We take a look at different perspectives on journalism in Colombia, with Cristian Valencia, Hollman Morris and Kevin Howlett all sharing their thoughts on the industry today
The Realist: Cristian Valencia
The sensationalism of the 21st Century
During the recent Cumbre Mundial de Arte y Cultura Por La Paz de Colombia (World Summit of Art and Culture Peace), Alfredo Molano, León Valencia, Jane Taylor and Fernando Vallejo spoke during a forum. Alfredó Molano talked about his work and about how important it was for him to counter the official discourse with a different one in order to try to balance the story that was being told about the country.
León Valencia said it was necessary for radicals on both the left and the right to respect each other’s ideologies, and that they must abandon the pretense of imposing only one truth.
South African Jane Taylor told the forum how the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in her country helped the victims to build their own stories, their own version of what happened.
Fernando Vallejo took out a text, hunched over and read without looking at the audience or his fellow speakers. He bad-mouthed the peace process, Santos, Petro, the guerrillas, the negotiators in Havana, and all Colombians. He spoke highly of dogs and other animals. No one burst out in applause as they had when he entered the room. There was more silence than applause when he finished his speech.
|Alfredo Molano Bravo – Colombian sociologist, journalist and writer, currently writes a column for the newspaper El Espectador.León Valencia Agudelo – An ex-ELN guerilla, a Colombian political scientist, analyist and writer who has written for El Tiempo, and is a columnist for Revista Semana.Jane Taylor – A South African writer, playwright and academic, she wrote the play “Ubu and the Truth Commission”.Fernando Vallejo Rendón – Lives in Mexico after renouncing his Colombian nationality because of his political beliefs, a novelist, film director, screenwriter, biographer and biologist.|
The next day, newspapers, radio stations, online news sites and TV news shows only reported Vallejo’s words. The silence of the audience at the Jorge Eliécer Theatre was not reported, nor did the words of Valencia, Molano or Taylor. On that day, Monday April 6, there were only Vallejo’s words.
This biased way of reporting, of only showing one side, can also be seen as a general symptom of Colombian journalism. I am talking about the journalism of mass media, of big business.
Vallejo’s speech wasn’t replicated because of its ideas or its literary quality or the sharpness of its arguments. I dare say that it was repeated because it was scandalous and polarised public opinion about the peace process. Both reasons are equally despicable for a mass media whose mission is to inform people about the situation of the country and the world on a grand scale.
Colombian journalism (I am talking exclusively about big media) is addicted to pyrotechnics, to fireworks. It seems that its only ethical position is to generate scandal. With the passing of the years they have stopped trying to provide tools to analyse reality, and instead have dedicated themselves to the construction of cheap divisive realities regarding humanity and its complexity.
This form of information contaminates the Colombian imagination. This extreme duality: the good and the bad; the beautiful and the ugly; the nice and the nasty; the intelligent and the stupid, etc. They are very effective when it comes to generating ratings and producing “express opinion”, and is without a doubt a very attractive combination for companies that are looking to advertise their products in the media.
Scandals, extremes, ratings, the “express opinion” and economic benefits are the elements that perfectly describe sensationalist journalism. The sensationalism of the 21st century.
The big question is why has our journalism mutated towards sensationalism? The undoubtable economic benefits that come from this way of doing journalism give weight to a suspicion that our mass media is inclined to maintain the status quo in exchange for their continued existence. The idea of change could threaten the well-being of the financial tentacles and therefore threaten the existence of big media.
This fear of change can be seen in different ways in newspapers, magazines, radio stations and TV news, all with the point of convincing mass media consumers. And we all know by now that fear is the first step towards anger, and anger is the first step towards violence.
Deep down it seems to be a problem of ignorance since no one has time to think critically anymore. As usual, the most urgent becomes the most important. As absurd as it might seem, the owners and directors of mass media have to think about the role of the media in terms of this very long war, and in this very violent way of being Colombian.
If ignorance of the unknown yields a daemon to be defeated, then thinking about the unknown brings a great opportunity for human, economic and social development. The new journalism of the 21st century should promote reflection, analysis and creativity in its audience.
Cristian Valencia is an independent writer and journalist who is currently a columnist with El Tiempo newspaper. He is also a freelance chronicler for various other media outlets.
The Mayoral Candidate: Hollman Morris
Azzam Alkadhi meets up with longtime writer and current Bogota mayoral candidate to talk about the state of the media, politics and his hopes for the future
Fresh from the Peace March which saw roughly 30,000 people take to the streets of the capital, Hollman Morris is clearly still buzzing. I catch up with him in a restaurant after the march, where he’s just finished dinner with his family. The renowned writer and activist reclines casually in his chair as he speaks animatedly about peace.
The famed journalist and now Bogota mayoral candidate, who twice went into exile — once to Spain, and more recently to the US — after receiving death threats, spoke at the march about the importance of building a better, peaceful future for the next generation of Colombians. With a flair for populist rhetoric, he pushed all the right buttons throughout his speech, at one point theatrically addressing a statue of Gaitan directly.
Morris is known for his own brand of reporting, focused on giving a voice to victims of the conflict, as well as his long-running TV show Contravia, which aims to promote culture and human rights.
And it’s his opinion that the prevailing trends in the press in this country are far from desirable: “I believe in independent journalism that gives a voice to victims.”
