In Colombia, the role of the journalist has always been open to debate. Do we just report the daily atrocities or try to find ways to stop them? Just reporting what goes on in my country is perilous enough—34 journalists, men and women—have been killed trying to do their jobs during the pastdecade; three were killed this year [numbers based on research from the Committee to Protect Journalists]. Millions of Colombians have demonstrated in the streets, asking for peace. And Media for Peace, a network of more than 100 journalists led by Gloria de Castro, tries to influence reporters to write more balanced accounts.
Of course, trying to point to solutions can be a dangerous role for journalists, too. Many reporters and editors have been forced to leave Colombia because of what they have published. Still, despite the risks, I strongly believe that journalists must not only expose injustices but also try to improve the situation of countries as troubled as mine. When I graduated from Bogotá’s Javeriana University in 1984, I wrote “The Social Responsibility of the Journalist” as my thesis; carrying out that mission remains my goal. As a journalist, I try to find out from all of the factions what their perspectives are, no matter what the personal danger might be. I’ve become accustomed to the risks and have interviewed not only the leader of the right-wing paramilitary forces, but also the military leader of the leftist FARC, the largest revolutionary force in Colombia.
The Macho World of News Reporting
There are many issues that all journalists in Colombia confront, but there are also ones that are particular to women who work in an environment often described as the macho world of Latin American male-dominated media. New York Times correspondent Juan Forero recently wrote that media in Colombia don’t treat women very seriously: “Beauty is a national obsession in Colombia, readily apparent on the nightly newscasts, which often end with shots of bikini-clad young women.” A week later, at Colombia’s national beauty pageant, 400 journalists were accredited to cover it. In his article, Forero went on to observe that “it is clear when talking to contestants that while winning is paramount, losing is not bad either…. After all, newscasts are stocked with former contestants.”
Florence Thomas, a leading professor at National University in Bogotá, regards such overwhelming media attention for such an event as “humiliating.” “For me,” she says, “[the beauty pageant] is like a horse fair….” And attitudes that accompany such events serve to undermine advancement of Colombian women in other fields; for example, only 30 of the 263-member Congress are women, despite the fact that urban Colombian women now attend universities in great numbers.
In this macho media environment, it is perhaps not surprising that when I began working in journalism I did not receive important reporting assignments. Those were tacitly reserved for men. So I looked for key issues to write about and, progressively, I became a very happy workaholic as I pursued my own investigations. When I finished, I presented my material to top editors. At first, they were astonished, but they grew accustomed to what I would produce and published my reports that probed deep into the Colombian drug cartels, into institutional corruption and the infiltration of drug money at the highest levels of government (more than a dozen politicians went to jail), and into Colombia’s violence and human rights abuses.
“Are you crazy? Why do you write about such dangerous issues?” relatives and friends would ask me. Some wanted me to forget my idealism about using my journalistic skills to try to help my country. Others strongly recommended that I lead a “normal” woman’s life and forget traveling to war zones. Their advice sounded like this: “What kind of life is that of constantly receiving death threats?” “Why waste your youth trying to understand the unsolvable problems of Colombia?” “Get married and have lots of kids.” “One of these days, they will kill you.” I listened, but it just didn’t sound right to me to surrender. I repeated to myself that I had to try. And the criticisms diminished as I began to win prestigious awards for my reporting.
Yet, so many times I found myself in troubling situations that today I think it is a miracle that I am alive. Ambassador Swanee Hunt, the director of the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, thinks that perhaps the reason I was not killed on some of my dangerous assignments is that I am a woman. In an article she wrote in Foreign Policy about her work with Women Waging Peace, she noted that when I traveled alone for eight hours into the jungle to interview the paramilitary leader Castaño, I went “where a man could not go.” She suggests that I looked like a “harmless woman” and therefore was allowed to cross some boundaries. And my former boss at Semana magazine said of me in Brill’s Content, “She looks harmless and she has that sweet little voice, but when she is interviewing, she is like a rottweiler. She bites and she doesn’t let go.”
Though I always try to look for the human side of stories, I don’t think this perspective can be exclusively categorized as being a woman’s one. But, interestingly enough, last year, 122 international women leaders in journalism, surveyed by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), overwhelmingly agreed that women bring a different, more “human,” perspective to the news: 92 percent responded that their presence in the profession makes a difference in how the news is covered.
While coverage of our nation’s conflict has been my primary goal, I also reported a 10-article series in El Tiempo about the shortage of books. Two million Colombian children didn’t have the money to buy them. Ironically, in many rural regions, children have more access to guns than to books. What followed was a two-year campaign that I led in which 30 public and private institutions provided more than two million books to poor students throughout the country.
Ongoing Struggles of Women Journalists
I had to leave Colombia in 1999 because of death threats and a gunman trying to kill me. Occasionally, I return to war regions to try to show the complexity of the situation of my country to an international audience, publishing articles and op-ed pieces in The Boston Globe, The Miami Herald, and CNN.com, among others.
In the meantime, some women colleagues, such as 27-year-old Jineth Bedoya, confront very difficult situations in trying to do their jobs. On May 25, 2000, when she went to a Bogotáarea prison where she expected to interview a paramilitary leader, Bedoya was kidnapped and raped. She was found in a garbage dump. In time, she returned to her job, and she continues to report atrocities.
Earlier this year, a U.S. State Department report on human rights dedicated a section to the situation of Colombian women in which it states that “rape and other acts of violence are pervasive. Women face an increased threat of torture and sexual assault due to the internal conflict.” Unfortunately, violence inside their homes is rising as well. Experts believe that 95 percent of all abuse against women is never reported to authorities. Nor are such crimes generally covered by the Colombian press. Many reporters are simply overwhelmed by the increasing intensification of the nation’s conflict in which 35,000 people have been killed during the past decade. Recently, the situation has been getting worse as extra-judicial executions and forced disappearances are becoming more common. One Colombian is murdered every 20 minutes.
