Colombia’s long-standing history of weak national unity continues to affect the news trail journalists have left. For much of Colombia’s history, journalists within and outside of the country reported on the on-going rebel conflicts and drug trafficking. However, with an almost-end to the country’s 50 year civil conflict, the nature of journalists’ work has changed to reporting brighter topics.
In lieu of an impending resolution to the conflict with the F.A.R.C. rebel group, journalists have taken the responsibility of connecting and informing the public. But, they haven’t always reported objectively. Some journalism is influenced by politics and second-agendas of those reporting. Although perhaps not the most ethical, Colombian journalists have helped provide information to the public through controversy. Here are some prominent values that Colombian journalists hold:
- An Extra Pair of Eyes:
Historically, journalism has been one of the most dangerous careers to have in Colombia. With almost 50 journalists murdered since 1992 within Colombia, many journalists today have close ties with those who have suffered from violence.
However, the country’s impunity problem doesn’t stop journalists from reporting.
Ginna Morelo, an investigative reporter from El Meridiano de Córdoba formed an investigative network called “El Consejo de Redaccion” that eventually won state protection for the media six years ago. In the group, jo-
urnalists collaborate on stories that are too dangerous to do alone. They also worked together with
competitors on stories and investigation, and staged a news blackout to protest a killing.“What began with two journalists based in Bogotá snowballed into a national movement,” said Morelo (CJR, 2013), talking about the effects of her organization’s work.
Morelo, along with many more Colombian journalists, says reporting the country’s news is more important than the potential dangers of the career.
- Reporting Objectively… or not.
With such an interest in finding national peace, it’s easy to expect that Colombian journalists would value reporting the truth. However, this isn’t always the case. Historically, many journalists in Colombia also have had political careers.
“Colombia’s leading television networks and newspapers are run by members of long-standing political and economic elites. The Santo Domingo group, Colombia’s largest industrial conglomerate, owns the Caracol TV and radio networks as well as the El Espectador newspaper. The rival RCN TV and radio network is controlled by the Ardila Lulle beer empire. Other prime-time TV news shows and the weekly political magazine Semana are owned by family members of former presidents of the two traditional Conservative and Liberal parties that have held power for the last 150 years” -Elizabeth Dernbacher, Colombian journalist
Though publications are free, they are closely involved with Colombia’s politics. Two more former presidents were also newspaper directors, Laureano Gómez of El Siglo (which has since deceased) and Eduardo Santos of El Tiempo, one of Colombia’s most popular newspapers.
Perhaps even more dark than the way news is produced in Colombia is the inherent trust citizens have in the media. Colombia’s diverse geography created vastly separate regions with little communication. Thus, many publications are independent and localized. Many trust the media’s content without further exploration.
But, the expansion of the Internet has opened the door for many publications to be online. Today, more Colombian publications are available online and are read across regions (pressreference.com).
- Journalism or Public Relations?
Today is notably one of the first times in Colombian history that all of Colombia is working toward common goals – national peace and progress. Along with that includes mending of Colombia’s reputation with the rest of the world. Much of the news produced about Colombia in the past few decades has been about the rebel conflicts.
In the United States, much of the reporting about Colombia in the past pertains to Obama’s “Plan Colombia” foreign aid efforts. In February, Obama pledged to increase Colombia’s foreign aid to more than $450 million, calling the new plan “Peace Colombia.” The aid is to help educate and reintegrate members of the rebel forces, as well as end the drug trafficking issues.
With a large amount of the content being produced about Colombia’s negative happenings, an effort to change foreign perception is in motion.
This month, the president eliminated the country’s 16 percent sales tax for tourists. In addition to a desire to increase tourism, Colombian journalists have a desire to augment their country’s reputation.
Today, one of Colombia’s most popular newspapers is an English-language publication called The City Paper Bogota. The paper was founded in 2008, in a time when the government and rebel groups were organizing peace talks. In the paper’s about section, it claims to offer…
“the best source for breaking news, travel tips and cultural insights into one of Latin America’s most beautiful and welcoming nations.”
The paper invites those who aren’t familiar with Colombia’s culture to read it, and speaks to what would appeal to a tourist coming to the country. In the Bogota‘s November 2010 issue, the front page is covered with a story about a new salsa dancing show in the city of Cali. Other stories in the paper were about a new emerging top female chef, holidays in hospitals, baseball and jazz.
In the addition to the Bogota, other English-language newspapers were created in Colombia in the past decade, including Colombia Reports and Caribbean News Now.
Becoming Vigilantes by Reputation
Colombia has an infamous history of violence against journalists. For many years, journalists would be murdered, kidnapped or tortured every few months in the country. Cesar Gaviria, Colombia’s president from 1990-1994, has many colleagues who have been murdered for political reasons, including his sister and three other presidency candidates. Gaviria credits journalists for their bravery.