He continues: “Journalism in Colombia has to change. In Latin America, this is the country where the most media is concentrated in the fewest hands. It’s not healthy for the future. It’s also not good that the media belongs to the richest people in the country.”
Despite this, and the threats to his life, Morris remains certain that Colombia is a journalist’s dream: “There is no better country in the world for journalism than Colombia. Things happen all the time, all over the country. It’s not a monotonous country, it’s a young country, in its adolescence, which makes it extremely exciting for journalists.”
As for the future of journalism, he says: “I want to see a country with freedom of expression, but also with freedom of communication, which is not the same thing.”
His work has rarely been easy, but he does not regret it: “I’ve taken a risk being a journalist in Colombia, but I’ve also invented a new current for the industry … I’m proud of the challenges I take on in life.”
In 2012, he became the director of Bogota’s public television channel, Canal Capital, and he’s quick to underline the effect he had in his short two-and-a-half year stint there.
“Canal Capital, after just 16 years in existence, is the country’s fourth biggest station, creating a paradigm of public television that promotes human rights.” He adds proudly: “It generates debate on a national level, not just in Bogota.”
While at Canal Capital – which he left in order to run for mayor – he was accused of censorship twice: once by two of the channel’s reporters, and also during the 2014 presidential elections.
Morris wastes no time in cutting me off as I begin to ask about this: “Firstly, there was no censorship – it’s interesting that the accusations only came from the two vjournalists when their contracts ended.
He continues: “The agenda of a media outlet isn’t determined by the journalists, but by the director.”
A friend of current Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro, Morris explains his decision to return from exile for a second time: “When I was in Washington, Petro called me and said: ‘The country needs you, we will bring you back with honour.’”
He goes on to speak about the reasons for his candidacy: “I want to be seen as fulfilling my role, my commitment to history, peace and human rights. I spend time on the street, with the people, and they can see me as a leader. I want to be a progressive leader.”
His modest hopes if his bid for office is successful? “I want to turn [Bogota] into the Capital of Peace.”
In October this year, Bogotanos go to the polls to elect a new mayor and, whether it’s Hollman Morris or not, he remains determined to stay and make a difference:
“I’m not leaving the country again. I’ve lived through the persecution and I’m standing up for myself and helping Bogota,” he said.
The Political Commentator: Kevin Howlett
Turning off and tuning out
I’m convinced that the only way of surviving Colombia is to not to take it too seriously; “fresco hermano”. I’m back in Colombia after seven months away, and I admit I’m struggling to take things seriously any longer.
I used to be proud to have the only English-language website dedicated to Colombian politics. I used to appear on television and radio as a talking head. I’ve interviewed presidential candidates, shared a stage with some suspiciously guerrilla-friendly politicians, and have even been accused by one or two nutcases of working as a US spy. I cared so much about the injustices in Colombia that I was heckled in university lecture halls and called “mad” by firebrand leftie senator, Jorge Robledo.
Since being back I find it hard to bring myself to keep abreast of current events, much less write about them. Honestly, you lose track of the endless stories of corruption, of who stole what, why, and if in fact it’s really just a cover-up for an even worse scandal. Whether it’s the courts, the government, or business, the nation’s “leaders” all seem to be at it. If reporting on politics is about counting the numbers of snouts in the trough, then I’m not interested.
I can’t bring myself to cover a system that gives ordinary Colombians the false hope that things are going to get better, with a president who assures us that everything will be perfect once a peace deal with the FARC guerrillas is signed. I’m sure only the most cynical of journalists could keep at it day in and day out. For me, life is much less stressful — and Colombia is much more enjoyable — when I just tune out.
I exiled myself from Colombia shortly after the 2014 presidential election, which ended in a victory for Juan Manuel Santos. And since then I’ve actively switched off. I’ve realised that giving a damn about Colombia’s politics is not great for your mental health.
And as for that 2014 election, the candidates succeeded in reducing politics to talk of billion-dollar clientelism and wide-scale vote buying. The Kremlin-inspired “dirty war” tactics (as the media labelled it) was corrosive stuff. It made Colombia’s leaders look and sound like they were in it for themselves, not for us. It’s no wonder less than half the nation bothered to turn out.
Too often politics here seem like a game of personal and family interests. All the money that former Bogota Mayor Samuel Moreno is accused of stealing could have built a new Transmilenio system and with the change fixed all the potholes on all of Bogota’s roads. Instead, one man gets rich and the rest of the city grinds to a shuddering halt.
What is the point of caring? Two hundred years of this republic shows us that whoever wins, red, blue, black, we should expect the same result: ineptitude and corruption. It’s worse than that. Politics here are not for folk like you or me. It’s a clique, a restricted club where the entrance policy is too often the sound of your surname.
I completely understand why Colombians have little faith in the political system and why they disengage from it. Perhaps by trying to detach myself from it, by caring less, I’m doing what most Colombians end up doing. Shrugging their shoulders and realising that that’s life. Fresco hermano, because you can’t do anything about it. We are swimming against a two-century tide.
Do I care? Of course I do. But I wish I didn’t.
Political junkie Kevin Howlett is the founder of the colombia-politics.com blog and has appeared as a panelist on Colombian television and lectured at universities on the state of Colombian democracy. He has lived in Colombia off and on for four years.
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