Colombian freedom of expression organization bets on the development of local journalism in 'news deserts'

When the Foundation for Press Freedom of Colombia completed its three-year project “Cartographies of Information,” the panorama of the country was not encouraging: 60 percent of the municipalities analyzed were considered information deserts, meaning there was no media outlet producing local information.

There could be cases in which there were media outlets, such as radio stations or television channels, but these were either national or were exclusively entertainment.

For this reason, FLIP felt the need to create a project that would encourage the creation of local information in these places. This is how Ruedas Creando Redes (Wheels Creating Networks) was born. It’s a laboratory of mobile journalism that for the next two years will travel to 10 municipalities considered information deserts

FLIP's Ruedas Creando Redes initiative from Colombia

As part of the Ruedas Creando Redes initiative, a container travels around Colombia to help build local media. (Courtesy)

"I feel that Cartographies of Information opens a sort of new paradigm in terms of press freedom because if we defend press freedom, it is to seek an informed society," Pedro Vaca, executive director of FLIP, told the Knight Center. "And of course that informed society is restricted when there are threats, murders of journalists or when impunity is not overcome, but that right to an informed society is also affected when there is no offer of media outlets, when the restriction comes from not having information.”

Vaca said that the experience of Cartographies allowed them to approach the regions not to document violence, but to document "from the shoes and ears of citizens."

"The truth is that when we notice that there are a lot of places in the country where while people may be listening to television and seeing what is happening in Bogotá, they do not always have the possibility of knowing in what state the bridge is that is one kilometer away. Ruedas goes there," he added.

Chaparral, in the department of Tolima, was the first municipality to see the arrival of a mobile container equipped with everything necessary to teach journalism workshops that cover all possible media: from radio, to television, to new technologies, as María Camila Moreno, researcher at the Center for Studies on Freedom of Expression of FLIP and coordinator of the project Ruedas Creando Redes, told the Knight Center.

To do it, FLIP obtained a grant of US $198,000 from the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF).

The project will work with five municipalities in the department of Tolima (including Chaparral) and five in Cesar, and the container will stay in each one for seven weeks.

Several characteristics were taken into account in choosing them, Moreno said. The municipalities of the project, in addition to being information deserts, were also prioritized in the peace agreements between the Colombian Government and the FARC guerrillas. In these municipalities there are other types of social projects, Moreno explained, which is why they are a great opportunity to strengthen the journalism laboratory.

Chaparral, for example, is one of the places where one of the 20 stations that were agreed upon in the aforementioned peace agreement will be opened, explained Moreno. These are stations shared between the government and former members of the FARC.

For that reason, among the 30 people that are part of Ruedas Creando Redes in Chaparral are some people who will be in this station. According to Moreno, the idea is that those who take these journalism classes are not journalists, but members of social organizations, with organizational processes "established in each municipality.”

In Chaparral, in addition to the people from this station, there are also some young people from a Facebook page, which is a reference in the municipality, as well as women from an indigenous association, Moreno said. She said that as they don’t want professional journalists to participate, the laboratory is open to members of organizations whose objective is not necessarily aimed a communication: they can be environmental organizations or human rights collectives, to mention a few.

But the container seeks to be much more than a classroom. It has also become a meeting place for the residents of the municipality.

"The idea is that two things are done in this space. One is the program in local information production. There are 80 hours of classes (...) not only theoretical but practical classes," Moreno explained. "And two is that as the container is in the municipality all the time, and the classes are during weekends, this becomes a cultural space for the municipality. It’s not just the 30 participants of the program who use it, but all people from the municipality.”

For example, the container in Chaparral has been used to do a modeling clay workshop on memory and history of the conflict, there was a photographic exhibition of the women's network, and this week, there will be a workshop on humor journalism with people from Actualidad Panamericana – a satirical publication in the country.

Workshops that become reality

The journalism school is done with high standards of journalism that would be sufficient for the participants to propose a communication initiative that will become a reality.

For example, the curriculum was made by Marcelo Franco, director of the journalism master's program in a journalism school in the city of Cali and a frequent contributor of the FLIP.

Although FLIP has one person in the field, Carolina Arteta, there are other workshops that have additional guidance. For example, the session on radio and podcast was given by a person from the Ministry of Culture, and Juan Camilo Maldonado – from new media site Mutante – will give a workshop on new media. There are also sessions on self-management models.

"The objective is to offer tools to continue producing information from their organizations once we leave the municipality," Moreno said. "Also for networks to be created – hence the name of the project – between the same organizations, between the municipalities and that collaborative work between the organizations is started. And that at the end of the two months there is at least one communication initiative that they propose."

Ruedas Creando Redes initiative's workshop

FLIP is carrying out journalism workshops in a mobile laboratory that travels around the country. (Courtesy)

This initiative does not necessarily have to be a media outlet, but it does need to generate local information, and it can be supported by the FLIP. This organization will do technical follow-ups, and in some cases will provide resources to start it.

Although just a little more than 15 days have gone by since Ruedas Creando Redes started, the assessment is positive, Moreno said.

"People are very animated, people are super connected with the workshops. There are organizations that do not come from scratch because they have had programs on commercial stations or have paid for a space from time to time, but they are acquiring many tools and that is why they are super motivated," Moreno said.

"A very cool group was created. There are many who come from villages that are far away, because Chaparral is very big, there are some who come [from places] four hours [away] and do the tour every Friday, every Saturday (...). A very nice atmosphere has been created, which is also our interest. That these networks are created between them," she added.

The support has not only come from the community, but also from the local authorities. Taking into account that the municipalities in which they will work also were and are some of the most affected by the armed conflict, support from people who can provide security is also a priority.

According to Moreno, before the laboratory reached Chaparral, FLIP spoke with the authorities of the municipality and the department, and they have had constant support from the Mayor's Office and the National Police whose members make constant rounds during the workshops and other activities.

"Both for the participants and for us, we have a security protocol that was formulated by the area of Coordination of Attention to Journalists," Moreno explained. "Key aspects every time participants leave their homes, when they return. A monitoring always of the transfers especially those that are outside the urban center.”

The container that arrived Chaparral on June 14 will stay until July 27. From there it will go to Rioblanco, Planadas, Ataco and Cajamarca to complete the project in Tolima. Then it will travel to Cesar.