Colombia is doing better than Venezuela, but still has a long way to go before the country can proudly say it is guaranteeing a freedom of press, prominent journalist Daniel Coronell told Colombia Reports. He was forced to leave his country after his reporting resulted in death threats.
As director of Noticias Uno and columnist of weekly magazine Semana, Coronell denounces crimes and corruption of the government and its allies. Understandably, he has a lot of enemies. In 2005 he had to leave Colombia with his wife and six-year-old daughter, because unknown men threatened to kill his little girl.
When Coronell explains why he left in 2005 he becomes teary. He discovered that his daughter was at the same school as the son of a well-known drug dealer who he knew was after him. “One afternoon a friend of my daughter’s was coming to our house to play. I went to school to pick up my daughter and found her in the yard, crying. Her friend didn’t want to play at our house anymore, because her parents had told her it was dangerous.” Not long afterwards there was shooting near their appartment in Bogota. Another famous drug dealer was living close by. Apparently, someone had tried to enter the house and the dealer’s bodyguards started shooting. Coronell and his wife and colleague María Cristina decided to leave the country.
“We went to the United States. My daughter once said to me: ‘Daddy, this is a very modern country. You know why? The windows of the cars can go up and down and you can look outside.’ She had only known blinded cars in Colombia, because of the safety measures I require.”
They returned to Colombia in 2007. “We would have stayed [for our daughter, and our son who was born in America].” However, he says emphatically, “it is my right to be here. They cannot throw me out. Every week someone insults me, the president is against the FARC, so if you are against the president you are with the FARC. That’s what the government wants the people to believe and many believe it.”
The freedom of Colombia’s press very limited, Coronell says. “It’s better than in Venezuela, but it’s not ideal. There is great pressure not to be critical and there are threats, from paramilitary groups and from the guerrillas. Therefore many journalists apply self-censorship [to protect themselves].”
It is worse now during the Uribe leadership, he affirms, because the government stigmatizes organizations and media that criticize it. “But a big problem is also the concentration of media. Twelve years ago there were 14 radio and television stations and two national newspapers, El Tiempo and El Espectador. Now there are two big channels, RCN and Caracol, who have eighty percent of the audience. Their programs reflect the interest of their owners. As they want to benefit from the government, the channels are positive about the government and vice versa.”
Many columnists are very critical of the government’s policies. Coronell says with a cynical smile: “But who reads us? It’s about ratings. The lords of television have the power. They represent the point of view of the masters and not of the servants. Noticias Uno wants people to see from the workers’ point of view.”
In 2013 Noticias Uno’s transmission license will expire. Will the same happen as with Venezuela’s Radio Caracas Televisión, whose license wasn’t prolonged by the government? “It could happen,” Coronell says.
Coronell hasbodyguards and a car with blacked-out windows. Although things are not as bad as they were in 2005, threats continue. “Growing older and having children makes you a coward,” he says. “When I was 22, I had a story about the Israelian mercenary Jair Klein, who trained paramilitaries. The threats were horrible. But I was young and thought that death would happen to others. I went to Spain for a while though, to make my mom feel better.
“The problem is that people think that we are the opposition,” Coronell continues. “But it is our task to be the eyes who watch those in power. It is like a prosecutor’s task. It is our job to look for the truth, not for popularity. But people don’t appreciate the truth. They have suffered so much with the FARC that Uribe for them is a relief. Looking for peace for them means delivering the country to the guerrillas.”
It is a Catch-22, Coronell says. Uribe needs the FARC to play the role of the danger against which he protects the homeland. And the FARC needs Uribe and his abuses of power to justify their fight. “It is the same with Chavez. He is a threat who supports the FARC, so Uribe can protect Colombia against him and Chavez tells his people that Uribe is the puppy of the Empire” (The United States), “so they play the same trick.”
The Noticias Uno director is sure that Alvaro Uribe will be re-elected. “The government controls the Constitutional Court” (that will determine whether the referendum is constitutional). “People will vote for him. Even when there is no false play, he will win. They think there is no other option.”
Opponents like the Liberal presidential candidate Rafael Pardo, and left-wing Polo Democratico’s candidate Gustavo Petro want to join forces to beat Uribe. Is it useful? “Yes it is!”, Coronell says, it is necessary to have an opposing “voice in Congress.”
In fifty years, he says, Colombia will know who the real Uribe is. “He will be an accident in history, just like Chavez. It will be clear that he bought votes, that he was close to the drug mafia, that he wasn’t committed to the cause of human rights, that he tried to protect criminals, that he didn’t respond to the victims of the violence, that he caused more inequality.”
Wies Ubags is a Dutch journalist in Bogotá and has her own weblog.