How Colombian Media Met Dangerous Times
By María Teresa Ronderos
On December 17, 1986, the Colombian mafia led by Pablo Escobar killed Guillermo Cano, the courageous director of El Espectador who denounced drug traffickers and their accomplices by name. He was the seventh journalist killed in reprisal for his work that year. Since then, drug trafficking gangs, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and corrupt government officials have attacked the rights of Colombians to be informed by a free press.
In the face of great risks that have spanned the last quarter of a century, Colombian news media have developed strategies both to protect reporters and to avoid being silenced by illegal, armed criminal organizations.
Right after Cano was killed, the entire Colombian press corps protested. In the following 24 hours, the country received no news of any kind, in print, on radio, or on television. This blackout was a sign of mourning, yet it was also a way to seek support from society and emphasize the importance of journalism in a democracy threatened by the intimidating and brutal power of drug traffickers. To show that it would not be so easy to censor the press, El Espectador joined with its main competitor, El Tiempo, and other media outlets in the following months to investigate and publish stories about drug trafficking and its many tentacles in society. The message sent to the Medellín cartel bosses: The press would not be silenced.
Unfortunately, such courage and unity faded with time. A decade later, many more journalists had been murdered in Colombia.
So in 1996, prominent journalists joined together again to create the Foundation for a Free Press, or FLIP. The founders included the writer Gabriel García Márquez; Enrique Santos Calderón, a columnist for El Tiempo and a leader in the battle against impunity in anti-press crimes with the Inter American Press Association; and Santos’ cousin, later the country’s vice president, Francisco Santos Calderón. This organization, with initial support from the Committee to Protect Journalists, started advocating on behalf of journalists and media under attack from all sides in the country’s armed conflict.
Supported further by the Peru-based Instituto de Prensa y Sociedad, FLIP went on to create a network of volunteer correspondents who have since reported on press freedom violations throughout the country. Reporters then succeeded in getting President Andrés Pastrana Arango’s administration to create a special committee to protect endangered journalists. FLIP and other media organizations are part of the committee and, while it is not flawless, it has provided an opportunity for dialogue and collaboration and has succeeded in holding the government accountable for protecting freedom of expression.
Media outlets have developed other collaborative and protection strategies over the past years. At the end of the 20th century, a group of reporters published the Manual for War and Peace Reporting (Manual para Cubrir la Guerra y la Paz), while the nongovernmental group Peace Media (Medios para la Paz) published the Disarming Words Dictionary (Diccionario para desarmar palabras). Both were aimed at providing guidance for reporters covering the armed conflict, where truth is usually the first victim. In 1999, invited by La Sabana University, about 30 media outlets agreed on how to report on violence without justifying it; to refine journalistic tools such as verifying and contrasting sources; and to prioritize fact-checking to avoid being manipulated. Their slogan: “We would rather miss a piece of news than lose a life.” FLIP also published a manual for journalists’ self-protection that featured advice on how to deal with pressure from violent sources.
At the initiative of the newspaper publishers association, known as Andiarios, a coalition of print media outlets began working together in 2004 on dangerous assignments such as paramilitary infiltration in the lottery. This and other investigative stories were published simultaneously in 19 Colombian magazines and newspapers. It was a way of fighting self-censorship by bringing important reports to the public while reducing the risk to the local outlets closest to the violent actors. The newsweekly Semana led another collaborative effort, the Manizales Project, which was designed to investigate murders and threats against journalists. This collaboration would also work on the very stories that had been thwarted when the initial reporters had been threatened, killed, or forced to flee the country.
These are valuable experiences that can inspire colleagues who are forced to work under threat of violence. Their main lesson is that when such dire times arrive, it is necessary to adjust our profession by becoming more rigorous and more cautious. Even though competition among media, so healthy under peaceful democracies, may continue, it is important to build bridges between rivals to defend the higher value of freedom of the press and freedom of expression, which society has trusted us to uphold.
María Teresa Ronderos is a prominent Colombian journalist who has worked for numerous print and television news outlets. A former managing editor of Semana and former president of FLIP, she is now a member of CPJ’s Board of Directors.