The history and politics of Colombian media

Industry and politics are closely linked with control of the media, but journalists have a proud history of challenging the status quo.

Guillermo Cano, the editor of El Espectador, Colombia’s oldest newspaper, was murdered on December 1986 as he left work.   / Archivo - El Espectador
Guillermo Cano, the editor of El Espectador, Colombia’s oldest newspaper, was murdered on December 1986 as he left work. / Archivo - El Espectador

Guillermo Cano, the editor of El Espectador, Colombia’s oldest newspaper, was murdered on December 17 1986 as he left work. Three years later, a Medellín cartel bomb blew up the paper’s Bogotá offices, in what was meant as a final reprisal for El Espectador’s continued denunciations of the drug gangs.

“The country was living under a dictatorship of fear,” remembers Enrique Santos, then a columnist and co-owner of El Tiempo, El Espectador’s biggest rival. “But Cano’s killing was also a turning point – we knew we had to do something”.

That something was the “Kremlin”, a secret grouping of the country’s leading journalists, who pooled their investigative work and co-ordinated the simultaneous publication of anonymous reports across the nation’s media.

“Thank God those days are gone”, recalls María Jimena Duzán, El Espectador’s co-ordinator at the Kremlin at the time.

They certainly have. Back then, Colombia was on the verge of apparent collapse. Less than 30 years later, the country is an emerging economic power – a remarkable transformation mirrored in the press and the latest challenges it faces.

Tellingly, one of the hottest topics in Colombian journalism today is less about staying alive than managing the conflicts of interest that have accompanied the country’s new-found prosperity. Of the five Colombians on Forbes’ global billionaires list, the three richest have come to control the country’s largest media groups.

Luis Carlos Sarmiento, who has a $14bn fortune, according to Forbes, in 2012 bought El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest-circulation daily and the newspaper of record. Alejandro Santo Domingo, with $12bn, owns El Espectador, the country’s second-biggest newspaper, and Caracol, one of Colombia’s two private television stations, which has production agreements with Univision of the US and Mexico’s Televisa. And Carlos Ardila, with $5bn, owns RCN television and radio, the country’s other private national network, which has a television joint venture with News Corp in the US, as well as being the originator of the Ugly Betty series.

On a US canvas, this pattern of ownership is akin to the Murdoch family, which controls News Corp, also owning a conglomerate such as General Electric.

The very idea seems antithetical to Colombia’s long history of journalism, which has nurtured some formidable talents – from Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel literature prize winner who began as a newspaper reporter, to El Espectador’s murdered editor, whose name is honoured today by Unesco’s Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

“I am very optimistic about the country”, says Duzán. “I am less sure about the press”.

Traditionally, the Colombian press was controlled by leading families who wore their liberal principles on their sleeves and for decades rotated through the political establishment. The Santos family, which owned El Tiempo between 1913 and 2007, is the best-known example. Eduardo Santos was the country’s president between 1938 and 1942, while Juan Manuel Santos, his great nephew, is the current president. But the Santos family is not the only Colombian clan with a politico-journalistic axis.

Andrés Pastrana, who was Colombia’s president between 1998 and 2002, began his career as a journalist. The brother of Ernesto Samper, president from 1994 to 1998, is Daniel Samper Pizano, one of the country’s best-known columnists. Felipe López, publisher of Semana, one of Latin America’s sharpest news weeklies, is the son of a former president and the grandson of another. Semana’s editor is Alejandro Santos, nephew of the current president.

“You wouldn’t get that kind of incestuousness in Africa!” exclaims former vice-president Francisco Santos, a sometime journalist who is also a cousin of the current president, as well as being one of his fiercest critics – Colombia remains a country of contradictions and surprises.

For some, these family dynasties are a symbol of a paradoxical country: one with the continent’s longest history of democracy but also some of its most enduring elites. In the UK, they might be called members of “the great and the good”.

Yet the recent ownership changes in Colombia’s media industry, which earns $1.5bn a year in advertising revenues, suggest the country’s “elites” – a problematic word, because it implies precision – are in flux, and that these changes, while a welcome sign of social mobility, have brought fresh challenges, especially conflicts of interest.

Certainly, there are potential conflicts aplenty for Colombia’s new media barons. Sarmiento is a self-made billionaire whose Grupo Aval financial conglomerate has interests in the booming sectors of insurance, banking, pensions and infrastructure.

Santo Domingo heads the Valorem industrial group, which has interests in forestry, transport and brewing (via its 14 per cent holding in London-listed SABMiller, which bought the Santo Domingo family’s beer company, Bavaria, in 2005 for $6bn).

Lastly, Ardila is an entrepreneur who married into a soft drinks and foods business, and whose other interests include textiles, car parts and Medellín’s Atlético Nacional football team.

To be sure, these magnates often stress their philanthropic and patriotic interests in owning media companies, although their potential usefulness cannot be ignored.

Julio Santo Domingo, who died in 2011, said owning El Espectador was like “having a pistol in your pocket: you don’t want to use it, but it is good to have just in case”. Still, his purchase of the paper in 1997, in large part out of civic duty to stop it going bankrupt, is widely acknowledged.

“He also liked the fact that El Espectador sometimes went after some of his friends’ interests”, says one longstanding business associate. “It tickled and amused him at cocktail parties”.

Santo Domingo’s son Alejandro continues to support the newspaper financially. With a daily readership of 240,000, it makes a loss, although it expects to break even next year and is still known for its liberal journalism and student-heavy readership.

