March 5, 2020
The targeted killing of Iran’s Qassem Soleimani by an American drone on January 3 raised reactions all over the world and South America is not an exception. Media across the continent expressed diverse opinions reflecting the political situation in each country and relations with Iran.
The attack also opened a debate on the presence of Hezbollah in South America.
Media landscape of this Latin American country is highly affected by the current political situation. As reported by Reporters Without Borders, independent media often face persecutions and intimidation as government of Nicolas Maduro tries to keep news coverage under his control.
The state media reaction to the killing of Qassem Soleimani followed the official stance of Nicolas Maduro, a close ally of Iran. State television VTV condemned the assassination describing it as a terrorist attack and calling Soleimani a martyr. Pan-American television TeleSur, which is sponsored by the Venezuelan government, described the attack as a treacherous crime and called American steps as provocations to escalate the situation into a conflict.
The reactions of non-state media were different. Majority of outlets were explaining Qassem Soleimani’s role in the Middle East and in the world, but in some cases, they expressed critical views of the Qods force commander that the United States considered an arch-terrorist in the Middle East.
“The non-state media are not directly controlled by the regime but can be influenced as the regime uses intimidation tactics to silence journalists when they report on something government does not want to have exposed. I do not think that in case of killing of Soleimani the regime did it. Thus, independent media were free to report about it,” Joseph Humire, an expert on transregional threats in Latin America & Middle East told Radio Farda in an interview.
For example, El Nacional, outlet which is not directly controlled by Maduro’s administration, published an article written by Adolfo P. Salguiero, lawyer who claims to be an opponent of government. The author called Soleimani a world terrorist number one and expressed his concerns about future developments in the Middle East.
Yet most articles published by non-state media were rather informative with no expression of opinions.
Venezuela is the closest ally of Iran in Latin America. The two countries, connected by strong Anti-Americanism, built their relationship during the presidencies of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and remain allies even under the administrations of Nicolas Maduro and Hassan Rouhani. The U.S. and it’s allies also believe Maduro’s government provides a haven to units of Lebanese Hezbollah.
In Colombia, media focused on the presence of Hezbollah in the continent and possible retaliation for Soleimani’s killing.
According to Humire “Colombia was one of the countries which covered the death of Soleimani the most as it happened just two weeks before a major conference about counterterrorism took place in Bogota on January 19th. Media paid a lot of attention to the topic of Hezbollah, its presence in Latin America and its connection to Quds force and Revolutionary guards.”
Furthermore, Colombian media proved to be concerned about future developments in the Middle East and in the world.
The biggest newspaper in the country, El Tiempo, published an article written by political and investigative journalist Moises Naim in which he called Soleimani a dangerous terrorist but also expressed concern that his death could encourage nuclear proliferation as a defensive measure. The author claimed U.S. adversaries know that the same thing could not happen in North Korea because it could respond with nuclear arms.
Colombia, one of the closest U.S. allies in South America, is currently governed by right-wing president Ivan Duque elected in 2018. During the Regional Conference Against Terrorism held in Bogota he stated that Venezuela is in collusion with Hezbollah and that Colombia added the group to the country’s list of terrorist organizations, according to the magazine Semana.
A strong reaction to the killing came from leftist guerilla group FARC which condemned the attack and held a ceremony for Soleimani on February 7th in Bogota. “When FARC made this very vocal and public expression, media was wondering why they politicize it and what is the connection between Hezbollah, FARC and Iran – so that became an interest of media as well,” added Humire.
Reactions from Argentina to the killing were influenced by the country’s experience with attacks believed to be carried out by Hezbollah in mid-1990’s.
One of the topics was involvement of Iran and Soleimani in the attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires in 1994 where 85 people died. Argentinian investigative and political journalist Daniel Santoro claimed in an article published in national journal Clarin, one of the biggest private newspapers in the country, that Soleimani is named in specific intelligence reports on the AMIA attack even though he was never accused.
According to the article by Santoro, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, stated that based on his information, Soleimani was implicated in the AMIA attack. Bolsonaro openly praised the assassination saying that Brazil “rejects all forms of terrorism anywhere in the world”.
Yet, according to the media agency Infobae, president Fernandez ordered an increase of security measures after the attack. “Even though Fernandez is not that strong on Iran as previous president Mauricio Macri, he got concerned that Iran would retaliate for the death of Soleimani, and Argentina is always a soft target. That is why he raised the alert level, particularly at airports and Jewish communities,” explained the expert.
Peruvian media also expressed fears about future developments in the Middle East and in the world. Important Peruvian newspaper La Republica published an article in which they compared the killing of Soleimani to the assassination of Ferdinand d’Este, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, whose killing is considered to have been an immediate cause of World War I.
The biggest newspaper in Peru, El Comerio, presented an opinion piece from Peruvian international security and the Middle East expert Farih Kahhat in which he assumed that neither the U.S. nor Iran know what consequences their actions would have while referring specifically to the downing of a Ukraine airliner by Iran’s revolutionary Guard on January 8.