As the March 14th congressional elections draw closer, media outlets in the Valle del Cauca Department are charging candidates for interviews and campaign coverage, breaking journalistic ethics and blurring the line between publicity and news.
Most politicians and their press officers deny that they are paying for news coverage.
But documents leaked to Colombia Reports show that at least eight local TV and radio stations in “El Valle” are offering politicians “commercial packages” that include showing adverts and airing interviews during news programs, and promise campaign coverage for fees that range from COP400,000 to COP2 million a month.
CNC, a cable TV station in Palmira, for example, recently sent a letter to a local Senate candidate, which offers the airing of five adverts per day, two interviews on an opinion show called “Sin Tantos Cuentos” and two interviews on news program “CNC Noticias” for a monthly fee of COP400,000.
The same candidate received a letter from a sports program on Radio Super called “Super Combo del Deporte” where he was offered the airing of one advert a day, and four five-minute interviews per month, for a fee of COP800,000.
“Commercial packages” that combine interviews, news coverage and ad space were offered to this candidate by programs on the UNE Cable Network and programs on the Todelar radio network, the third-largest in the country. The Channel 2 TV station in Tulua, which belongs to Cable Union, offered to make two three-minute news pieces about the candidate’s campaign for the price of COP200,000 per piece.
Journalists across Colombia say this is a common practice during elections. And many of them say politicians are also actively offering money to be featured in the news.
Jorge Garces, a Cali journalist who has a weekly opinion show on the local Todelar station, claims that a press adviser for a Liberal Party candidate called him up earlier this year to offer him COP3 million for three five-minute interviews.
Garces, who does not want to reveal the politician’s name in order to “avoid a lawsuit” says he rejected the offer on ethical grounds and because he does not want to “compromise” his program’s “independence.”
However, he admits that he is financially better-off than most journalists, and believes many reporters around the country are making such deals because of their “low salaries” and “poor preparation.”
Eduardo Marquez, the president of the Colombian Federation of Journalists, says that the exchange of money for news coverage is widespread across the country and particularly notorious in radio and TV stations outside Bogota, where most journalists are no longer paid with a regular salary.
Marquez says that over the past twenty years Colombian media corporations have taken hundreds of regional journalists off their payrolls and they now “rent out” spaces to the same journalists that used to work for them, for prices ranging from COP1 million to COP2 million a month.
Press adviser and longtime journalist Alejandro Calderon says that the profession “has become commercialized,” with journalists – who no longer have salaries – forced to sell ad space themselves in order to pay the “rent” of their daily or weekly slot and make some profit for themselves.
The replacement of salaries by the selling of ad space means that journalists must constantly look for money, and it compromises their journalistic independence because they begin to look at their sources as a potential source of income.
“You will not write anything critical about a supermarket that lays off workers,” says Calderon, “if they are a potential advertiser on your space.”
Calderon claims that journalists in Colombia are charging companies and politicians for interviews and news coverage on a regular basis, but he says the problem becomes worse during election time because of the “bonanza of money floating around” and the high demand for news coverage from politicians.
The experienced journalist and press officer says that prices for interviews, news coverage and adverts double during election time, with brief news pieces selling for up to COP1 million.
Marquez meanwhile, says that during the election period politicians become a “reliable” source of income for journalists, adding that according to a recent survey by his organization, 70% of journalists in Colombia are selling ad space to augment their meager incomes.
In electoral terms this means that politicians with the most money are the ones who are most likely to get positive media coverage.
Alejandra Barrios, the director of the National Election Monitoring Mission (MOE), says this phenomenon particularly hurts the less wealthy candidates, who secure their votes largely by seducing people with their ideas and rely “largely on media exposure” to convince citizens to vote for them.
“Traditional” candidates on the other hand are not as much affected, as they secure their votes by making deals with community leaders or businessmen who use cash and favors to get neighborhood residents and company staff to vote for a certain candidate.
According to Eduardo Marquez, the exchange of money for interviews and news coverage will only end when the local government forces Colombian media bosses to stop their current labor practices and hire journalists, paying them regular salaries.
He describes the current system of renting spaces to journalists and forcing them to sell adverts to make a living as “the greatest challenge towards producing fair and balanced information in Colombia, even greater than death threats or the actions of violent groups.”