Who is Reporting the News in Colombia?

Believe it or not I am a creature of habit and my daily routine here in Colombia is to have the news switched on first thing every morning as I brew my coffee and prepare to walk the dog. It is just after 5.30am and first I try the BBC for an overview of international events, usually it’s Syria, Israel and Palestine. Nothing on Colombia.

News outlets

Then overnight emails are checked.

If we’re lucky (or unlucky depending on the nature of the tragedy that has struck), maybe something from Latin America will make it past the editors’ unforgiving scorched earth policy towards news from this part of the world. I’ll flick back and forth now between the BBC and CNN since I am more likely to receive news from this region on the latter and then at 6.30am it’s time for Colombian national news.

And this is where it all goes horribly wrong.

Presently, Colombian news is waging a campaign against drunk drivers. This is noteworthy and necessary as it is a frequent problem here and needs to be stamped out. But, the news every morning now resembles a litany of drunk-driving accidents and deaths. However, despite the fact that RCN and Caracol are engaged in this timely battle against conductores en estado de ebriaguez, it is really nothing new.

If this is the quality of public transport - and it passed its technical revision - then of course there will be traffic accidents

If this is the quality of public transport – and it passed its technical revision – then of course there will be traffic accidents

Traffic accidents have been the bread and butter for these channels for some time. How parochial to watch news about a drunk bus driver in Cali when you are in Bogota, drunk drivers on the Primero de Mayo in Bogota when you are in Medellin or yet another accident on the Ruta del Sol to Santa Marta when you are in Ipiales. The images are gruesome and then there’s the senseless and thoroughly callous follow-up interview with a bereaved family member.

It’s a national problem and yet the right questions are not being asked. Why do these people still have driving permits? What is the policy towards drunk driving? Why can people pay their way out of possible sentencing by offering some sort of remuneration settlement with the injured party? How does one get a driving license so easily in Colombia? And so it goes.

And yet, it’s not just this source of news that is treated in this fashion. I am going to make a leap from drunk driving to the peace dialogues in Havana, Cuba between the FARC guerrillas and the Government. I see many similarities in the way that both are being reported. It’s like a hashed paint job where no one cares where the colour spills in an attempt to cover all bases and get the job done.

the FARC emblem

the FARC emblem

As a student of the media and a media hound, I cannot get through a day without pouring over several newspapers or as a good friend once put it, “trying to read the internet” in a single morning.

But, forgive me if I’m wrong, the most important news reports in Colombia at the moment are with regards to the problems and civil unrest – which continue to rage – in Catatumbo, Norte de Santander and of course the peace dialogues in Havana. And yet, we are starved of actual informed reporting on these stories. Both issues have far reaching consequences for the long running civil conflict, illegal mining, agrarian reform, trade, infrastructure and finally tourism. Surely they should be properly addressed rather than pushed back on the news agenda behind graphic images of snarled cars?

The peace dialogues in Cuba have the country polarized in their opinions of the current president Juan Manuel Santos. The most in-depth reporting we can hope to receive is in international press such as Foreign Affairs or in the editorials of the City Paper here in Bogota. Aside from that, you need to search pretty hard until you reach the well-informed op-eds that are worth reading in El Tiempo and El Espectador. Pages such as La Silla Vacia are worthwhile but depend on your political slant.

I realize that Juan Manuel Santos has requested the peace dialogues to be conducted with a certain decorum to allow them to progress and by all accounts they have been more successful that any before them. No, this is far from the media circus such as the one organized by President Andres Pastrana back in 1999-2002 that accompanied the peace dialogues between the FARC and the government in the demilitarized zone of San Vicente del Caguán.

We have to respect this decision by President Santos, but, to have the whole process so carefully manicured (as if Alastair Campbell were pulling the strings for Santos’ beloved “third way”) the Colombian people and those here in Colombia observing the process need to feel some sort of inclusion to what is going on. The word in Spanish is apropriarse and I believe it really says it all. I would refer to the translation in this circumstance as akin to a kind of ownership, perhaps some sort of role in the whole decision-making process.

Tanja Nijmeijer the Dutch FARC guerrilla

Tanja Nijmeijer the Dutch FARC guerrilla courtesy of the BBC

Presently, when Humberto de la Calle, the excellent chief negotiator for the Colombian Government is permitted to speak, he provides us with intellectual, educated and measured information. Otherwise, we are party only to the far from mellifluous and notoriously “open-minded[1]” FARC propaganda from either Andres Paris, Ivan Marquez or even in the form of the BBC interview with Tanja Nijmeijer (the Dutch guerrilla). The gossipy slivers of news reported on behalf of both sides by the mainstream Colombian press allow for tabletop conversations and a good cuckolding of either party.

We need condensed information but not to be treated as imbeciles by those who manage the data. How many Colombians understand the resonance and significance of applying the all-encompassing and far-reaching threads that make up Transitional Justice for situations just as these? De la Calle wrote an excellent piece in El Tiempo months ago, but it has since fallen by the wayside.

There needs to be more, editors need to liberate themselves from the shackles of ownership to provide news and there must be a feeling that there is indeed a freedom of the press in Colombia despite figures to the contrary. I realize that self-censorship is very much in play here and this is a necessary practice, in particular if we discuss the media in terms of the Uribiverse (I trust you enjoyed my play on words!) where any investigative reporting by foreigners was immediately condemned and then one could expect their visa withdrawn.

