How journalists helped stabilize a new Colombia

Overcoming mountains and militias

BOGOTA, Colombia—Here are two headlines from two decades apart: A headline 20 years ago in the Milwaukee Journal—Who’s in charge: Colombia or Escobar? A July 2012 headline in USA Today—Colombia gets its first W hotel.

For many years Colombia was a byword for drugs and dysfunction. Today it signifies a country that has fought through terrorism and years of warfare, a country once known for merciless militias that is, while not guerilla-free, a frequent topic of brighter discussions.
“Global media have shifted significantly in the way they cover Colombia,” Michael LaRosa and German Mejia wrote in a 2012 history of the country. “Stories focusing on tourism, restaurants, Colombian tennis stars, and positive reviews of literary works…suggest the US media’s perception of the Andean nation is evolving away from the myopic, one-dimensional view that marked earlier portrayals of the country.”

And as for domestic journalists and their perceptions: It’s easier for reporters to focus on a country’s positives when they aren’t being murdered.

For years, Colombia was a country in which a journalist would get dead every couple of months. Cesar Gaviria, the country’s president from 1990-1994, has seen acquaintances, as well as his sister, killed for political reasons. Before he won the Colombian presidency in 1990, three other candidates were murdered, one of which was his colleague. Yet he gives much credit to his nation’s journalists for reporting through the risks. In Colombia, Gaviria told me in his Bogota office in August, “Journalists take all the risks. Many have been killed, but this country has not been intimidated.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that at least 43 journalists have been murdered in Colombia since 1992 for motives related to their work. Dozens of other journalists have died in the country during this time for unconfirmed motives, although plenty of the cases were circumstantially smoky. For a number of years it was common for a journalist to be killed every two to three months in Colombia. The period of 1997-2003 was a six-year killing season. Since 2010, however, CPJ counts one journalist murdered in Colombia for confirmed motives.

In its “Impunity Index,” CPJ criticizes Colombia as a country that doesn’t bring journalists’ killers to justice, but cold cases of murdered Colombian reporters languish for the same reasons guerilla rule prevails at all: Many craggy, rural parts of the country that are flush with firearms elude Bogota’s rule of law.

A career in Colombian journalism today, though, is no longer a notarized death wish. Sporadic violence against reporters still exists—Elida Parra Alonso, a Colombian radio journalist, was kidnapped from her home by guerillas on July 24 in the northeastern region of Arauca (she was freed August 13)—but dead journalists are much less a seasonal feature in Colombia today.

Improvements in conditions for reporters parallel the general path of progress the country has moved along in recent years: Tourism, foreign direct investment, and living standards are all rising. Colombia regularly stages national elections and the peaceable transfer of power. Barack Obama signed into law a free trade agreement with Colombia last year.
The country’s acceleration as a modern state is partly ascribed to its exhaustion with the poison of guerilla warfare (FARC is quite unpopular) and a hearty investment in national security. The country allocates about 6 percent of its GDP to security, Gaviria told me; Mexico contributes less than 2 percent. On paper, Colombia has had a constitution protective of civil rights for decades. Its constitution of 1991 abolished the death penalty, officially disconnected the Colombian government from the Catholic Church, and contains standard language enshrining free speech. But steady and often brave journalism deserves a portion of the credit.

Roberto Pombo is chief editor of El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest circulation newspaper, and one of the most renowned in Latin America. Every day he travels in an armored car, as does his family, as he remains a target for assassination. A number of his more prominent reporters also travel in armored vehicles. My driver’s car was inspected by armed guards and explosive-sniffing dogs before we were granted access to El Tiempo’s offices.

“If you compare the situation in Colombia now for journalists,” Pombo told me in his modern corner office in Bogota, “with what happened 10, 15, 20 years ago…everything changed. We work better, safely, now.” And his paper is certainly doing something right. El Tiempo circulates 400,000 copies of its Sunday broadsheet, and about 250,000 on weekdays, and lures 9 million unique visitors a month to its website.

Colombia is a country defined throughout history by its isolated geography. The Andes divide the nation. What can unify it are mass media and herculean transportation networks. President Gaviria credits radio. It was radio that heralded to most Colombians the 1993 assassination of drug baron Pablo Escobar, at which time Gaviria was president. The killing was a bin Laden-compound moment for the country. To get the best, fastest news about Colombia, Gaviria told me, he turns the radio dial.

But other modes of journalism also unite this country. The late Colombian journalist and historian Eduardo Lemaitre argued that “Three things have given this country of countries a nation with common principles, and have given it a compact to exist as a singular unit: The Constitution of 1886, the Magdalena river, and the television.”

One writer wrote in The New Yorker in 2010 that “Colombia is one of those countries where the locals are just grateful that you’re willing to visit.” Not so true. The number of foreign visitors to Colombia surged about 133 percent between 2000 and 2009. The same New Yorker writer also conceded that Colombia’s ability to attract foreign writers and visitors is “a sign that progress is possible in countries once left for dead.”

Journalists in Colombia were once the prey of professional killers. Today, they still face dangers, even grave ones, but they’re a part of their country’s broader momentum.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , ,