That military generals, admirals, presidents and senators share common interests as a privileged elite in a militarised nation such as Colombia is not news, but when newspaper editors and broadcasters are part of the same club, the media can be relied on to divert attention or fail to report on the scandals that threaten this elite’s privileges.
As the parapolítica death squad scandal circles ever closer to President Álvaro Uribe — the latest is a video showing him with a narco boss at an election campaign meeting in 2001, just before the boss, implicated in assassinating worker and union activists, was arrested — the president can be assured that investigative reports in the Colombian press will be few and far between.
Colombia has just one daily national newspaper, El Tiempo, but the latest revelations were not due to its investigative reports — on the contrary, after the evidence was printed first in US newspapers, El Tiempo merely summarised in a few lines what these reports said, and then published in its entirety a communiqué from the president that intemperately denied any connection to narco bosses or the paramilitaries.
It was left to the Washington Post to investigate further, while El Tiempo concentrated on criticising those who criticised the president as criticising Colombia. One of its columnists later tried to defend the paper’s political coverage claiming El Tiempo’s editorial line was ‘independent’, although ‘independent’ compared to what was not explained, probably because there is little editorial pluralism in Colombia to compare it to.
But then even this columnist had to admit that his personal connections to the newspaper’s owners meant he probably couldn’t be believed. The Santos clan that owns El Tiempo is part of Colombia’s closed political elite; its former editor, Francisco Santos, is now the vice president, and his cousin and former El Tiempo journalist, Manuel Santos, was first a Finance Minister and is now the Defence Minister in Uribe’s government.
Not surprisingly, El Tiempo’s editorials have strongly supported President Álvaro Uribe’s authoritarian militarisation policies. In 2005, the newspaper demanded that the Constitution be rewritten to allow the president a consecutive term, and in the 2006 election it even claimed that should the opposition leftist Polo Democrático coalition force the president into a second round, it would be ‘inconvenient for the country.’
Although the paper’s editor, Enrique Santos, had claimed his Uribista editorial line would have no effect on campaign reporting — ‘it’s not going to influence the balance at all,’ he said — El Tiempo declared on election day that the president must win in the first round, as anything else would be ‘awfully wearying’ for Colombia.
Fortunately for Colombia’s elite, their favoured candidate survived the indignity of submitting to democratic elections, although allegations that the paramilitaries bought votes, intimidated opposition supporters and assassinated anti-Uribista candidates, have since cast doubt on the election’s legitimacy.
But again, the president can be assured that the paucity of independent and investigative reporting in Colombia should mean that there are no more threatening consequences to his clientilist caudillismo politics than having some rightist Congress representatives and Senators thrown in jail.
The editors and broadcasters ‘who sign the paychecks think one way,’ commented independent political columnist Daniel Coronell after he received death threats and went into exile in the US, and this ‘definitely reduces a journalist’s spirit to report any story to the contrary.’ The peculiarly responsive nature of inquiry that characterises El Tiempo and Colombia’s pre-eminent political magazines Semana and Cambio seem to bear this out.
Investigative reports into the other Colombia — peasant workers and the indigenous forcibly displaced and counted in their millions, or the Colombians enduring an incredible 85 per cent poverty rate on the Pacific coast — are limited and inconsistent, while to divert attention, criticism is often directed at Venezuela’s President Chávez or at Colombia’s opposition Polo Democrático.
Parapolítica scandal revelations such as the Senators and Congressmen implicated in assassinating political opponents through their association with the paramilitaries, resignations of an Ambassador or Foreign Minister, or even narco bosses campaigning for the president’s election — stories that would be headline news day after day in the United States — receive relatively scant press coverage in Colombia.
Sometimes there is a real reason for this incurious detachment; the Committee to Protect Journalists has reported on the threats and intimidation that Colombian journalists are subject to when attempting to report on the paramilitaries’ connections to politicians, and even El Tiempo’s editor admits that this causes a ‘dictatorship of fear’ which ‘leads to self censorship’ and an ‘imposed silence.’
70 journalists have been killed in Colombia since the paramilitaries organised into a coherent national force in 1997, according to the International Press Institute. Although the picture is not all black and white — the guerrilla Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia have killed reporters too — the far right paramilitaries have been implicated in more threats and assassinations, and more insidiously, have been able to draw on their political connections to receive impunity for these crimes.
The ‘imposed silence’ has also received President Álvaro Uribe’s contribution. The Committee to Protect Journalists comments that the president’s favoured response to criticism is to accuse reporters of being terrorists or communists, encouraging either the paramilitaries to threaten or force writers into exile, or Colombia’s DAS intelligence service to arrest or deport foreign journalists.
The limited opposition press — the liberal El Espectador and communist Voz and the small leftist papers Desde Abajo and Revolución Obrera — have suffered terrorist attacks or had journalists assassinated and editors threatened, while local newspapers and radio stations are restricted in their independence through their owners’ corruption and political allegiances.
‘The owner calls the governor or mayor and says “Give me a million pesos and we’ll continue to work together”,’ a local radio reporter relates. ‘It’s impossible to fight with the boss,’ another local journalist reports, when the local newspaper is owned by a congressman or even the conservative Catholic Church.
Colombian TV presents a similar picture. The country’s two private broadcasters have an 80 per cent audience share and are controlled by the two richest men in Colombia’s elite club, Carlos Ardila Lulle and Julio Santo Domingo. Domingo recently said that Uribe was the greatest president Colombia had ever had, and encouraged the Uribista controlled Congress to change the Constitution again to allow the president a third term.
‘Thing’s have got worse,’ affirms investigative TV reporter Hellman Morris, ‘in Colombia there is just private TV — all reality programs and telenovelas and little news and debate with different perspectives.’ The president has closed the public financed Inravisión broadcaster that had featured cultural and independent programming as well as critical documentaries, and there are reports that even congressional and judicial debates are censored before being broadcast on cable TV stations.
A Senate debate that the Polo Democrático had initiated to discuss Uribista politicians’ connections to the paramilitaries in October 2006 was inexplicably taken off the air without any explanation, and as more parapolítica scandal details become known, forcing more rightist politicians before the courts, journalists are being denied access to the judicial hearings that investigate these revelations.
The restrictions, assassinations and threats — presidential and paramilitary — assist in protecting Colombia’s elite from critical and investigative reporting, and are then complimented by the peculiar editorial pluralism that restricts opinions to this elite — previous presidents and their relatives are prominent columnists in El Tiempo and Semana. All this serves to distort reality in Colombia to the point that a paramilitarized state is almost uncritically accepted.
As Polo Democrático Senator Gustavo Petro has pointed out, the Colombian press has misrepresented or failed to report on the paramilitaries’ atrocities, massacres and assassinations to such a degree that barely 6 per cent in Colombia believe these terrorists are a problem.
As more rightist politicians are arrested and the narco and parapolítica scandal edges closer to the president, the more Colombia’s elite may attempt to rely on this perception to avoid deeper scrutiny, investigation and jail. And as has been proven, while the newspaper editors’ class is the politicians’ class, there should be little need to pressure, censor or restrict the press to protect this elite. For the rich in Colombia, for Senators, presidents and editors, Colombia continues to be their exclusive club.