The Hands That Feed

Colombia may be unique in the extent to which its press censors itself in fear of physical reprisals. Powerful economic factors, though hardly exceptional, add yet more pressure.

Bogotá-based Grupo Empresarial Bavaria was accused last year of paying a $2 million bribe to a former Peruvian intelligence chief to clear the way for the company’s purchase of Peru’s sole beer brewer. Peruvian authorities are investigating the accusations, which Bavaria denied. “It was an international scandal, and it was Colombia’s biggest conglomerate,” Semana‘s Carlos Eduardo Huertas notes. “There was a lot of red meat.”

But Colombian media outlets didn’t launch their own probes. Instead, they briefly recapped what the Peruvian press had revealed and provided platforms for Bavaria to assert innocence. The tame coverage avoided trouble with one of the country’s biggest advertisers–a company that controlled Colombia’s beer market and trailed few in the production and distribution of bottled water, juices, malt beverages, and soft drinks. Bavaria, since purchased by SABMiller, filed defamation suits against the Peruvian journalists who broke the story.

Outside Colombia’s largest cities, the lion’s share of media revenue comes not from corporations but from provincial and municipal agencies, which advertise everything from aqueduct maintenance schedules to health and educational programs. In the southern province of Caquetá, Diario de Huila‘s Jorge Eliécer Quintero Cuéllar recalls what happened this year after he wrote two unflattering reports about Gov. Juan Carlos Claros Pinzón: “The governor himself called our office and canceled the [province’s] contracts with us.” Quintero Cuéllar says the ad withdrawal didn’t dampen his reporting and that the newspaper’s local sales chief managed to restore the contracts a month later.

But such manipulation often succeeds. In small cities and even provincial capitals, staffing at news outlets is usually so tight that reporters are responsible for selling ads, which puts them in the untenable position of covering the very politicians feeding their families. Quintero Cuéllar describes the results in Florencia, the Caquetá capital: “You listen to the radio and turn the dial. The same news story on one station is positive and, on another station, negative. There’s no balance. There’s no objectivity.”

Some media bosses exact payments for coverage, making it impossible for their news staff to report objectively. “The owner calls up the governor or mayor and says, ‘Give me a million pesos [US$435] and we’ll keep working together,'” explains Kapital Radio’s Javier Sepúlveda Ramírez of the northeastern province of Arauca. The pressure is similar when the owners themselves are immersed in politics. Many news outlets are the property of current or former governors, mayors, or members of Congress. Other outlets, even major network affiliates, are owned by the Roman Catholic Church, which takes stands on public issues and holds government education contracts. “It’s impossible to fight with the owner,” notes Jaime Vides Feria, a radio reporter in the northwestern city of Sincelejo.

The family that owns El Tiempo, the country’s largest newspaper, includes Vice President Francisco Santos, who was editor-in-chief throughout the 1990s, and his cousin, former Finance Minister Juan Manuel Santos. The paper’s editorials have supported President Alvaro Uribe’s military and economic policies and a constitutional amendment that, if approved by the nation’s highest court, will allow him to seek a second four-year term next year. Co-publisher Enrique Santos, another cousin of the vice president, insists the newspaper’s editorial stance will have no impact on its campaign reporting. “It’s not going to influence the balance at all,” he said in an August 29 radio interview.

Some observers aren’t convinced. “If the people who sign the paychecks think one way,” says Semana columnist Daniel Coronell, “it definitely reduces a journalist’s spirit to report any story to the contrary.”

Yet another factor encouraging self-censorship is the profession’s poor compensation. Most full-time Colombian journalists earn less than $350 a month, and some earn even less than the nation’s loosely enforced minimum wage, $165. “On any given day, your work may have damaged someone’s reputation, and the whole country may be talking about it,” says El Universal‘s Beatriz Diegó Solano of Sincelejo. “But you still have to walk home alone every night because you can’t afford a car or bodyguard.”

Chip Mitchell