February 9 was the Day of the Journalist in Colombia. But after recent bad news, such as the closure of news-weekly Cambio, and reports of journalists being terrorized and intimidated by Colombia’s security agencies, this was not a day for celebration.
Newsweekly Cambio was founded 16 years ago by a Spanish publisher and soon after was bought by a group of Colombian journalists who were convinced that democracy would be viable only when accompanied by a free and independent press. Despite being plagued by economic problems, the magazine remained afloat and exposed many of Colombia’s major scandals.
Even after being purchased in 2006 by publisher Casa Editorial El Tiempo (CEET) the magazine had its most successful year in 2009. Its investigative journalism exposed: the links between a Medellin prosecutor, Guillermo Valencia Cossio (brother of Colombia’s interior and justice minister), and the paramilitaries; the agreement giving the U.S. army access to at least seven Colombia military bases; and the fact that the government’s Agro Ingreso Seguro subsidies were being given to wealthy land owners.
On February 3, 2010, CEET announced that starting in March Cambio would become a monthly magazine focusing on non-political topics. But five days later, on February 8, CEET decided to close the magazine and dismiss with immediate effect Cambio’s director, Rodrigo Pardo, and its editor, Maria Elvira Samper, even though that week’s edition was well underway.
Luis Fernando Santos, CEET President, explained that the changes in the magazine were due to “[a] global decline of political magazines … resulting from a change in the habits of readers and, consequently, the shift in investment decisions of the advertisers of these types of magazines.”
Taking into account the problems that established media around the world have faced this appeared to be a sensible, and to some extent, understandable decision. But as the days passed and more details emerged the conspiracy theories gained more credibility and became mainstream: the decision to close Cambio had been political rather than merely an innocent business decision.
The closure of the magazine was not decided on economic grounds, at least not those of the magazine. According to Pardo and Samper, the newsweekly had actually made a profit in 2009, albeit small, and advertising sells for 2010 had already reached $750,000. Other of CEET’s media outlets had actually lost money, yet they remained open. But in order to understand the real reasons for the closure it is imperative to understand who owned Cambio.
Since 2006, Cambio had been part of CEET, which was owned by the Santos family. The Santoses had built a media conglomerate that includes El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading national newspaper. In 2007, CEET was purchased by Spanish Grupo Planeta – the Spanish-speaking world’s largest publisher. The Santos family became minority shareholders and also remained in the government. Francisco Santos (brother of CEET’s president) is Colombia’s vice president and his cousin Juan Manuel Santos is a former defense minister and presidential hopeful (if Uribe is not allowed to run).
At the moment Grupo Planeta is bidding in the lucrative third private television channel auction. The decision is in the hands of a quasi-independent Commission of Television that is close to the government. Therefore, investigative journalism exposing the power holders’ dishonest and abusive actions is against the interests of Grupo Planeta and the Santos family. Juan Manuel Santos had already branded Cambio “useful idiots” after they published a report by NGO Nuevo Arco Iris calling into question the effectiveness of Democratic Security policy, and former adviser to the president Jose Obdulio Gaviria (Pablo Escobar‘s cousin) called Pardo chief of the “bigornia,” a derogatory term for a gang leader.
There are other instances where the government’s actions are even more disturbing. On February 9, two independent journalists, Hollman Morris (director of TV program Contravia) and Claudia Julieta Duque said that Colombian journalists live in a state of terror. Both have received constant threats and were prominent targets of the DAS (Colombia’s security agency) illegal wiretapping division.
Moreover, The Foundation for the Liberty of the Press released yesterday a report titled “Surveillance and illegal wiretapping: Serious intimidation of Colombia’s journalists.” The press release revealed that there were 157 violations of press freedom with 258 victims in 2009, a 22% increase from 2008. The most grave violations were conducted by the DAS.
The DAS responds directly to the President’s Office. Since the scandal was revealed by the remaining independent newsweekly Semana in early 2009, Uribe has denied any links to or knowledge of the illegal wiretapping. But recent revelations in the trial of a former head of the agency suggest otherwise.
But not everything was doom and gloom on the Day of the Journalist. Sociologist and El Espectador weekly columnist Alfredo Molano was absolved in a criminal lawsuit. The suit had been brought about by namesakes of a family Molano criticized in one of his columns.
And Colombia Reports celebrated its two-year anniversary. On February 9, 2008, Adriaan Alsema, armed with only his passion for Colombia, embarked on a experiment that has now become Latin America’s largest English-language news website. The road has been bumpy, neither the economic results nor rewards have arrived, but let’s hope that the gratitude of the protagonists of CR stories and readers is enough for the time being to maintain Adriaan’s passion intact.
This was CR’s first ever (unassuming) article: Colombia peso under pressure.