Luis Carlos Sarmiento Jr, whose father bought El Tiempo after financial problems prompted Spanish publisher Planeta to sell the paper in 2012 after buying it in 2007, has been more explicit. El Tiempo, which has more than 1m daily readers, is profitable and has a thriving classifieds business.

“Someone has to own El Tiempo. But who can own it without having conflicts of interests and also lots of money? Such entities don’t exist”, he told the FT shortly after the purchase closed. “We will have to manage these conflicts of interests like everybody else. Furthermore, there is an altruistic motive to it, as my father will tell you”.

Certainly, billionaires owning broadsheets is a sign of the times. In the developed world, many an ailing newspaper has hoped for a philanthropically minded billionaire to come to its aid. But in Colombia, where the corporate stage is smaller and the wealth more concentrated, the drama is newer and, perhaps because of that, more intensely felt.

The issue has raised questions about what is the best ownership model for journalism – corporate or family? If a corporation, is it a cross-subsidy if the company advertises in the paper it owns? And, if that happens, how can conflicts of interest be avoided?

El Espectador, which has a publishing agreement with the FT, routinely publishes disclaimers whenever it reports on a Santo Domingo business. “It is newspaper policy”, says Fidel Cano, El Espectador’s editor and the nephew of Don Guillermo – one sign of editorial continuity under its new owners.

El Tiempo, however, still seems to be working out its disclosure system, reporters at the paper say. Roberto Pombo, El Tiempo’s director, bristles at the notion that this compromises editorial independence and stresses that “our columnists can write whatever they want to – as they always have”. Nonetheless, to conspiracy theorists – which Colombia has in abundance – the situation is ripe for abuse. For them, the powerful corporate owners of “New Colombia”, which have replaced the powerful political families of “Old Colombia”, suggest a country in thrall to power and entrenched interests.

One recent kerfuffle surrounded Daniel Pardo, an independent journalist (whose father, as it happens, is a former foreign minister). Pardo lost his job at internet news portal KienyKe after publishing a critical piece about Pacific Rubiales, the dual-listed Canadian-Colombian oil company, which had bought advertising space throughout the Colombian media.

The whys and wherefores of Pardo’s case are disputed, although Duzán commented in her Semana column: “His departure confirmed something that we already knew: that in those media without a clear dividing line between information, opinion and publicity, freedom of expression is a mere sophism”.

Nonetheless, journalists continue to expose corruption and scandals. For example, swaths of former congressmen are under investigation for alleged links to paramilitary groups. Journalists’ work continues to make them targets of violence. In May, Ricardo Calderón, Semana’s investigations editor, escaped an apparent assassination attempt near Bogotá. And the government has warned of other plots.

If the need for advertising revenues creates some self-censorship, it is also a far cry from other Latin American countries, where governments often have an armlock on the advertising budgets of state-owned companies. Instead, the end result is a typical Colombian hybrid – one that perhaps should not work but does.

“Yes, Colombia’s main media belong to the country’s most powerful people, be they economic or political. But it is difficult to see that they affect the media’s independence”, says Jaime Abello, director of the FNPI, the New Iberoamerican Journalism Foundation, an independent group founded by García Márquez. “There has always been a close relationship between power and the press here, yet at the same time also independence, space and a certain critical distance”.

In some ways the problems of Colombia’s media landscape reflect the country’s broader success. That it faces the same kinds of conflicts and pressures as the media almost everywhere is a sign of the Colombian economy’s growing openness, globalisation, prosperity – and concentration.

“The more powerful revolution has not been changes in ownership but the rise of consumerism and the internet”, Abello says.

That is one conflict publishers everywhere have not figured out how to win decisively, including even those intrepid Colombian journalists who once faced down drug barons from the “Kremlin”.

 

Other Colombian media

How to navigate one’s way around Colombian media? In addition to El Tiempo, which has an excellent printed edition, and El Espectador, which has a top-notch website, there are the family-owned regional newspapers. The rude commercial health of titles such El País in Cali, El Colombiano in Medellín and El Nuevo Heraldo in Barranquilla, with circulations of around 200,000 each, ensures media plurality in a country that is always rich in news.
For crisp and, for many, indispensable analysis of the week’s news, there is Semana, a magazine with a pithy narrative reporting style based on Time and The Economist. Now in its 30th year, Semana has groomed many of Colombia’s best journalists.

Apart from lively radio stations, such as Blu, a relative newcomer to the Bogotá airwaves, there are nimble and probing internet start-ups that dig deep into breaking news and political themes – certainly deeper than on television, where analytical news programmes tend to run late at night.
The most notable website is La Silla Vacía, run by Juanita León, a former Semana journalist. Founded in 2009, lasillavacia.com publishes investigative pieces, has some 300,000 unique users, is well read by opinion formers and policy makers, and covers its costs, even if this is largely thanks to grants from agencies such as the Ford Foundation. “The commercial side has been harder than I thought,” León admits.

For news junkies, other sites include razonpublica.com, which tends towards hefty essays, and kienyke.com, which mixes fashion with politics in a lighter blend.

Finally, there are social media – especially Twitter. Much used by former president Álvaro Uribe, a prestigious prestidigitator with more than 2m followers, he launches stinging attacks daily on the policies of his former protégé, Juan Manuel Santos. A common theme from the hyperactive Uribe is a lament about how the country’s security has worsened since he stopped being president.

 

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