Many of Colombia’s national news media are owned by families that use their outlets to gain political power, with devastating consequences for society. One of these families is that of President Juan Manuel Santos. This is their story.
Media like the ones controlled by the Santos family have traditionally spurred, even promoted social tensions, armed conflict and even organized crime.
Journalism has a number of core principles to prevent exactly this type of abuse. For example, those engaging in journalism must be independent from who they cover. In Colombia’s newspaper industry, this has never been the case.
Practicioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
Independence is an underlying requirement of journalism, a cornerstone of its reliability. Independence of spirit and mind, rather than neutrality, is the principle journalists must keep in focus. While editorialists and commentators are not neutral, the source of their credibility is still their accuracy, intellectual fairness and ability to inform, not their devotion to a certain group or outcome. In our independence, however, we must avoid any tendency to stray into arrogance, elitism, isolation or nihilism.
American Press Association
Colombia provides multiple, almost perfect examples of how the abuse of news media can cause tremendous harm to society, while at the same time accumulating both wealth and political power for a few, including the president’s family.
The families engaged in both politics and news media are easily identifiable, they are called, among others, “Santos” (Bogota) “Gaviria” (Medellin) or “Gomez” (also Medellin).
These families turned the news media’s entire purpose around, removing newsroom’s watchdog obligations and using them as simple family or government propaganda machines.
This toxic mix of political power and mass media is older than Colombia itself, according to journalist and historian Jorge Orlando Melo. It has fomented political violence since Colombia’s declaration of independence from Spain in 1810, he said in 2006.
“The very birth of the Republic was accompanied by loud voices of public authors. Antonio Nariño used his newspapers to topple and change presidents and Simon Bolivar, after having founded The Orinoco Post, said that the press was “as useful as war supplies,” and used her like a kind of “artillery of thought.”
Historian Jorge Orlando Melo
Bolivar, the military leader who liberated Colombia, Venezuela and other countries, was a traditional catholic and wanted to maintain the traditional religious and social order in harmony with The Vatican.
However, his second in command, General Francisco de Paula de Santander, was more inspired by the founding of the United States. That country that been the first to separate church and state, and had been the first to enshrine the freedom of expression in the world’s first modern liberal democratic constitution.
A history of partisan journalism and state power
The “supreme leader,” as Bolivar liked to call himself, got his own paper, the Orinoco Post, as one of the first.
The Orinoco Post is now one of the main propaganda vehicles of Venezuela’s authoritarian Marxist government, which uses “artillery of thought” as its slogan.
In Colombia, news media have been abused to funnel political power to families like, for example, that of President Juan Manuel Santos. Marxist guerrillas call them “the oligarchy,” others call them “the families.”
These elites have consolidated their power in media with the purpose of furthering their private interests or the increasing, and often violent tensions in politics between The Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, and now the Democratic Center.
In 1948, 16 years before before Marxist guerrillas were founded in Colombia, mass media were already calling a communist coup, based on information provided by aligned families in the state, a classic example of disinformation.
When the guerrillas did appear in 1964, days later mass media reported that one group of “bandits,” the FARC, had been defeated by the military, 52 years before the guerrilla group signed peace.
According to a recent linguistics study, the ongoing toxic mix of the level of misinformation by mass media in Colombia has led to major defects and distortion in public perceptions of reality and history.
Not only that, the mass media have been used to fuel partisan polarization, promote war even, in an ongoing power struggle between a few families with an inflated sense of entitlement.
Not just Santos, but other former presidents like Rafael Nuñez, Manuel Murillo, Santiago Perez and Miguel Antonio Caro used their privately owned newspapers to launch their political careers, in some cases in alliance with armed groups.
In regions like Antioquia, Santander and Cauca, regional families gained control over both news media and politics, and in some cases even colluded with organized crime, using their power in media and politics to conceal it.
The family of President Juan Manuel Santos has unapologetically upheld this tradition of fusing mass media with politics once started by Bolivar, with bloody consequences.
The Santos family
The president, a heir of independence fighter Antonia Santos, is not just the most powerful man in politics, but also the most dominant figure in mass media, making him arguably the most prominent threat to the freedom of press in Colombia.
Eduardo Santos, the president’s great-uncle, bought newspaper El Tiempo in 1913, turned it into a hit and the primary vehicle for both his personal political ambitions and the Liberal Party he supported.
This newspaper had been founded in 1911 by the wealthy Alfonso Villegas to propagate the liberal cause, after fighting against and losing to the Conservative Party in the War of 1000 Days (1899 – 1902) that failed to overthrow the Conservative Party hegemony that had begun in 1885.
