On December 17, 1986, Guillermo Cano, the editor of Colombia’s oldest newspaper El Espectador, was murdered as he was leaving work. Three years later, a Medellin cartel bomb blew up El Espectador’s Bogota’s offices. That was a final retaliation against the newspapers’ consistent reports about drug gangs and trafficking.
With more than 47 journalists assassinated in the country since 1977, Colombia is historically the most dangerous country for journalists. Its longstanding civil conflicts between rebel guerrilla groups and the government have created a country with a weak judicial system and habitual impunity problems. This has left journalists in the crossfire of conflict, both literally and figuratively. Today, peace talks between the government and rebel groups have helped dissolve issues of violence against journalists, but not enough has changed to make journalists feel safe.
Why so much conflict?
Since winning independence in 1810, Colombia has suffered through a lack of national cohesion that is still a problem today. With natural geography that divides the land and distinct social classes, Colombia has individual and separated territories that have made it difficult for the government to exercise control. In the 1960s, the assassination of popular liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala was the springboard for conflicts between liberals and conservatives. Numbers of peasants advocating for communist ideologies organized themselves into radical advocacy groups.
By the 1970s, there were about a dozen guerrilla groups. Today, the two most prevalent groups are the E.L.N. and F.A.R.C. The growth of left-wing guerrilla groups prompted the formation of right-winged paramilitary groups. These groups work to protect Colombians from the guerrilla groups’ activities. Since the beginning of the conflicts some half a century ago, more than 50,000 lives have been lost. The guerrilla groups fund their activities through kidnappings, robberies, heavy drug trafficking and murder. However, the paramilitary groups have also been involved in similar criminal activity.
With journalists inherently committed to relaying the truth, Colombian reporters have been caught in the crossfire of these internal conflicts. When a journalist writes an unfavorable story about one side or the other, a target is immediately put on their head. Such a toxic environment has deeply affected the way journalism is done in Colombia.
It’s common for Colombian journalists to receive threats or immediate attacks for the stories they publish. And, attacks are coming from both the rebel groups and paramilitary groups. With strong conflicts of interest, journalists reporting on corruption are not popular. Below is a chart from the Committee to Protect Journalists that shows the different beats journalists were covering when they were murdered.
However, the number of attacks could have decreased if there were a strong judicial system in Colombia. A large problem for journalists is impunity. Only 5 percent of journalist murders received full justice. With a lack of punishment in Colombia, journalists are left to defend themselves without the help from the government. Below is a chart displaying the impunity rates.
- Profile: Francisco Santos
Francisco Santos was editor of El Tiempo, one of Colombia’s largest newspapers. In 2000, he fled the country after being threatened by the F.A.R.C. rebel group. Prior to that, he was kidnapped for eight months with 10 other journalists by Pablo Escobar.
Before leaving Colombia, Santos was denied life insurance because of his career as a journalist. With high murder rates amongst journalists, insurance companies aren’t willing to take the risk.
In an interview with AJ+ in 2002, Santos said that one of the biggest issues journalists in Colombia face is self-censorship. Journalists are faced with decision-making when it comes to reporting about the country’s conflicts. Journalists have to be ready to face the consequences of their work, says Santos.
However, Santos says that journalists often write biased stories that appear lopsided. These stories are received differently by different groups of people. Instead of writing a letter to the editor, most people take issues into their own hands. That’s when threats and violence become popular ways of managing the press.
Today, Santos lives in Spain and is a journalist for the daily newspaper, El Pais.
Where to avoid
Certain cities in Colombia have more criminal activity than others. Before reporting in Colombia, it’s a good idea to investigate which cities have high incidence of violence and crime. Below is a map that displays criminal activity by category over a 30-day period in 2013. This map gives an idea as to the types of crime that are most prevalent, as well as the cities that have the highest incidents. For example, there were 68 incidents of land mine explosions during the time period.
Additionally, some cities are more notorious for violence than others. Below is a list from the OCHA that ranks cities in Colombia from most violent to least violent, with population factored in.
What about today?
With peace talks in Havana underway between the rebel groups and the government, there has been a decrease in attacks on journalists. In an AJ+ interview with Daniel Suárez Pérez, an investigative reporter, Pérez explains that the country is dangerous for anyone that wants to an express an opinion. Since the conflicts involve armed military groups, anyone that investigates corruption can expect threats and intimidation to follow, says Pérez.
And, with the emergence of technology like social media and smartphones, it’s becoming easier for anyone to express their opinion.
According to a study from Consejo de Redacción, there are roughly 750 online media organizations in Colombia today. And, the threats have followed journalists to their online presence. Cyber attacks are now an issue for Colombian journalists.
