A Colombian TV news director, who oversaw hard-hitting political coverage in central Antioquia department, resigned on June 28 after his editorial meeting was secretly recorded and used by politicians to push for his ouster.
Juan Pablo Barrientos, 30, now the former director of Teleantioquia Noticias, the main news program on the Teleantioquia public TV station, told CPJ he was summoned to a meeting with the station’s general manager, Selene Botero, on June 20. Botero told him that two local politicians had informed her that they had an audio recording of Barrientos at an editorial meeting using foul language to describe the actions and behavior of members of the Antioquia departmental assembly.
In the recording, the politicians claimed, Barrientos insults the regional lawmakers for failing to show up at meetings, for getting into fistfights, for ducking debates to watch soccer matches, and for corrupt practices. Barrientos told CPJ that this account of the editorial meeting was more or less accurate. But he defended his actions and language as the normal give-and-take at editorial meetings, which are supposed to be confidential.
“It’s the first time that I know of that an editorial meeting in Colombia has been bugged,” Barrientos told CPJ. “Editorial meetings are supposed to be sacred, like a church confessional.”
In an earlier statement, Barriento said the episode called to mind other eavesdropping scandals, such as when Colombia’s secret police, known as the DAS, was caught secretly taping the conversations of opposition politicians, journalists, and judges. He said the bugging would likely generate fear and paranoia at other Colombian media outlets that their closed-door meetings are being recorded.
Barrientos said he resigned because he could no longer trust his 15 coworkers, since one of them likely taped the editorial meeting and passed the recording to the politicians. But Barrientos also criticized the Teleantioquia for its tepid response. In a June 28 statement, Teleantioquia denounced the secret recordings, but portrayed Barrientos’ off-color language at the editorial meeting as a sin of equal magnitude.
Antioquia Governor Sergio Fajardo said the recording of the editorial meeting was “illegal” and called for an investigation. He said he was saddened by Barrientos’s departure from Teleantioquia.
For years, Teleantioquia, like many other public stations in Colombia, served as a mouthpiece for politicians. The communications director of the Antioquia government sits on the station’s board of directors, while lawmakers have argued that they have a right to know what goes on at editorial meetings.
Barrientos told CPJ that he took over as director of Teleantioquia Noticias 18 months ago on the condition that he would be allowed to pursue serious journalism. Under his watch, the program broadcast reports about corrupt acts, misbehavior, and the ties to criminal gangs of lawmakers, mayors, and other politicians.
Teleantioquia Noticias gained more notoriety last year when it broke the story of Antioquia lawmaker Rodrigo Mesa, who was nearly forced to resign for declaring that sending government aid to the impoverished, Afro-Colombian-dominated department of Choco was like “putting perfume on a piece of sh*t.”
Teleantioquia Noticias often butted heads with Adolfo León Palacio, a local congressman who later claimed to possess the recordings of the editorial meeting and who met with Botero, the station manager, to call for Barrientos’ removal. Leon Palacio recently announced plans to sue Barrientos for libel and slander for saying that he had bugged the meeting and for linking him to César Pérez, a former Antioquia congressman who was recently convicted of ordering a massacre of leftist politicians.
Weighing in on the Teleantioquia saga in the Bogotá newsweekly Semana, columnist Daniel Coronell wrote: “The truth is that the politicians won. They are celebrating the ouster of a news director who made them uncomfortable.”
[Reporting from Bogotá]