Colombia’s news media is dominated by a handful of powerful families, with deep connections to the political elite. La Silla Vacia is a new politics website which has placed itself determinedly outside the inner circle in an attempt to provide an objective view of the country’s power structures. Juanita Leon, who founded the site in March 2009, tells Colombia Reports about the challenges of doing things differently in a political culture dominated by established interests.
For Leon, power is what matters in Colombia. She founded the website in order to explain “the way power is exercised … the political figures who pull the strings of power, the strategies used to reach and keep it, and the ideas and interests which underlie the big decisions taken in the country.”
Traditional news outlets, which have a virtual monopoly over what is reported, are closely linked with the establishment and are less keen to interrogate Colombia’s power structures. Leon, who has worked for newspapers including El Tiempo and Semana, criticizes the old outlets’ “taboos on what you can say, for example talking about complicity between military officials and paramilitaries.” She argues that traditional Colombian media are trying to “promote an image of the country that doesn’t exist.”
Sick of newspaper owners “pressuring and deciding what you can and can’t write,” Leon decided to launch a new, independent news source, to ignore the conventions and “write in a new way, in my own voice.”
The website was founded in March 2009 with a grant from Open Society Institute, a foundation set up by billionaire George Soros, and currently has a staff of fewer than ten people. Its name means “the empty seat” – a reference to the empty seats left in Colombia’s Congress by politicians jailed for dealing with paramilitaries.
So far the venture has met with great success, quickly becoming a trusted news source, and revealing ahead-of-time scoops such as the Constitutional Court’s ruling against Uribe’s re-election.
But it hasn’t been easy. La Silla Vacia has struggled to find advertisers or sponsors, because private businesses “have many concerns and objections to associating with politically oriented websites,” Leon explains. In a project aimed at exposing the way power is won and managed in Colombia, the website risks stepping on the toes of the country’s ruling elite, whose influence extends into the world of business.
La Silla Vacia puts out two independent stories a day in their main section. The first story of the day, released during the morning, is an original story about a political issue in Colombia, and the second article, released in the afternoon, takes the current “topic of the day” being covered across other Colombian media sources, and offers a “different angle” on the story, providing new analysis on the topic, Leon explains.
As part of the site’s quest to decentralize the country’s media, it offers online blogs, meant to give intelligent young people a voice; a question and answer section, in which a question from the staff is answered by intellectuals, politicians, and analysts from around the country; and a soon-to-be-launched section that will give citizens the opportunity to ask questions directly to presidential candidates via YouTube videos.
La Silla Vacia provides something vital which was missing from the country’s media, Leon thinks. Too many news stories in Colombia focus on “the helpless,” she said in an interview last year. “We need more stories on power and the powerful.”
Visit La Silla Vacia at http://www.lasillavacia.com/