But it does seem that editors are more content with spliced words such as uribiverse or Toribistan (regarding the problems in the town of Toribio, Cauca), or making comparisons such as Andres Pastrana when he described the conflict as a “balcanizacion” (Balkanization) of the country.

An AUC combatant handing over his weapon courtesy of El Espectador

An AUC combatant handing over his weapon courtesy of El Espectador

Let’s take an example from the past, but the recent past. When the paramilitary group, the Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) demobilized in 2006 after negotiations behind closed-doors in Ralito, Córdoba, nobody really knew what was happening and it was hailed as a great success. Now look at the mess we are in with the emergence and strengthening of groups such as the Urabenos and the Rastrojos. Known as Bacrims or newly emerged criminal groups, there’s nothing new about them and a good number of their rank and file belonged to the AUC previously.

Then of course there’s the irresponsibility of the reporting to tow a favourable line with the political regime. But, if the political regime is affiliated to the press then how can we ever read the newspapers or watch the television updates ever again?

And finally, should any peace be agreed with the FARC secretariat there in Havana, this does not mean peace in Colombia as both some members of the press and some members of the FARC secretariat are suggesting in articles and in sound bites. There is a great deal to be resolved here still not to mention the smaller guerrilla group of the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional which is strategically located in incredibly important and resource rich areas.

The City Paper Bogota's front page this month with Navarro Wolff

The City Paper Bogota’s front page this month with Navarro Wolff

I hope that it’s not down to the fact that I am a journalist and an unrelenting news junky that I am asking to be informed of events by the Colombian press. Shouldn’t all Colombians be demanding the same? Just as current politician and ex M19 militant Navarro Wolff mentioned in a piece in the City Paper saying of the FARC: “they don’t understand how the country is. They have been in the mountains too long.” If this is the case, then with whom is the government negotiating in Havana and what is being said? Through the grapevine we have heard that Ivan Marquez and team are particularly fond of smoked salmon. Hardly, the behaviour of those acting as the self-anointed spokespeople of the poor campesino, you’ll agree. But then, we have no further information.

The right questions are not being asked, and if they are being asked, no answers are being given. We are left to chew on and digest tales of corruption, embezzlement and car accidents.

As Adriaan Alsema the founder and director of Colombia Reports said: “the Colombian media does not realize that we are at a turning point in history.”

[1] Quoting the sarcasm of my teacher Benjamin Herrera

About Richard

Anglo-Canadian resident in Colombia. Journalist, Writer, Hotelier, Expedition Guide
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4 Responses to Who is Reporting the News in Colombia?

  1. danielwbrody says:

    There's a lot to think about here. A number of factors are at play:

    1. Journalists get in trouble if they report too accurately about the powerful in this country. Have you seen this story?

    A Medellin journalist actually does his job, reports critically about the corruption of the powerful, then those he is exposing wiretap his office, get the reporter on tape during an editorial meeting speaking disparagingly about local politicians, and the journalist eventually quits in protest when he's the one who actually gets in hot water. Who wants to be that guy? A lot of Colombians would rather be known as a "journalist" than actually take the fall for doing their jobs too well.

    2. Journalists who tell the truth in Colombia are often killed, or need constant protection to prevent any possible assassination attempts. Just this year, a reporter for Semana who tried to expose the resort-like prisons for military officials convicted of grave human rights abuses was almost killed in an assassination attempt, the latest in a long line of journalists receiving such violent threats. Who wouldn't be scared to face that? It takes courage. Much easier to report drunk driving accidents.

  2. danielwbrody says:

    3. There's no meritocracy in Colombia. If you got a job at a prestigious media outlet here, it was almost certainly through a palanca or somebody your rich parents know. What are you gonna do, expose your family's friends through your work? That won't get you invited to too many parties.

    4. Nobody outside of Colombia cares much about Colombia. The country gets almost zero international coverage, a total that indeed dwindles down to zero if you remove all stories related to stereotypes about drugs and guerillas from consideration. Who besides you and a couple of academics is even bothered to be a Colombian press watchdog? These things get no traction in North America and Europe, where any concerns about these issues are waved away in the face of possible free trade agreements.

    5. Everything related to politics in Colombia is polarized. Uribistas have a script they want to hear, and any shades of gray are dismissed as enemy propaganda. Petristas in Bogota are not much different. It's hard to tell a news story well if you are going to preemptively eliminate anything that makes your side look bad.

    Twitter has been a useful way to sidestep the crappy Colombian media. By following different independent journalists, human rights groups, and Colombia hobbyists I feel like I get a much fuller picture of the news than any mainstream outlet would give me, although I miss out on the latest thing that happened to Shakira's baby or the Pope. It's gonna take a creative upstart to really start shaming the Colombian media into covering the news correctly, something like France's Mediapart that isn't beholden to anyone and focuses on actual reporting instead of BluRadio-like bloviating and opinionating or RCN/Caracol whitewashing and gossip.

    • Richard says:

      Excellent comments Daniel thank you. You are correct on every level. I just wanted to draw some sort of attention to an issue irking me immensely. I want and am crying out for actual information on the peace dialogues, I think that these are phenomenally important and need more coverage so that Colombia as a society can stop thinking that "a president" is the only person in power and that we need to be active in our participation of current events here. I could give a rat's wooter if Shakira gave birth to a hermaphrodite griffon but, I appear to be a minority regarding this!

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