By Daniela Roscero Cervantes*
Journalists in Colombia warned that declining working conditions for the press could become more pronounced in 2022, an election year. The Federation of Colombian Journalists (Fecolper, by its Spanish acronym), released a report titled “Unprotected” on Feb. 9, the Day of the Journalist in Colombia, assessing the state of journalism and the challenges Colombian journalists face.
The constitution protects freedom of expression and of the press, but according to journalist Juan Fraile, who currently hosts a radio program for Caracol, election coverage has become more difficult over the course of his long career.
“It is increasingly more the case that candidates are not the ones being scrutinized by the media and the people,” Fraile said. “The parties and the candidates have flipped it on us, so that people are scrutinizing the media and doubting our information constantly.”
Fraile says the pandemic has provided opportunities for restricting journalistic activity.
“There were no press conferences, you could not question public officials, and information started to be managed through statements and edited material sent to journalists. So the journalists’ function to question and go deeper on certain topics was lost,” he said. “Public officials simply talked about the things they wanted to talk about, and avoided questions from the press.”
According to the Felcoper report, journalists and media outlets faced especially high barriers and state aggression in 2021.
“[Last year] was without a doubt one of the darkest years for the freedoms and rights of journalists and citizens in Colombia, unfortunately prompted by the state’s mistakes and some of its officials,” the report states.
Felcoper directly calls out President Iván Duque for delegitimizing the press in favor of a social media-centered strategy.
“Reports indicate that at least 7.3 million dollars (26 billion Colombian pesos), from the public budget were spent in his program of institutional government communication,” the report states.
Mónica Pardo, an independent journalist with more than a decade of experience, says the types of information official sources release has made journalists’ jobs more demanding.
“All messages are very pre-prepared, so investigative journalism is required to really get to the bottom of the facts,” she said.
While citing a 2021 report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Felcoper warned that attacks on the press are on the rise.
“There were stigmatizing labels that encouraged citizens to reject press outlets who have different editorial lines from the preferences of some politicians and officials,” the report states.
Felcoper also warned that the situation is exacerbated by political tensions like polarization, especially in a year with both congressional and presidential elections.
“Fecolper urges journalists to cover the 2022 elections responsibly, where information is directly related to public interest, without political alliances, and centered in electoral pedagogy,” the report states.
Ximena Forero Arango, a professor at the University of Antioquia, said she hopes independent journalists will be successful in covering elections fairly, but the task is a great challenge.
“I trust that independent journalism is doing and will continue to do a good job [covering the elections], but in recent years… even if the media points things out, it’s news for a day and the next day we move on to something else,” she said.
The report places special emphasis on the challenges journalists working in remote regions and independent journalists face.
“[They] have seen their work as well as their quality of life systematically affected by a state that is apathetic to what happens to our democracy,” the report states.
Pardo says journalists are generally underpaid.
“[Being a journalist] is living in uncertainty because one month you can have a lot of work, but be unemployed the next, and one just rides that roller coaster of instability,” she said.
César Alzate Vargas, another journalism professor at the University of Antioquia, says one of his biggest worries is the instability of labor in the field.
“I’m constantly asking myself what will become of my students once they’re in the job market,” Alzate said. “It’s a fundamental right for every worker to live from their work, and when you pay a journalist a salary just above minimum wage, you are condemning them to live in bad conditions.”
The situation is dreadful in certain parts of the country, Fraile said.
“Journalists know when their shift starts but not when their shift ends, and that is not reflected in the pay of extra hours or other types of remuneration that a worker should have,” he said. “Many end up doing the job with very low salaries or even decide to do it for free.”
Although Alzate says freedom of expression is, in most cases, decently protected, journalists working in remote areas are most vulnerable to attacks.
“The further away from big cities you get, the more you find journalists who continue to work bravely in informing with independence and quality, but who are also scared,” he said. “There is a constant threat against more local media.”
The report also calls candidates to action, reminding them that the weakening of the press should be part of the political agenda. “Journalism has slowly been weakened by the destitution of the state and society itself, which has cornered it, especially in (remote) regions, economically, socially, with no guarantee of rights, a sexist focus and in which the state has paradoxically been the greatest perpetrator of infringements,” the report states.
Colombia’s Foundation for the Freedom of the Press (FLIP, by its Spanish acronym) has already documented more than 50 attacks against press freedom this year, including instances of internet censorship, judicial harassment and threats to the media.
“In my experience, I think journalists are very strong, and the media is still strong,” Fraile said. “(But) we are seeing less analytical content and more vulgar battles between candidates in newspaper front pages.”
*This story was produced as an assignment for the class “Journalism and Press Freedom in Latin America,” at the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism and Media.
Daniela Roscero Cervantes is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, and is studying History and Journalism. She has written various stories for the Daily Texan and hopes to support the work of Latin American journalists in the future.
(Story illustration credit: Abriella Corker)