Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom | Analysis

COLOMBIA: Magazine Closure Deals Major Blow to Investigative Reporting

BOGOTÁ, Feb 11 2010 (IPS) - What would have happened in Colombia if the financing of former president Ernesto Samper’s (1994-1998) election campaign by the Cali cartel had not been uncovered?

Last cover of Cambio news magazine. Credit: Revista Cambio

Last cover of Cambio news magazine. Credit: Revista Cambio

What would things be like if the scandal over the links between rightwing politicians and the far-right paramilitaries had been swept under the rug by Congress?

And if the existence of hostages (like Ingrid Betancourt) held by the guerrillas had never been reported, and the country remained indifferent to their plight – would everything be the same today?

Many Colombians have been asking themselves such questions since the recent announcement of the closure of the influential weekly news publication Cambio – to be turned into a monthly general interest magazine – and the dismissal of its two top editors.

Cambio was well-respected for its investigative journalism, with each edition reporting on scandals and wrongdoing in this South American country that has been in the grip of an armed conflict for nearly five decades.

In 1995, Cambio journalist María Cristina Caballero reported that the Cali cartel had distributed “Samper for President” T-shirts during the Liberal Party candidate’s campaign.

That was the thread that led to the unraveling of the scandal over the millions of dollars that the Samper campaign received from brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, the heads of the Cali cartel.

Reporters absolved

"This absolves all of us," sociologist and journalist Alfredo Molano told reporters Tuesday, referring to a sentence handed down by Judge José Eduardo Saavedra.

The judge dismissed a criminal lawsuit brought against Molano by members of the influential Araújo Molina family from the northeastern city of Valledupar over his article titled "Araújos et al" published Feb. 24, 2007 in the Bogotá newspaper El Espectador.

In the suit, the Araújo Molina family accused the prominent journalist, who has written extensively about the countless Colombians displaced from their rural homes by the civil war, of libel and defamation.

"I am very pleased. But this is really a legal ruling for the entire country, as it defends a constitutional principle and democracy," said Molano, who has a weekly column in El Espectador.

In "Araújos et al", after referring to the family as landowners, business leaders and public office holders in Valledupar and Cartagena, Molano wrote about illegal activities by unnamed "notables" or prominent citizens in Valledupar, including contraband in cattle, coffee and marijuana, the theft of indigenous peoples' land, and the transportation to the polls of native voters, who were also given liquor, to obtain their votes.

The Araújo Molina family lawyer announced that the decision would be appealed.

Unwittingly, Caballero provided the first piece of evidence in what became widely known in Colombia as “Proceso 8.000” – the case number of the legal investigation into the campaign donations.

Over the years, Cambio magazine has kept many people from turning a blind eye and has prevented the cover-up of many a scandal.

But in recent weeks, the publication’s investigative reporting drove the circumspect officials at the Foreign Ministry to distraction by revealing details of the deal under which Colombia agreed last year to grant the United States the use of seven military bases.

The magazine also broke a scandal implicating former agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias, who is close to rightwing President Álvaro Uribe, in the handout of farm subsidies to wealthy business families, under the government’s Agro Ingreso Seguro (roughly, “stable farm income”) programme.

The programme enabled the government to distribute millions of dollars over the last three years to some of the country’s largest landholders who have made sizeable contributions to Uribe’s campaigns.

In 2006, Cambio magazine, which has been published since 1994, was sold to the Casa Editorial El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading media conglomerate, in which Spain’s Grupo Planeta – the Spanish-speaking world’s largest publisher – holds a controlling interest.

“There were members of the board (in Cambio) who thought so much investigative reporting and denunciations were not a good idea,” said the magazine’s chief editor, María Elvira Samper, who was laid off. “I think the irritation with the editorial line and the worries about profit margins coexisted.”

In the statement announcing the decision to basically close the magazine, the Casa Editorial El Tiempo said the “business model” had been exhausted, and the publication was not bringing in the expected profits.

But Samper and Cambio director Rodrigo Pardo, who was also dismissed, cited first-hand data to show that the magazine was doing just fine.

“A profit was turned in 2009, and for 2010 (advertising) sales already exceeded 1.5 billion pesos (750,000 dollars),” said Pardo.

“It is not to be credited that an organisation like El Tiempo would have to close a magazine that was generating profits,” he added.

To say that the Santos family, which historically owned the Casa Editorial El Tiempo and now shares control with Grupo Planeta, has close ties to the government would be an understatement. Francisco Santos is vice president, and Juan Manuel Santos served as defence minister from 2006 to 2009.

“What they are punishing and shutting down are Cambio’s investigations of public figures close to the government,” wrote columnist Héctor Abad.

Journalists' Day

Prize-winning reporter Hollman Morris, director of the TV news programme "Contravía", which he has described as "the voice of the voiceless in Colombia," and investigative reporter Claudia Julieta Duque demanded on Tuesday that President Uribe answer for the threats they have received for years from government security agents.