There have been six reported major attacks against online media outlets in Colombia since 2014. Additionally, there have been 15 fake social media accounts intended to defame journalists that have been reported.
The issue is that Colombian journalists are fully entering the digital world, but are doing so without necessary online security or protection tools.
Below is a chart from the International Journalists’ Network that displays the use of encryption and protection tools amongst Colombian journalists. The chart shows the amount of journalists who are using NONE of the method listed. These high rates are indicative of the weak security of online journalism. With a shift into the digital world, journalists will need to adjust how they address threats and intimidations, perhaps beginning with an increase of online security.
What about an American girl in Colombia?
Before I think about traveling to Colombia as a journalist, I need to consider who I am in relationship with the country and its culture.
One of the key things that I need to consider is the fact that I’m an American, and America and Colombia have an international-aid relationship. Obama has set aside millions of dollars to assist Colombia in eradicating the rebel conflicts and drug trafficking. However, inside of Colombia, this plan may not be popular with everyone. When in Colombia, I would be careful about reporting and discussing America’s foreign aid, as someone next to me may be a coca farmer, or a F.A.R.C. affiliate. Inside of America, we see ourselves as heroes to Colombia, but many Colombians do not see us the same way.
Foreign journalists reporting in the country will need to set aside their personal demographics in the same way. No matter where you’re from, anyone who publicly expresses opinion in Colombia is watched. The key to safety in Colombia is understanding that your work will have consequences. With the country heavily divided in opinions and people, it’s difficult to not step on any toes. But, journalists must deal head-on with the consequences of their work, and not expect any assistance from the law.
Since the country’s problems are rooted in weak government and differing ideologies, matters such as religion are not as taboo in the media. Roughly 75 percent of Colombia’s population are Catholics. As a person who isn’t religious, I would come to Colombia internalizing basic notions of Catholicism, understanding that most of the people who live there believe in God and live in accordance with the Holy Bible.
Fortunately, standing out in Colombia as a white person is almost welcomed. With the removal of the 16 percent sales tax for tourists, the president is pushing to increase tourism. And, with the dwindling of civil conflicts, president Santos is hoping to change foreign perception of Colombia to a more positive one. Coming to Colombia, it would be a good idea to do reporting on items other than corruption, such as tourism, arts, technology or health. This would help my popularity and safety as a journalist.
However, light-hearted items can’t be the be-all and end-all of Colombian journalism. With corruption so prevalent of an issue, journalists need to be able to take the risk of reporting the truth. Coming to Colombia to report about the corruption and conflicts, I would need to make connections within the journalism community. There are many organizations and private investigators in Colombia that work to protect journalists, and my first plan of action would be to locate these services. The last thing I want to be in Colombia is alone with such high rates of impunity.
After establishing a strong social network and getting a firm grasp on the safety situation of the city, I feel that it is necessary to take risks in reporting Colombian conflicts. With so many opinions and ties to history, it’s important that objective reporting is done. Hopefully, with the power of the truth and strong journalism, a safe and stable answer to the Colombian civil conflicts will come.
What’s new this week?
News coming from Colombia this week indicates efforts to change public perception of the country. With an impending end to the civil conflicts, Colombian government and media are changing the topics of the news. The media this past year has been filled with talk of the civil conflict and hopeful resolution with the F.A.R.C. and E.L.N. groups. However, since the peace talks have began in January, there’s been a decrease in stories about the conflict. Instead, internal media are reporting stories that make Colombia seem developed and cohesive as a society. Many stories are being written about arts, sports and technology.
This week, The City Paper Bogota’s front page featured a story about an environmental day dedicated to using bags that aren’t plastic. There are quotes from President Santos in the story that point to Colombia’s attention to environmental matters. This seems to be a strategic public relations move. Featuring environmental matters in Colombia’s largest-circulating English newspaper is a convenient way for tourists to see the environmental progress of the country. This is more welcomed by tourists than infamous stories about drug trafficking and corruption that have historically come from Colombia.
The only story in the The City Paper Bogota that talks about the conflict is a story about Ecuador holding the peace talks. On April 16, Ecuador suffered a devastating earthquake that killed 650 people, the story says. However, despite the chaos, Ecuador will still be holding the peace talks for the Colombian government and E.L.N. The story focused more on thanking Ecuador for their help than the talk itself. This shows that Colombia is dedicated to maintaining positive foreign relationships. By publicly thanking Ecuador through one of the country’s largest papers, Colombia strengthens its relationship with Ecuador. And, attention is diverted away from the conflict itself. Writing a positive story about the conflicts as opposed to a negative one helps Colombia seem like its growing as a country.
Perhaps once the government and rebel groups are closer to a resolution, more stories will be published about the conflict. However, there’s no doubt that the country’s efforts to help its foreign perception won’t subside in the near future.