Colombia’s chief of intelligence resigns after fact-checkers reveal his use of misleading photos

October 10, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking,IFCN

Once again — this time in Colombia — fact-checkers made it clear: their work has an impact and can even change pivotal leaders in a country.

On Sept. 26, Colombian President Iván Duque posted on Twitter “parts of a report” that he had given to the U.N.’s General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, during the General Assembly in New York that week.

The document, “Threats to democracy, security and regional peace,” was, according to the Colombian president, an “alert on terrorist actions that are currently being taken by armed groups with the support of the Venezuelan dictatorship.” The report was 128 pages and included a series of photographs supposedly showing territory under Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government.

When Duque tweeted that content, he also used a hashtag: #PruebasVenezuela (#ProofsAboutVenezuela). His presumed intent was to reinforce the idea that his government had collected evidence that Venezuala was offering support for “ELN (National Liberation Army) terrorist groups and dissidents of former FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia),” people willing to “destabilize Colombia and control drug trafficking, illegal mineral extraction, contraband and other crimes.”

At first, the report looked like a shocking and definitive document. But it wasn’t.

At least two of the photographs presented as clear evidence of Venezuela supporting ELN and FARC guerrillas did not correspond with Venezuelan territory and weren’t new.

On Oct. 1, Oswaldo Peña Bermeo, the chief of intelligence and military counterintelligence in Colombia, resigned, helping the fact checks made by El Colombiano and AFP go viral on social media.

The document Duque took to the U.N. contained misleading content, and Peña Bermeo thought he could no longer continue to command the intelligence of his country. In a letter sent to the president, he announced he was stepping down.

“As a general of the Republic, I am aware of the need to answer for my actions and those of my subordinates, and I will act accordingly,” he wrote.

At first, Duque tried to downplay the problem. He said the report contained “context images.” However, after more fact checks were published, the Defense Ministry apologized to the direction of AFP and the misuse of photos became clear.

The photo, which in the U.N. document allegedly shows the “penetration of ELN in rural schools of Tachira state, in April 2018, with the purpose of indoctrination,” was actually published by El Colombiano three years before, in June 2015. It illustrated an article on guerrillas present in Cauca, Colombia, 1,200 kilometers from Tachira.

A photo in the U.N. document shows a small wooden house that’s identified as evidence of “terrorist actions” associated with a “massacre that took place in Bolivar state in October 2018 ” was actually taken by Luis Robayo in September 2018 in Catatumbo, Colombia. It is available in the AFP Forum.

This story shows that fact checks can have a real impact on the lives of the powerful. It is concrete evidence that the search for truth is not in vain and can change the direction of a country. It might also help fact-checkers worldwide defend their service and to fight for their independence. For now, they will just keep fact-checking.

Read the Spanish version of this article at Univision.

Cristina Tardáguila is the associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network and the founder of Agência Lupa, in Brazil. She can be reached at ctardaguila@poynter.org.

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