When Trip to Santa Marta Becomes a Journalist’s Ethical Nightmare

I started the week thinking that this post was going to be all about a business visit to Santa Marta, a promotion of my hotel among other business owners and a reflection of how Santa Marta and the nearby seaside village of Taganga have changed in the years since I was first here. Events unfolded differently and my blog is going to take a serious turn and focus on the ethics of journalism and those of a journalist. My trip to Santa Marta was punctuated by an untimely, unpleasant and altogether unnecessary shock to the system.

Since 2012 rolled around I made a decision to move back into news reporting, while not abandoning travel and culture, I am more than aware that I cannot live on fluffy pieces of writing lauding the most recently opened “boutique” hotel in Cartagena which differs from the rest in that perhaps there are Bose speakers in the commode. Not only is this not the kind of journalist I wish to be, but after the novelty of gimmicks and freebees wears off, there is no escape from cliché. And, of course, being a hotel proprietor myself I am duly aware of the damage that can be done with a snide remark in place of some constructive criticism. Really, is it that bad if a top end hotel has plastic toilet seats? Is this going to ruin your enjoyment of your chosen holiday destination?

So, I have started finding my way back into news and political reporting here in Colombia and perhaps this is foolhardy and dangerous, but, at the very least life remains interesting and I can stay abreast of what is going on in Colombia to harness a greater understanding of the complexities of my adopted homeland.

Only a few days ago I was able to publish a piece on BBC online about the role of the army in a post conflict Colombia. I had spent, at the behest of the military, two days in seminars listening to the Colombian top brass speaking of their fears, all about FARC propaganda and about the turns in the conflict. There is a very real belief; unquoted and unspoken of course, that something massive is afoot regarding the peace accords between the guerrillas and the government. I don’t claim anything, but, after listening to hours of speeches and conversations, the progressive thinkers in the military –  and I assure you, they do exist – are planning for a post conflict role.

So, the piece that I was able to publish was written from a military angle and was decidedly pro military and the establishment in its vein. Of course, I was listening and recounting their fears. Along with my editor, we rewrote the article four times to ensure the delicate nature of the information left no ends bare and that it was well informed and most importantly, true to the source and voice.

I was pleased with the end result and felt that I had actually done a service for the Colombian military.

Somewhat worse for wear the following morning after a couple of drinks with friends I turned on my phone to see missed international calls, direct messages on twitter and then my manager in Mompós calling me to let me know that a BBC editor had called there trying to reach me. I started scanning my emails frantically and yes, there was the suggestion that the military was upset with the piece.

As I headed for the launch of a new guidebook of which I am the author at the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the finca at which Simon Bolivar was once resident and now a museum to the great liberator of northern South America, my cell rang again and it was a General. He was polite and respectful but wanted to know why I had likened the military to the guerrilla. Speechless I couldn’t respond. I wanted to react with an academic response or laugh it off but this clearly was not going to happen. But, what the General said gave me an insight into what had taken place.

Due to the nature of my piece, the notable Colombian news magazine Semana had picked up the article and run with it on their website. I have always liked Semana for its insightful editorials and interesting features, but now it seemed I was becoming the victim. For me there’s nothing worse than when the person telling the news becomes the news.

The General had indicated that they were fine with the article aside from the third paragraph. But this was not the third paragraph in my original piece; he was referring to the summarized, translated and abbreviated copy in Semana. Taken out of context and hurriedly translated this text made me look like Tanja Niemeyer’s best comrade in arms.

Had I wished to make the statement that Semana had suggested I would have done it myself and taken full responsibility, but, to have this thrust upon me was nothing short of sickening. I consider myself relatively level headed in my reporting and after all I live here, have vested interests here and intend to stay here. But this is Colombia. This is a violent country and journalists are expected to apply certain measures of self-censorship despite there being a supposed complete freedom of the press. In hindsight, had I written exactly what Semana had credited to the BBC, my editor in London would never have approved the article for publication.

Frantic calls from a bench in the Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino to London to the editor, receiving calls from the military and then speaking with the BBC correspondent in Bogota, we were able to calm the situation and amend the problem and place it consistently within the context of my remarks and the way they were translated into Semana.

So, what of the journalist just trying to tell the news? For me there is no such thing as completely objective journalism, one is always going to employ a language that implies your standpoint, your editor will weed out most of it, but the piece has to read and make sense. But due to an error in translation and context suddenly I felt as if I was on the front-line.

I will never fully understand why this happened, this may sound glib, but why would another publication working towards the same end…to inform, seemingly and deliberately thrust this problem upon another journalist. Perhaps it was just an idle and careless mistake, but one that could have very serious implications. The ink on this blog is fresh and there’s no way of knowing right away whether my career is seriously damaged or affected. I guess you’ll know soon enough. When you find me ticking boxes as to whether a hotel has air conditioning and writing about the “next hidden gem” in Cartagena, you’ll get the message. If not, then all is well!

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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3 Responses to When Trip to Santa Marta Becomes a Journalist’s Ethical Nightmare

  1. markus el chacal says:

    hard to summarize deep seated internal conflict based concerns, even from the military perspective, it seems. you see, atrocities have been enacted on all sides of this conflict as the human element is by nature flawed. just the same in most parts of the world, greed, aspiration, status quo and the need for self survival kindle the evil which has plagued all sides of this conflict. who are the good guys? who are the bad guys? one cannot say if you take a macro-view position of the conflict. we are all but pawns in the game of life and unless you are above the law, like so few of us, then you can inevitably be moved into a position of peril, even top military commanders. as for the fallout from life in the military, look no further than the recent disbandment of the paramilitary to understand and predict human behavior as institutionalized ex-personnel struggle to adapt to a life that is no longer subsidized and protected by its own. the once off-limits jungle reserve of abundant and natural wealth will be open for business available to the highest bidders. one has to ask, who will benefit from that? one thing is for certain, it will not be GI Jose. look for a new enemy to appear. the wealth extracting forces will need cover.

  2. Karin-Marijke Vis says:

    Thumbs up for doing the work you do! (hotel's air conditionings don't need you, really).

  3. Gregory says:

    Hi just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading properly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different internet browsers and both show the same results.

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