Colombia: Corruption, censorship and bullet points for ethical journalism
By Jonathan Bock
In Colombia there are first and second class journalists and they live and work in two very different worlds. One group are journalists who work for big communication corporations, headquartered in the country’s main cities; the others are regional journalists, serving more than 70 percent of the country’s population, the people who have been directly affected by an internal conflict that has become the oldest in the world, lasting for more than 50 years.
Journalists ranked as first-class work for the most influential communications media, belonging to major economic groups. These companies enjoy good financial health, maintain excellent relations with the power structures, and have managed to survive the onslaught against the press led by actors in the Colombian armed conflict for decades.
They are journalists with similar working conditions to those in the international market. Their work has greater impact and wider dissemination, and they enjoy the freedom to report on issues silenced in much of the country including corruption scandals; coverage of the armed conflict; and links between mafia gangs and government. It is the press that has built a good international reputation, thanks to courageous stories revealing the horrors of war, and has helped to focus attention on the country’s problems.
It’s a very different story for regional journalists travelling in second class where journalists have had to ply their trade amid ongoing tensions, with military confrontations, harassment and presence of illegal powers, including paramilitaries, drug dealers, and guerrillas – operating as parallel states. It is in this reality that most of Colombian journalism has survived for the last 30 years.
These two classes of journalists face different forms of corruption that are largely marked by the concentration of the media; pressure and manipulation of journalists by political authorities; blackmail through government advertising; and the irregular contractual relationships between journalists and their companies.
Journalism enslaved by advertising, the wounds of war
When a diagnosis of the conditions of Colombian journalism is made, it is inevitable to look at how the Colombian conflict has influenced the press, and how attacks on media have created many of the current problems.
According to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) war in Colombia has been the main enemy of the press, with many direct and indirect victims. In the last 35 years 142 journalists have been killed because of their work; 57 percent of these murders are directly attributable to participants in the conflict whether paramilitaries, drug dealers, guerrillas or members of the Armed Forces.
Moreover, between 1986 and 2014 FLIP recorded that the war left 697 attacks on journalists. This figure represents 36 percent of all assaults.
Colombia has been, and continues to be, listed by media and press freedom groups as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights agrees, commenting on a 1996 case it reports: “At this time and in later years Colombia presented a special hazard for journalists and social communicators in relation to the performance of their duties, by reason of acts of violence, threats, and harassment by actors of the armed conflict, including armed dissident groups, paramilitary groups, and some members of the Armed Forces, as well as common criminals”.
In addition to those killed, there have been numerous kidnappings and threats that led to the forced exile of dozens of journalists. The wave of intimidation and fear brought about a great silence in many regions. According to studies by FLIP, in 2014 there are several districts which still live under a “news blackout”, where local journalists tend to broadcast music rather than to report the news. Local newspapers publish beauty pageants and photos of folk singers, the space for discussion, complaint, and investigation is disappearing.
“In the last six years eight radio stations have disappeared. Some have closed because journalists receive threats and leave the region, or move away from journalism. But it is also because media work is not economically viable. The ones that have better relations with the Mayor’s Office and get advertising money are the ones that survive”, said one journalist from Caucasia, capital city of the region of Bajo Cauca.
But the war has ceased to be the main concern for journalists. In the latest report published by the Antonio Nariño Project, assaults by illegal actors are less of worry for reporters than other forms of indirect censorship. Their main concern is the pressure to get advertising or direct interference by public officials and politicians.
The effect of war on the communications businesses has led to structural changes in the working conditions of journalists, creating more precarious work and consequently damaging the quality of journalism and media content.
According to a 2012 report by the Colombian Federation of Journalists (FECOLPER) on working conditions and professional practice, journalists in Colombia devote 60 percent of their time to selling advertising. Most of the other 40 percent work on editing and production. The ability to conduct investigative journalism and research stories that affect society is much reduced.