Morris and his family have been the objects of surveillance and persecution for a decade, and Duque and her daughter for the past eight years.

The two reporters proved in 2003 that the DAS, which answers directly to the president's office, was blocking their investigations into the 1999 murder of television personality Jaime Garzón.

In a press conference on Tuesday, Journalists' Day in Colombia, Duque displayed a dozen documents from DAS's supposedly dismantled special intelligence unit known as the G-3, which she said clearly demonstrated that the unit reported to the president and the interior minister.

The documents formed part of the G-3 files that were seized by prosecutors a year ago - some 60,000 pages of records that DAS personnel did not manage to destroy before a search by the Attorney General’s Office’s judicial police (CTI).

According to Duque, the records, which have not yet been thoroughly studied or made public, "don't speak for themselves; they shout, they moan, for themselves."

The records include orders to "urgently" silence the journalist by suing her for slander and directly threatening her daughter. There are also G-3 detailed instructions on how agents should make telephone threats against Duque, even including a foul-mouthed script.

"'Neutralise' was what they did on the telephone, especially in the case of women, such as Claudia Julieta or my wife," said Morris. Another target of phone threats was Soraya Gutiérrez with the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Collective, a prominent human rights group that was apparently the G-3's main target.

Gutiérrez was sent "a doll painted red with the limbs cut up, which was proven to have come from the G-3. They were especially sadistic in the case of women, who were psychologically destroyed - which then also destroyed us," said Morris.

Some 300 Supreme Court magistrates, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, journalists and civil society activists were designated as "targets" of the G-3's illegal spying.

So far, orders for surveillance, harassment and threats against 16 journalists have been uncovered. One gives instructions for using magnets to wipe out information on the computer of Swedish reporter Dick Emanuelsson, a correspondent for several media outlets in Latin America, in airports.

Morris is one of the reporters accused by Uribe of being a "propagandist for terrorism." On one occasion, the president's verbal attacks on the reporter translated into a smear campaign that turned out to be designed and conducted by the G-3.

"What we are saying basically is that Álvaro Uribe is politically responsible for what the G-3 did. That he can't evade that responsibility. And that the victims, like Colombian society at large, are waiting for an explanation from the man who breathes and lives security 100 percent, 24/7," Morris told IPS.

That explanation is supported by remarks such as one by former minister Santos, who said the magazine was “a useful idiot for the FARC” guerrillas.

Another public figure close to Uribe, former presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria, called Pardo a “chief of the bigornia”, an outmoded term that basically means “criminal” or “no-good.”

The “silent operation” to close down the news magazine involved two stages.

At noon on Wednesday, Feb. 3, two executives, Luis Fernando Santos and Guillermo Villaveces, called Pardo and Samper into their offices to inform them of the decision to turn Cambio into a monthly general interest magazine.

The news magazine was to come out for three more weeks before Samper and Pardo would be let go and other staff changes would be carried out, and the new editorial guidelines would go into effect.

The two chief editors began to work on the next edition, in which they planned to inform their readers of the reasons for the magazine’s transformation into a monthly entertainment publication and of the impact of the decision on journalism in Colombia.

But their work was abruptly cut short on Monday Feb. 8, when a new resolution by the board made Samper and Pardo’s dismissal effective immediately.

Many believe the weekly news magazine is being shut down in punishment for its reports on not only the Agro Ingreso Seguro farm subsidies scandal, but also on the so-called “false positives” – young civilians killed by the army and passed off as guerrilla casualties in the counterinsurgency war – and the illegal wiretapping of opposition politicians, activists, journalists and even Supreme Court judges by the DAS, Colombia’s main intelligence agency, as listed by columnist Alfredo Molano (see sidebars).

“Journalism that investigates, that asks questions and does not yield to pressure is a threat to the state of opinion that they want to impose on us,” wrote columnist María Jimena Duzán.

Criticism was also sparked by the editorial position voiced by Grupo Planeta chairman José Manuel Lara, who said “today, an editor goes to ask people what they would like to read, and then seeks out the qualified specialist who can give them what they want.”

That clashes with Pardo’s reference to “journalism’s social responsibility with respect to democracy and fomenting public debate.”

Others have pointed to the awkward relationship between journalism and the profit motive. “There were too many business deals in the middle of all of this,” Abad wrote, noting that Grupo Planeta is reportedly awaiting government approval for the purchase of a third TV station in Colombia.

Cambio’s disappearance as a serious news magazine is regrettable “when the country needs more, not fewer, spaces for debate, and when it needs free media outlets,” wrote columnist Santiago Montenegro.

In the view of journalists, what happened to the magazine is a sign of the growing corporate control over the media and news in general.

* With additional reporting by Constanza Vieira and Helda Martínez.

 
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