In this environment, Jineth Bedoya’s treatment received media attention because it was the first known case of a journalist being tortured and raped by alleged sources. As an expression of my support, I nominated her for the International Women’s Media Foundation’s annual award, which she received. At the ceremony in October, she said that “this award not only acknowledges the conditions for journalists in Colombia, but hundreds of women who have suffered rape and humiliation like I have, but who continue to live their lives.”
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), last year was devastating for Colombian journalists. Seven were murdered for reasons possibly related to their work, including two women. María Elena Salinas (a freelance journalist) was found dead on February 20, 2000, in Antioquia, along with two members of a guerrilla group. According to the CPJ, Salinas was investigating armed conflicts in the Antioquia region at the time of her death. On July 4, Marisol Revelo Barón was killed in Tumaco, a town in the southwestern part of Colombia. She had worked as a news director for Radio Mira, an affiliate of the Caracol Radio network in Tumaco, and as a local reporter for Teletumaco and Impacto television channels. Others have received credible threats. Journalist Mireya Álvarez Ramírez says that 10 FARC members have threatened her. She is the owner of a bimonthly newspaper La Palma en Facetas, operating in a town outside Bogotá. The FARC ordered her to leave the country in 30 days, otherwise she would be killed. In her newspaper, she often reported on guerrilla tactics such as the forced recruitment of peasants.
Reflecting on the Status of Women Journalists
Last year, I was invited by the International Women’s Media Foundation to participate in a closed-door meeting in Washington and to become an active member of the organization. Since then, I’ve become more aware of and interested in exploring the causes of the gender inequalities in the media workplace and in seeking ways to possibly overcome these situations. In a detailed survey presented last July to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) 24th Congress in Seoul, South Korea, it was revealed that despite women comprising about 38 percent of the worldwide work force in journalism, fewer than three percent of media executive posts are held by women. The IFJ survey is the most comprehensive of its kind, with answers from unions in 40 countries representing 300,000 journalists.
As a journalist who has had the opportunity to be in management positions (as editor, adviser to the director, and director of investigations of three of the most important Colombian news organizations), these findings were very compelling. It is important to take into account that not more than 50 years ago, journalism used to be an almost exclusively male profession. According to the IFJ, even in 1972 a brochure issued by the German Federal Employment Agency stated that women lack the “sang-froid” and the analytical capacity needed to become a journalist.
Today female journalists still have to overcome similar barriers if they want to reach their potential. According to IFJ and IWMF, some of these obstacles include stereotypic assumptions and attitudes toward women, difficult work environments, and social and personal obstacles. Also, during the mid-1990’s, Media Watch did a survey that revealed that most news stories showed women as victims, failed to provide women’s last names, and neglected to mention most women’s professions. In a 1996 IWMF survey of women in 44 countries, 64 percent of respondents said they believed that women are not portrayed accurately in the media. Some 67 percent said the media ignore women leaders.
Such findings indicate the importance of providing more coverage about women in positions of power and of taking the lead in changing the readers’ perception of women. According to a UNESCO study in South America, women are 25 percent of the regional media workforce, but are more likely to hold part-time jobs and to work in administrative positions rather than editorial. When asked in a recent IWMF survey about what would most benefit women journalists, respondents in Central and South America said, “more women in leadership and management positions in the media” (68 percent) and “meeting and networking with women journalists in other Latin American countries” (57 percent).
After learning this information, I accepted an invitation to become part of the advisory committee of the IWMF Latin American Initiative. This will address the needs of women journalists by providing them opportunities to gain skills they need (through training programs) to be regarded and treated as competent professionals. And it will enhance women’s access to decision-making levels in critical numbers. In May, we had a meeting in Ecuador to discuss proposals. We also had three leadership training programs that involved 75 Latin American journalists who remain in active contact through e-mail. In addition to a strong interest in management training, participants said they wanted training in journalism skills, specifically in investigative reporting and new technologies. Maureen Bunyan, who heads this advisory committee, believes that “the news media will not change in Latin America until there is a critical mass of women working at all levels of the profession.”
IWMF was launched in 1990 with the goal of strengthening the role of women in the news media worldwide, based on the belief that no press is truly free unless women share an equal voice. Perhaps male-dominated media executives should take into account the interesting results of the Glass Ceiling Research Center’s project, published in November’s Harvard Business Review. The center tracked the number of women in high-ranking positions at 215 Fortune companies between 1980 and 1998 and compared their financial performance to industry medians. It determined there is a strong correlation between a company’s profits and the number of female senior executives in its ranks. The author concludes that those companies that are slow to move women into top executive positions might pay a high price.
Two-thirds of women journalism leaders who responded to a recent IWMF survey consider that women’s presence in the newsroom has far-reaching implications for news context, work environments, and even the whole society. As Bogotá Professor Florence Thomas has observed, “The advances of a country should be measured by the advances of its women.” In Colombia, and in Latin and South America, how women advance in journalism will be a measuring tool well worth watching.
María Cristina Caballero, a 1997 Nieman Fellow, began working in journalism when she was 16. Her reporting in Colombia has received numerous awards, including several Simón Bolívar Prizes (the most important journalism award in Colombia), the Inter American Press Association Human Rights Award, and the 1999 Committee to Protect Journalists World Press Freedom Award. After multiple threats to her life, she left her native country and is studying for a master’s degree in the Mason Program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.