A few years ago I tried to get life insurance from a European company. I was surprised when they denied the policy due to my job: I am a journalist.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, Colombia is the place in the world where many journalists have been killed in the last 15 years and
Colombian Army anti-narcotics special forces arrest coca leaf processing workers. Photo by Steve Salisbury.©
insurance companies play the odds. Obviously, the odds of being killed in Colombia are high for everyone—my country also has one of the highest rates of murders in the world—but if you are a journalist, then the odds are somewhat higher.

Yet journalists keep doing their job. And they keep dying for doing it.

Why? What is different in Colombia than in other places in the world? What is it like to be a journalist in Colombia? Who is killing journalists in Colombia?

To understand the situation one has to understand the environment in which journalists work. And it sure isn’t a healthy one. Colombia has an insurgent and counterinsurgent war financed by drug trafficking and a booming drug business. The three main illegal actors in this war are drug traffickers, guerrillas (leftist rebels), and paramilitaries (extreme rightist and illegal armies). Obviously, they are no friends of the truth, of exposés, and are certainly trigger-happy. With a weak judicial system and a 90 percent rate of impunity, it is journalists who pay an immense price for revealing who is doing what or who is killing whom.

So how is this unhealthy environment affecting day-to-day reporting or decision-making by editors in Colombia? Certainly the primary and most damning effect is self-censorship. Before writing a story an editor and reporter must ponder how dangerous it is, for example, to publish information about the paramilitaries and their ties with the military. Or about Plan Colombia (the U.S.-funded strategy) and how it might change the military situation and improve hopes for peace. Or about drugs and drug traffickers who finance the war. Or about kidnapping and other crimes committed by the guerrillas.

Retribution for stories has happened to me. I wrote a column in El Tiempo about the growth of paramilitaries and how the abuses of the guerrillas against civilians fostered that growth. As a result, the guerrillas labeled me a sympathizer of the paramilitaries. But then when a story I wrote carried accusations of extreme elements within the military being close to the paramilitaries and being responsible for the murder of a journalist and comedian last year, I was labeled a guerrilla sympathizer.

The only thing I really sympathize with is the truth. But, in a conflict, the truth is one of the first casualties, and when a story or an editorial column gets close to it, the labels come first, the threats second, and exile or death will follow soon enough.

Therefore, journalists have had to be very careful about what they write or be ready to assume the consequences of what they’ve written.

That’s the main reason why more than 50 Colombian journalists are now in exile. Threats have become a common tool to silence the media, and though they’ve had an impact, especially in morale among journalists, their attempts haven’t been fully successful. Yes, members of the media have had to become more careful about how they treat sensitive information. Bylines have mostly disappeared on those types of stories, and at our newspaper we have tried to rotate reporters on dangerous beats. But if one is honest about the current situation, one must admit that stories that might have a significant impact haven’t been done due to the danger they carry.

But journalists also must accept some blame for what’s happening to them. Many stories, due to bad reporting, are so lopsided that any of the warmongers might interpret their content as a personal bias that has to be “rectified.” And these readers don’t send letters to the editor or to the ombudsman! This element of the danger hasn’t been studied as much as it should. But it should be, since in a society in conflict journalists and media play a huge role. And journalists, especially those in the electronic media, haven’t been as careful as they should be, and their sloppiness has had an impact in the terms of the political and military circumstances the country now faces. Those types of poorly reported stories underscore the power of the media, but they also put the lives of journalists in danger.

The war for ratings in television has had a terrible impact on journalism. A declaration by one of the warring factions attracts viewers, but often the event turns out to be more newsworthy than what is said. There’s no distance from the source and, obviously, the journalists are being used and manipulated. When television started interviewing the leader of the paramilitaries, Carlos Castaño, they gave him a political status that he had not had before. One of the journalists who did the initial interview is now in exile. In that interview, many of the tough questions were avoided and, therefore, the popularity of the interviewee shot up.

There’s too much interviewing of the violent leaders and eliminating of context around them and of running to get it out first. This race puts journalists in danger since the guerrillas, the paramilitaries, and the drug traffickers don’t spend a lot of time trying to understand the subtleties of who’s who. The media are their enemies.

The Colombian government hasn’t helped much. It’s impossible to protect journalists when the soldiers are unable to protect the common citizen. The government has created a task force to analyze cases and help those who are in most danger. It’s a big step, but it’s only a palliative that doesn’t solve the main problem: the real and present danger to journalists.

What can help things change? Without a doubt a successful peace process would help a lot. It would take out the two main “enemies” members of the press now have: the paramilitaries and the guerrillas. In Colombia, we will have to live with drug trafficking until the world realizes that it’s a health problem, not a police problem.

Yet if we were able to reduce our enemies from three to one, I’d take that improvement any time.

Francisco Santos, a 1992 Nieman Fellow, is an editor at El Tiempo. He has lived in exile since learning that a FARC guerrilla unit had scheduled his murder. In 1990 and 1991, Santos was kidnapped and held for eight months by a drug trafficking cartel. Later, Santos created Fundación País Libre (The Free Country Foundation) to help people cope with a kidnapping in their family through psychological counseling and tips about negotiating.

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