cyberwar and Netwar may be uniquely suited to fighting non-stateactors."

or again

"The revolutionary forces of the future may consistincreasingly of wide-spread multi- organizational networks that haveno particular national identity, claim to arise from civil society,and include aggressive groups and individuals who are keenly adept atusing advanced technology for communications, as well as munitions."

Of course the authors are careful to always include 'violent'groups as part of their list but it is quite obvious that being ontheir lists does not require any use of violence, merely awillingness to tell a side of a story that does not favour the rulingelite. Towards the start the authors explain why the control ofaccess to information is so important

"The analogy is rather like a chess game where you seethe entire board, but your opponent sees only his own pieces; you canwin even if he is allowed to start with additional powerful pieces."

We are sitting at a very old chess board called class societywhere 5% or less of the population can see the whole board.Maintaining this advantage for the ruling class in the face of thethreat of new technology is what 'Netwar' is all about.

For the ruling class the illusion of a free press has to bemaintained at all times. If this illusion crumbles then so too domany of the advantages of controlling the news. People distrustopenly censored news or start off with the assumption that the newsis the reverse of reality. Such a feeling would only accelerate thedemand for an alternative and if necessary underground press.

So rather then resort to open censorship the state is insteadwaging 'Netwar' on different levels. It is taking advantage of thefact that the information providers must work for a living to targettheir employers and get them sacked. It is labelling them asterrorists so people will be afraid to look at what they are sayingand so in the future action can be taken in the name of 'publicsafety' against them. It is conducting a campaign against internetprivacy so that news from countries which lack a 'free press' cannotbe sent out without the fear that it will be intercepted and thesource silenced. It is introducing service fees on the net to make itmore expensive and so less accessible to those other then the wealthyelite. It is planting stories in the press about the 'dangerousinformation' being available on the net despite the fact that thesame information can often be found in bookshops and libraries. It iscreating scares around children accessing pornography on the net orbeing targeted by child abusers..

What happened around the siege of the Japanese embassy in Peru isbut one example of this. Finally let us return to this siege andconsider what it is that the state and capitalism fears the mass ofthe population would find out about the siege and the situation inPeru.

The myths of capitalism

Capitalism has relied on one of two myths in order to reduceopposition to it. The first one is that bad though it is thealternative is worse. This was the major myth of the 20th Century andinvolved implying that the only alternative to western styledemocratic capitalism was eastern European style state capitalism.The myth was that there was no other alternative to these two'choices' so western workers were frightened from looking for socialchange with the bogey man of the KGB and the Gulag. Eastern Europeanworkers were frightened with the bogey man of the death squads ofLatin American capitalism and the institutionalised racism of SouthAfrica. Of course both these bogey men were very real, what was notreal was the idea that we had to choose one or the other.

A remarkable feature of the first myth is how it successfullyblamed state terror in the

state capitalist countries on the state there while at the sametime ignoring state terror in western client states in Latin Americaand Asia or presenting this terror as being the consequence of civilwar. Thus while eastern European dissidents quite rightly attractedconsiderable attention, those being murdered by the death squads inLatin America remained for the most part as anonymous statistics, ifthey were known of at all. So while the terror of the Kahmer Rouge inKambodia was rightly highlighted and condemned the comparable terrorof Indonesia in East Timor slipped quietly by the attention of theworld media, year after year. The Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956is widely known about, the British invasion of Egypt in the same yearis almost unknown and referred to as the Suez crisis. The list couldgo on to include the 100,000 killed in Guatemala by the military inthe 1980's or the 500,000 killed in Indonesia with the help of theCIA in the 1950's or many other examples.

The second myth is that although things have been bad and abuseswere committed this is now stopping and things are getting better.Because things are getting better there is no need for people toactually struggle for a better society, they should just concentrateon working hard and wait for the wealth to 'trickle down' to theirlevel. A corollary of this is that anyone who is standing up andstruggling for a better society is in fact only making things worseand deserves a hostile treatment.