According to FECOLPER, only 51 percent of Colombian journalists have a permanent working contract. More than 20 percent get their income from selling advertising slots, and a further 22 percent are working on one-year contracts.
Germán Rey, director of journalism Javeriana University, who has studied this area, says the effects of the conflict have been felt at the same time as the transformation of media, and this has had a major impact on journalism.
“In just two decades, the country experienced radical changes in the legal regulations of the media,” he says. “It has standardised the business mix for media owners and this tends to hurt the independence of journalism. It means private and government advertising is handled as extortion currency.” He says that journalism is strongly influenced by local, regional and national leaders with specific information needs regarding the government’s strategic economic allies.
The microphone and hat, a booby trap
Alvaro Sierra, a journalist who has been in charge of the editorials of El Tiempo newspaper and Semana magazine, says the main problem for most regional journalists is the system of “quotas”, which forces them into a daily routine of what he calls the “microphone and hat booby trap”.
This is when a journalist is assigned to meet senior officials, he must first get out the microphone to ask questions and immediately after he must show the hat and convince them to advertise on his media, and thus collect money. Not surprisingly. It’s a situation that makes independent, critical journalism well-nigh impossible.
Javier Darío Restrepo, professor of journalism ethics, and Teacher of the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation, highlights the critical relationship of journalists with government advertising. He says, “It’s a form of pressure, because it works as an unwritten rule: those who speak well about the government will receive substantial contracts for advertising. Those who don’t will not get funding.”
The microphone and hat booby trap is a consequence of the advertising system’s “quotas” that operates in Colombia. Owners of radio stations provide radio or television space for journalists, as part of their remuneration. Thus, owners pay low wages, which are about 300 dollars, and in return journalists get more airtime, which in turn is sold to those interested in advertising. Journalists are forced to sell advertising to get their stories on air.
The many negative effects of this practice are clearly felt. Several journalists told researchers that state-funded advertising is most often awarded to those who provide news coverage favorable to the government, at the expense of journalists who are more independent.
In this situation, Professor José Darío Restrepo says the abusive use of official advertising is the most effective censorship because “it is installed in the heart of the journalist’s interests. It is even more reprehensible because it is activated from the official offices. It amounts to the most effective and destructive attack on the press’ dignity and on the right to freedom of information in the country”.
In the book called País lejano y silenciado (Silenced and Distant Country), published by FLIP, the terrible consequences of this system are highlighted. According to the research it has given rise to a generation of journalists skilled in “extortion”, who disseminate false information in order to press potential customers to advertise. It has also served to present cases of “parachutist” journalists, who aren’t professionals but “opportunists who create programmes or newspapers with the only objective to make money from advertising”.
An event that typifies this occurred on August 14, 2014, when police captured Cristian Yair Cuesta, a correspondent from Caracol Radio, in the Department of Chocó. The victim in this case was Yasson Bedoya, Mayor of Bagadó (Chocó). The Mayor claimed that he was a victim of extortion by the journalist, who was demanding a payment of 30 million pesos (15,000 dollars) for advertising in his radio station, in exchange for not publishing information on a criminal investigation against the government official.
Although Colombia hasn’t conducted a national survey that reveals the criteria that local governments have on advertising, or know the details of the privileges they the media gets for disseminating favorable information other studies have identified several irregularities.
The book El precio del silencio analyses in detail the interference of governments on freedom of expression and on the media and journalists in Latin America and Colombia. It finds that although several mayors and governors have signed “Transparency Agreements” – commitments to establish procedures for the fair and transparent assignment of government advertising – these are willfully ignored in practice. “Bosses of senior officials call journalists, editors, and media owners to influence on the titles or the contents of certain news, or to request that particular information is not published,” it reports.
Direct censorship still subtly at work
Money is not the only currency used to blackmail in Colombian journalism. During 2014 several cases revealed evidence of direct censorship, even in some of the most prestigious media.
