Reflections from Colombia on World Press Freedom Day

That May 3rd is the date assigned by UNESCO as World Press Freedom Day unsettles me. I had never paid it much attention before as until recently my reporting was dedicated almost exclusively to travel writing and cultural observations. Since leaving the UK all those years ago – and where I used to report the news – I found myself following a path of least resistance into certain types of journalism. And, this has been incredibly beneficial to me and my career as a journalist. However, in the past couple of years, I have felt the yearning to move back into what I would refer to as “impacting journalism”. Now, you’ll note that I have steered clear of the term “serious journalism”, because we could get caught up in the semantics of journalism from its very roots and do some grave damage and disrespect to journalists in varied specialisms who perform a real service. This is neither the time nor place nor platform for such a debate. But, since gaining an invaluable insight into the machinations of life in Colombia over seven years I want to make a difference and want to report issues so that my writing has an effect.

Some of you will have seen my somewhat flippant blog post written a year ago when I was found scrambling to protect myself from the irresponsible nature of Colombia’s press. In short, a major news magazine had taken a piece of mine from the BBC and translated it poorly leaving me open to critical phone-calls from the military top brass. In fact, so many complaints came into the BBC head office in London that they hired a specialist translator to compare my text in English to that of the Spanish version that was now appearing on a Colombian website. I was found to be clear of any blame.

It took me right back to my MA in International Journalism in London. We had a year-long module, if I’m not mistaken, in the Ethics of Journalism, and of course this covered the topic of press freedom. Colleagues of mine from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Paraguay and other exotic locations spoke of personal experiences of harassment and threats against themselves, their friends and family. It seemed so far removed at the time from my reality.

Of course, now I live in a wholly different situation.

Colombia’s Press supposedly has complete freedom under the Constitution of 1991 but in 2013’s Press Freedom Index as compiled by Reporters Without Borders the country comes in a shameful 129 out of 179 countries included. And as if in a poorly timed sick joke coinciding with the eve of World Press Freedom Day, one of the country’s top investigative reporters Ricardo Calderon, in the employ of Semana magazine, was attacked in his car while traveling from Bogota to Ibague. This was an assassination attempt, yet mercifully he survived. 

Colombia's ranking in the Press Freedom Index

Colombia’s ranking in the Press Freedom Index

No one likes to say that they practice self-censorship, but it’s a reality here. While no one has placed the blame for this attack, Calderon’s most recent expose detailed the lifestyles of those military prisoners being held in their “exclusive” prison in Tolemaida. See the piece here.   

Journalists are increasingly losing the false veneer of invincibility that they once possessed. The camera and pen are not shields. It is nothing new that journalists have been killed reporting in wars or have been threatened by criminal gangs, but, increasingly they  have become the target. Yes, a journalist who reports from the danger zone knows that he or she is taking a risk, just as an individual who signs up for the armed forces knows that they face a probability of going to war and seeing action. This does not make it all the more acceptable for a soldier or journalist to lose their life. We must not become complacent nor blasé to this fact.

So, when I saw this comment at the base of an article in Colombia Reports, it bothered me.  

Isn’t it strange that when one of their own is threatened, the media is full of this for days, however when a Tourist such as the American Denis Levy was murdered in Medellin last year, he gets a quick mention and is forgotten.

I am sorry, but Journalists know what they are getting into when they start probing, if this is what they want to do to sell papers, then the Paper should provide Security not dump the bill on the Tax payer.

Yes, the business behind the news requires that it is a commercial product, but that is for those in the marketing and accounting departments. The editor provides the editorial line and the journalist does the reporting, fact checking and takes the risk. I still believe in journalism, objective and subjective, playing an important role. This cynicism is disheartening. Should we just be plugged into brain rot on the box and watch nothing more than reruns of Friends and content ourselves with celebrity gossip from the likes of TMZ and People Magazine?

No. Absolutely not. International democracy and the peace dialogues in Colombia require an open debate whether those on the right or the left are unsettled by it. We shall continue to report.  

We must grieve for the 32 journalists who have lost their lives in 2013. But, 20 years after May 3rd was created by UNESCO, I find there to be little consolation in remembering these noble professionals on one day of the year. Freedom of the Press is a right and a necessity. Long may it continue.

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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2 Responses to Reflections from Colombia on World Press Freedom Day

  1. estela says:

    Courageous article, and courageous is a word we ought not even have to use in reference to a journalist. Ensuring freedom of information is, I should've thought, one of the more important functions of government, be it small government or big.

  2. Richard says:

    Absolutely spot on. Thank you Estela

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