“Journalists take all the risks. Many have been killed, but this country has not been intimidated.”
Since 1992, some 43 journalists have been murdered for reasons related to their work. However, only one journalist has been killed for those reasons since 2010, says CPJ.
The chief editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest circulating newspaper, travels in an armored car. His name is Roberto Pombo, and he has armored transportation for his family and some of his prominent colleagues as well. He and his family are targets for assassination. To Pombo, this situation is an improvement from the past.
“If you compare the situation in Colombia now for journalists with what happened 10, 15, 20 years ago…everything changed. We work better, safely, now.”
Threats only mean Pombo’s journalism is successful. His paper circulates some 400,000 copies of Sunday broadsheet, with 250,000 copies on weekdays, and attracts 9 million unique visitors to the website each month.
What about foreign perception?
For much of Colombia’s history, the internal conflicts have been in the forefront of foreign news published about the country. With Colombia’s issues spreading across borders with heavy cocaine trafficking, many countries reported the stories out of necessity.
In February, Obama created a revised plan called “Peace Colombia” that offered Colombia $450 million in foreign aid.
Here is a video from the New York Times that includes Obama’s speech about “Peace Colombia.” Much of the reporting about Colombia in the United States is similar to the video in content. Similarly, many reports glorify and celebrate the new foreign plan for Colombia, making the United States seem like a hero team to Colombia.
However, in the past few decades as peace talks began to surface, foreign reporting on Colombia shifted.
Less reporting is on conflict and more is now on tourism and entertainment, explain authors Michael LaRosa and German Mejia in a 2012 history of Colombia.
“Global media have shifted significantly in the way they cover Colombia. Stories focusing on tourism, restaurants, Colombian tennis stars, and positive reviews of literary works…suggest the US media’s perception of the Andean nation is evolving away from the myopic, one-dimensional view that marked earlier portrayals of the country.”
Aside from the foreign aid plans, much of the reporting about Colombia coming from the US is situated to help bring in tourism.
When searching through CNN’s articles published about Colombia, the majority of the headlines dealt with entertainment coming from Colombia. Here is a screenshot of some of the headlines first listed, two about soccer and one about Miss Colombia:
With a resolution to the internal conflicts on the way and the president’s push for more tourism, it’s expected to see more reporting on light-hearted stories coming from Colombia.
Historically, much of Colombia’s news historically has been local. Natural geography created separated regions that had little communication until the emergence of online reporting. Today, many Colombian publications are available online. Here are the different mediums:
- Colombia has 24 daily newspapers.
- There’s also a total of 60 television stations.
- And, there’s 515 radio stations.
Colombia’s top newspapers and media are:
- El Tiempo
- Canal RCN
- El Espectador
What About Today?
This week, four different stories were published in The Guardian about Colombia’s “failed” war on drugs. Being responsible for supplying roughly 90 percent of the world’s cocaine, Colombia’s drug trafficking is deeply rooted in the country’s history and culture. Having published four stories about Colombian cocaine, I assumed The Guardian has a hidden interest in reporting extensively. But, the stories are all diverse in nature and present a new perspective on the issue. For example, one of the stories is an opinion piece about President Santos’ efforts in handling the issue, offering up a critical lens to Colombia’s actions. In contrast, one story was published from the perspective of a coca plant farmer in Colombia who has to destroy his crops. Perhaps if The Guardian hadn’t presented two or more stories with differing sides, the news coverage wouldn’t be balanced. This coverage of Colombia’s drug trafficking is an example of unbiased reporting that I strive to have.
For more insight on Colombia’s drug war, check out one of the stories here. Below is a chart that shows the correlation between eradicated coca plants and harvested ones in the past years. Recently, much more cultivation is being done than removal of the crops.
However, Colombian publications this week have not been as ethical as The Guardian. The infamous Zika virus caused its first cases of microcephaly in Colombia this week. The City Paper Bogota, one of Colombia’s largest English publications, didn’t report the story until two days after American publications did like The L.A. Times. In the local Colombian publication, the headline reads “Zika numbers down in Colombia but infectiousness concerns.” This headline doesn’t convey the urgency of the news. In fact, it covers up the depths of the situation by saying that Zika numbers are still down. This may be true, but it diverts the attention away from the news at hand – the incidence of microcephaly. In the L.A. Times’ report, the headline is more direct, saying “Zika virus: First cases of microcephaly reported in Colombia.” This headline is indicative of what the story is about, and doesn’t direct attention away from the negativity of the news. With a push to mend public perception of Colombia, it doesn’t surprise me to see minimal reporting on painful news and much more reporting on news that is easy to hear.