During the 2014 presidential campaign President Juan Manuel Santos and the opposition candidate Oscar Iván Zuluaga showed no fear in using any means to win the election fight and, of course, media was a critical battleground.
Freelance journalist Juanita León, director of the political website La Silla Vacía conducted a series of articles denouncing the influence exercised by the government of President Santos on mainstream media.
Two weeks before the Election Day, León denounced the influence that was being exerted on journalists of El Espectador by Gonzalo Mallarino Córdoba, president of Caracol Television and the newspaper.
“Although no newspaper journalist has been expressly forbidden to cover a particular topic in this election,” wrote León, “the influence of Córdoba itself has generated episodes of self-censorship by some reporters. They prefer not to raise issues that would affect the President, to avoid problems with one of the most important figures of the newspaper”.
According to León, the pressure from Córdoba consisted basically on calls made by some bosses to verify the approaches to the stories about Santos. “He never calls the journalists but the bosses, and asks how they are going to publish the topics that deal with Santos. When there are any notes against him, he gets upset and asks if what they want is to deinstitutionalise the country”.
El Tiempo newspaper, which until 2012 was owned by the President’s family, remains overtly ‘santista’ (supportive of President Santos). Although there were no reported cases about pressures, the journalists argued that the editors had internalised the phrase “every journalist should know whom he works for.” It was not advisable to set positions against the government’s policies.
Semana magazine, the most influential media in the political setting and distinguished by its important investigations, did not escape the pressure. As reported by La Silla Vacía, there was no explicit order not to write against Santos, “but more subtle techniques are used to control approaches, such as reducing the number of pages for critical articles; editing a few sentences so that the whole point of a story is nuanced; maximising the topics that embrace the government positions; and putting some controversial news on inside pages, even though they are more newsworthy than cover stories about the government”.
Several media analysts point out that the magazine’s director, Alejandro Santos, is the nephew of the President, and its owner, Felipe López, is a close friend of the Chief of State, and both have been obstacles for the media to provide balanced information.
Days after the election, journalist Hassan Nassar, who ran the program 360 degrees for Cablenoticias channel, resigned claiming that there was pressure from senior government officials. He said the owners of the channel, after talking with government officials, reprimanded him on at least three occasions. After the Santos’ triumph, the journalist said goodbye to the channel via a message posted on his Twitter account: “The only censorship that should concern a journalist is his own. For the others, there is always a letter of resignation”.
A month later, another censorship scandal came to light. On this occasion the renowned journalist Hollman Morris, manager of public channel Canal Capital, was accused. Journalist Mauricio Arroyave revealed that in his talk show El Primer Café (The First Coffee) he had interviewed Bogotá Councillor Carlos Vicente de Roux. After that broadcast, Hollman Morris struck him, saying: “Mr. Roux is no longer a friend of Canal Capital”.
Arroyave said that Canal Capital told him that his contract would not be renewed if he would not follow the editorial line of the company. A few days later, the reporter learned that his employment contract, which until that point was renewed every two months (as with most journalists in the channel), would not continue.
Even more compelling is the case reported by Juan Esteban Mejía, a correspondent for Semana magazine over four years. In early 2014, the director of the magazine, Alejandro Santos, traveled to Medellín and told him he could not continue to criticise Mayor Aníbal Gaviria, and should look at other issues that were more sympathetic. The reporter felt this warning, although it took place on the most cordial terms, was interference in his line of work, as an investigative reporter working on irregularities in Medellin’s administration.
Mejía resigned and days later, the magazine ran a special on the region of Medellín, titled: Antioquia gente 1 A (Antioquia: great people), a special edition of 316 pages highlighting the positive work of the department of Antioquia and its capital. The publication was paid by the Mayor of Medellín around 500 million pesos (250,000 dollars).
