By Javier Alexander Macías, El Colombiano, January 8, 2019,
Translated by CSN Volunteer Deryn Collins
“In journalism there is a maxim that you learn in university, and when the recently graduated journalist gets to the press room, they hear repeatedly until they are tired of it without knowing with certainty who said it or when it was said: ‘Journalism is the voice of those who don’t have a voice.”
But this premise seems to be rarely fulfilled in Colombia. In the most distant regions of the country – and in others not so far away – exist municipalities that the Foundation for the Liberty of the Press (FLIP) refers to as “zones in silence”, places where there is no means of communicating information about local news.
“Armed conflict established the ideal conditions for the silence and censure that is found in cities and villages”, explains FLIP in the report The Country of Silence, which reflects that, in 994 locals areas mapped, 585 lack the means to broadcast news, and if there are the means, they are dedicated to music or advertising.
Jonathan Bock Ruíz, coordinator of FLIP’s Centre of Investigation for the Study of Liberty of Expression, who directed the report, shows that, apart from armed conflict, there are other reasons why there is no press coverage in these territories.
“There are municipalities where commerce is not sufficiently strong to sustain a means of communication and in many of these zones there is no training in journalism, which means there are no jobs for journalists.”
It is worrying that in those territories there are at least 9 million Colombians (data estimated from the last census of DANE) that have no local news and learn about the news in an informal manner: because someone told them in the park, in the church, in the billiards halls or because a neighbour told them.
“This limits what people know about what is really going on, for example, in the adjudication of a public works project [or] in a badly written contract. This leads to uninformed commentary and producing distorted the information that is at times exaggerated or minimized”, Bock emphasises.
THE PRESS SILENCED
On August 12, 2014, bullets silenced Luis Carlos Cervantes, who in his time was called the most threatened journalist in Colombia. He had been receiving up to 17 death threats per day on his mobile, as the Attorney General’s Office has confirmed, and he was the object of intimidation from leaflets and attacks, including having grenades thrown at this house in Taraza [in the] Bajo Cauca [region of] Antioquia.
Cervantes was under a security plan with the National Protection Unit (UNP), but on July 23 of that year, a month before his death, he was notified that the protection would be withdrawn; in the [UNP’s] evaluation, the risk [to his life] had disappeared because for a while he had been producing music [rather than only reporting].
On the day of his death Cervantes was booked to go to the town of La Caucana de Tarazá to collect information. When he was riding on a motorbike, three people shot at him, causing his death.
On January 15, 2016, the Third Penal Court of the Specialized Circuit of Antioquia condemned Javier Vega Osorio, alias “Morroco”, to 31 years in prison as the mastermind [of Cervants’ murder]. Furthermore, on June 1, almost four years after the assassination, the Sixth Administrative Oral Court of the Medellín Circuit found the UNP guilty of not protecting the life of the journalist and made [the agency] pay compensation to his family.
Attacks on the press are one of the factors that, according to FLIP, limits the amount of local information in high-risk zones. In 2018 there were 443 [attacks] that left 568 victims. Among the most serious acts were the assassination of four reporters and the forced displacement of four more, the hostage-taking of 50 editors, aggressions against 34 [journalists]
, obstruction of [reporting] against 58 [[journalists], and threats against 251 [journalists].
To put an end to this panorama, on November 20 President Iván Duque signed a decree (that has not been published yet) aiming to protect social leaders, human rights defenders, and journalists.
“Any criminal act against social leaders, human rights defenders, or journalists pains us. We must face these crimes with determination. We do not want impunity in the face of these acts”, stated Duque on signing this norm.
Notwithstanding these good intentions, journalists in these regions hope the proposal does not just stay on paper because conditions are getting more difficult all the time.
That is according to Francisco Calderón, a judicial writer in [the department of] Cauca, who considers that the difficulties range from economic issues to security issues due to the presence of armed groups in these zones.
“In this region the press are micro-companies that, at times, evaluate if they will send someone to a distant area because of the cost of transport and accommodation, with journeys of six to eight hours to reach the populated areas and this is a risk”, says Calderón.
For a reporter, these distances create another difficulty because, in these zones, the illegal groups impose their rule “where the State has never been and it is more complicated because the [FARC] dissidents are more military than political and to enter you have to ask permission.”
Calderón touches on another essential subject, that the economy for the media is vital, and he says that to sustain journalism is costly. In addition, employment guarantees are inadequate and “there are reporters who do have neither contracts nor social security and everything has to come out of their own pocket.”
According to FLIP, in Cauca, for example, there are 23 journalists of the regions linked by advertising (excluding in Popayán). In Casanare there are only six journalists who earn little more than the legal minimum monthly salary (U.S. $247.63); 10 earn a minimum salary and nine earn less.
The situation is no different in Nariño. In this department, of 127 media personal, 22 are paid more than the annual salary; in Córdoba, of 74, 32 are paid less; and in the Amazon, of 12 existing journalists, 5 have no work, and the same happens in the North of Santander, where 42 press outlets are not offering contracts to the reporters.
To this, it must be added that there are departments such as Meta where 14 % of the methods of communication pertain to the state security forces and other regions with border zones where clandestine guerrilla radio stations operate, such as Antorcha Estéreo of the ELN, providing the population with information from actors in the armed conflict.
“THE TRUTH WILL SET US FREE
Winston Viracachá is a journalist with more than 25 years in the profession. In Tumaco, a region where the Army is, he reached a zone where other reporters have not entered.
It was October 2017, when five local coca farmers were massacred in Alto Mira and Frontera and the authorities said that Walter Patricio Arizala (alias Guacho) was responsable. Viracachá was the first journalist interviewed in Colombia and showed the country the face of Guacho, a man who, five months later, would assassinate the reporting team of the Ecuadorian newspaper El Comercio.
Nariño, where Winston works, is one of the departments where the press in most silenced. FLIP say that, in this territory, all the problems of journalism exist: there is a lack of press agencies; there is no investigative journalism because of security issues; and there are few sources of finance and difficult working conditions for journalists. Only 22 press outlets pay more than the current legal minimum monthly salary to their journalists, and in 63 press outlets half of journalists do not have [formal employment].
Even so, Viracachá believes that good journalism remains possible if you relentlessly dig for the truth.
“The most difficult thing is to narrate what the events were like in this department, given that, after two years of the agreement with the FARC, there has not been one day of peace. Also, restoring credibility in the communities has been difficult and their stigmatization is very hard, all because from Bogotá the headlines are so sensational that they do not reflect the reality of life in the department [of Nariño]”, says Viracachá.
The seasoned reporter adds that this stigmatism goes through the state security forces, which identify [journalists] as collaborators with illegal groups if the reporters visit these groups’ territory. [Stigmatism also goes] through the communities that identify [a journalist] as collaborating with the Army and the Police if [she or he] reports from [the] desks [rather than run the risk of traveling to the remote areas].
Javier Darío Restrepo writes in his book Letters from War that, in an armed conflict, “the truth is written off but it is also prevented from being reborn (…) and if the truth is shot in the name of martial law, the population loses its right to true and opportune information, and along with this fundamental right, other rights are put in danger”. These are [the benefits of information] that will keep being lost in Colombia every time a journalist is silenced or a media agency is eliminated.