At the time Santos bought the Liberal Party paper, the Conservative Party owned much of the state system and enjoyed the support of the Catholic Church and regional elites, both large land-owners in Colombia’s rural regions.
It wasn’t until Santos became campaign manager of Enrique Olaya in 1930 that the Liberal Party, with the support of Santos’ El Tiempo, took over the state system and founded The Liberal Republic of Colombia, much to the anger of both the Conservative Party and the Catholic Church.
In 1942, Santos himself became president of the Liberal Republic, and left ownership of the newspaper with his brother Hernando and his nephew Enrique, the current president’s father, who became editor-in-chief and kept that position until his death in 2001.
However, also after having resigned from the newspaper’s management, the former president continued to be a familiar face in the newsroom.
On April 15, 1948, a week after the “Bogotazo,” an uprising that left thousands dead and the capital Bogota half destroyed, Santos’ El Tiempo reported the Liberal Party had the situation and the state system under control.
The day later, Santos’ paper specified how the violence had been curtailed by the liberals.
Ten years and 200,000 dead later, Santos’ Liberal Party was forced to make peace with the Conservative Party, and a power-sharing agreement called the National Front” was arranged.
When the founder and former president died in 1974, he left no sons and the company’s shares were divided among the remaining members of his family, including the fathers of both the president and the former vice-president.
Family members switched positions within the newspaper while changing turn in the Liberal Party or government while grooming their children for the prominent positions kept within the family.
Two years before his great-uncle’s death and fresh out of college, the current president got his first real job as the National Coffee Federation’s representative in London.
In 1994, he created the “Good Governance” foundation to serve his family’s sense of entitlement to political power. In 1995, he assumed the leadership of the Liberal Party, but the party fell apart amid infighting over increased influence of drug traffickers in the party.
In 2000, Santos was appointed Finance Minister by former President Andres Pastrana (Conservative Party), but was forced to return to El Tiempo and assume the newsroom in 2001 after his father died.
Around the same time, the Liberal Party split after it was proven it had been financed by the Cali Cartel.
Santos aligned with the Conservative Gomez family from Medellin to support the successful 2002 candidacy of Alvaro Uribe, a regional elite politician who had left the Liberal Party to successfully run on his own, depending not on his party, but directly on his associated media families.
In spite of the politicians’ admitted family ties to the Medellin Cartel and alleged ties to paramilitary group AUC, Uribe won.
In 2005, Santos founded the U Party under the pretext of supporting Uribe, only to use the party as his personal stepping stone to the presidency.
In 2006, Uribe appointed Santos Defense Minister.
The family sold the business to Spanish publisher Grupo Planeta in 2007. By then, the Santoses owned three daily newspapers and 14 magazines.
Santos was elected president in 2010.
In 2012, the newspaper corporation was bought by Colombia’s richest man, Luis Carlos Sarmiento.
Journalism must serve as an independent monitor of power
Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. The Founders [of the United States] recognized this to be a rampart against despotism when they ensured an independent press; courts have affirmed it; citizens rely on it. As journalists, we have an obligation to protect this watchdog freedom by not demeaning it in frivolous use or exploiting it for commercial gain.
American Press Association
The family that never left the newsroom
The newspaper may have been sold and flipped, but the Santos family never left the corporation’s newsrooms. Additionally, it now has a political party and its “Good Governance” foundation, currently led by the president’s Son, Martin. The family’s loyalty to the Liberal Party has become optional.
El Tiempo’s editor-in-chief is Roberto Pombo, the husband of the president’s cousin Juanita Santos, who is the sister of former Vice President Francisco Santos, the current president’s cousin.
The country’s most influential magazine, Semana, is run by Alejandro Santos, another nephew of the president.
Santos’ brother Enrique has a weekly column in the newspaper.
The website of the country’s largest paid newspaper was long run the nephew of the president, Diego, until he announced he would become the director of Twitter in Colombia and rival families found out that this would give the Santos family not just control over their own series of media, but a social media platform far outreaching the power of El Tiempo or any of the other families’ media.
The other families stepped in and prevented Diego from taking the job.
Nevertheless, the newspaper bought in 1913 in order to further Eduardo Santos’ ambitions, continues to run more than 100 years later now under control of the Sarmientos. The son of the president was made director of the Good Governance Foundation once founded to support the political ambitions of his father.
The Santos family now has more political control than in 1913 when dynasty patriarch Eduardo first started El Tiempo to propel himself into the presidency.