Media concentration, a consolidated risk
Between 1986 and 2014 the control of media in Colombia was consolidated in the three most powerful and richest families of the country. The Santo Domingo family, through Valorem Group, owns Caracol TV and the newspaper El Espectador; Ardila Lulle Group owns RCN national radio and television; and from 2012 Luis Carlos Sarmiento, Colombia’s richest man, owns more than 80% of the shares of El Tiempo publisher, the bestselling and most influential newspaper in the country. The fourth competitor is the Spanish group Prisa, owner of Caracol Radio.
Colombian researcher Maria Teresa Herrán warns that “media concentration without regulatory intervention by the State, due to lack of political will, by successive governments in Colombia, has enabled the owners of the media, sources, advertisers and the State to bypass their responsibilities in relation to the right to report. Information is increasingly tied to special interests”.
The El Tiempo purchase by Sarmiento Angulo, which exceeded 250 million dollars, created much speculation and public debate. Many claimed that the investment was not to seek economic returns, but a move to exert political influence. As a consequence some fear that the freedom of journalists to report on many subjects has been compromised, given the many different interests of Mr. Angulo. He owns five banks and has huge investments in the construction, agro-industry, tourism and energy sectors, as well as stakes in road, water, and airport companies.
The fears of restrictions on journalists have proved, to a certain extent, to be well founded. Although several reporters from El Tiempo prefer not to talk about it openly, and the heads of the editorial note that there are no issues censored, in private conversations they reveal that editors are guided on how to handle certain issues, especially those related to the direct interests of Sarmiento Angulo.
Peace process: Benefits for journalism?
The renowned journalist María Teresa Ronderos, currently director of the global program of independent journalism Open Society, has no doubt that press freedom in the country can be considered healthy. Even though, she notes there are phenomena that tip both sides of the scale.
“The Colombian market of information is governed by the competition, there are freedoms from the government, unlike in Ecuador, Venezuela and other Latin American countries,” she says. “The Colombian press is a vigorous and competitive, especially the written one and the radio. But there are daily pressures, and conglomerates with their political and business interests seek to keep the media far away from the regions and closer to the central power”.
This last concern has marked the development of journalism. The owners of the media give priority to economic interests and their journalism suffers. Pressures, often through advertising and marketing companies or other emissaries, act directly on media owners, editors and journalists, accommodating decisions from economic groups, defining government communication strategies, or influencing decisions while imposing self-censorship to hide problems from public scrutiny.
Although there is a legal and constitutional framework that supports the work of journalists and it is the State’s obligation to protect it, the efforts of successive governments to deal with the difficulties set out here have not been sufficient. In 2011 the Anti-Corruption statute was approved and sanctioned, which requires local governments to develop a transparent procedure for the distribution of “effective, objective, decentralised, and public acquisition of public advertising”.
However, three years later, corrupt practices continue and mayors and governors continue awarding advertising according to their personal and political interests.
Without adequate tools to deal with the corrupt practices surrounding the exercise of journalism, journalists respond to each of these situations according to their own ethical principles and needs.
“It is very sad to witness that ‘stomach journalism’ rules in the regions and, although this situation has been repetitively reported, there has been no progress”, commented a journalist who has worked for years in the department of La Guajira.
“The best way to create awareness about the need for greater transparency and actions to strengthen the public’s confidence is to make visible those cases that occur within the newsroom”, he concludes.
The peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the guerrilla group FARC to end the conflict opens a window of opportunity for the future of journalism.
A second point, which has been partially agreed, is that the parties discuss the issue of communication and media policy. The guerrilla group leadership has asked the government to provide mechanisms for a more plural press and more effective resources to control advertising so that it does not continue to be a currency of blackmail. The commitments that may result could undoubtedly generate a favorable environment for the future of journalism.
Nevertheless, corrupt environments have been installed in the newsroom and they are a check on the ethics of journalists. They affect all journalists – both first and second-class – and the culture of journalism as a whole. The work to fully understand this media reality and to put pressure on government to bring about change and reform remains to be done. Unless the challenge is taken up, the prospects for development of peace and democracy remain limited.