Back to Peru

Which brings us to Peru. The media message is quite simple withregards to Peru. The Peruvian state committed abuses but this periodis over and the economy is booming. Actually sections of the mediawill actually leave this as the whole story. The more liberal endwill go on to admit that the booming economy might be leaving thepoor behind and that there are still problems with democratic rights.All sections of the media however have described the MRTA asterrorists who are responsible for the troubles Peru has passedthrough but whom are now outdated and without any support. Again themore liberal sections may go on to state the rebels despite theirfearsome reputation have been polite to their hostages or evencompare them to some romantic but misguided Robin Hoods.

The Washington Post of December 19, 1996[7] neatly summarises this'analysis' when it says

"Fujimori's administration had largely quelled theviolent rebellion that terrorised Peru for a decade, involving bothMRTA and the much larger Shining Path guerrilla group."

In this weird phraseology the Fujimori's administration seems tobe almost a neutral body rather then the chief cause of the terror.Amnesty International figures for the decade referred to, 1981 to1992 suggest a somewhat different picture for they attribute most ofthe extrajudical killings to the Fujimori's administration, 53% infact. The Peruvian states method of quelling rebellion it appears wasto kill more people then anyone else. The MRTA hardly figure at allin these killings being responsible for a mere 1%. The almostuniversally reviled Shining Path were responsible for the remainderand almost inevitable the Washington Post seems to imply they wereengaged in some common project when they said "MRTA took up arms in1984 but never joined forces with the Maoist Shining Path groupbecause of ideological differences. " Presumably the intention hereis to blame the MRTA for some of the Shining Paths killings on thegrounds that whatever they say there all guerrilla's anyway.

The MRTA in a widely available interview describe theirrelationship with the Shining Path as follows

"Sendero is a very domineering force. They claim to bethe sole possessors of the truth and the only standard bearers ofrevolution in Peru. That's why they have never accepted the existenceof other revolutionary organizations in Peru. At the least, they havedescribed us as "armed reformists" and "traitors". But Sendero hasalso, in the past, described us as their main enemy and murdered manyMRTA activists. They have even ambushed MRTA units. These are crimeswhich cannot be justified in any way; they contradict the values ofrevolutionaries."

This would seem to contradict the cosy common purpose hinted at bythe Washington Post. The media has become adapt at serving itsmaster, ie to be "the tools and the vassals of rich men". So adaptthat like a well trained dog its snaps at anything that threatens itsservitude and no longer needs detailed control or instruction on whatto publish. Almost nowhere for instance will you find mention of thelaws which prevent Peruvians freely speaking their minds. Nowherewill you be told that in the period of Fujimori's economic miracleaverage calorie consumption actually fell by over 10%, that is untilthey stopped counting in 1992.

It seems that at the time of the attack some of the rebels wereplaying indoor football with some of the hostages. Now they are deadand Fujimori is parading over their corpses in a bullet-proof jacket.Despite the fact that the executed no hostages, even the current andformer heads of the political police and Peruvian states first actwas to execute them. Presumably this was to prevent any publicitythat might surround a trial and reveal why they undertook such anobviously doomed venture. But whatever the flaws of the MRTA'spolitics they have succeeded in one thing, all over the world peoplewill be wondering what drove a handful of people to stand up to themight of the Peruvian state with almost no chance of success orescape. They will look for the answers in the press but they won'tfind them there. And some at least will find themselves driven tofind out more, more about Peru, the media and the world we allinhabit.


This article represents my views alone. Non-profit distribution ofthis article encouraged. I'mananarchist and so am not a supporter of the MRTA or any otherMarxist organisation but I do recognise why they found it necessaryto take up arms against the Peruvian state. You can find otherarticles by me at


1 The Reuters piece may still be at although for the reasonsdiscussed in the article it may also have been removed.

2 Many papers carried all or parts of the Unibomber manifesto forinstance

3 The full statement released Jan 10, 1997 can be found at

4 I.E. willing to publish stories they are given by the British(internal) secret police, known as MI5, many British journalistsacknowledge that this is common practise and have claimed to havebeen approached by MI5 themselves.

5 Reuters would no doubt defend this action on the grounds ofpreserving copy-right on their material but as anyone who use theworld wide web a lot will be aware this bares little examination asReuters material and other newsfeeds appears on many, many mailinglists and web pages who have not received similar threats.

6 The full text of this paper can be found at


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