Dismissal and rehiring of Colombian columnist provokes debate about journalism in the country

Colombian journalist Daniel Coronell’s column from June 16 was without a doubt one of his most anticipated. It was assumed that he would explain his reasons for returning to the magazine Semana after being fired in an act that led to great controversy in the country.

The cancellation of the column on May 28 sparked a debate in the country about the journalistic profession, including issues censorship, the relationship of the press with governmental and economic powers, and corruption within journalism itself.

The denunciations that Coronell made in his column had consequences in Colombia, not surprisingly as he was the most read columnist in the country. That's why his departure did not go unnoticed.

It was not only Coronell’s journalistic prestige that generated the debate, but the reason that appeared to lead to the cancellation of his column: criticizing, in his journalistic space, Semana’s decision to not publish an investigation and asking for an explanation about its reasons for not doing so.

Daniel Coronell. (Photo: Twitter)

Daniel Coronell. (Photo: Twitter)

The situation began when The New York Times published an article on May 18 in which it gave an account of instructions to the interior of the Armed Forces to increase results in the fight against criminal organizations.

The concern among some officers who spoke with Nicholas Casey – the journalist who authored the article – was that these orders could revive the dark era of so-called "false positives" – extrajudicial executions of civilians who were posed as criminals by some members of the military and that had their peak between 2006 and 2009.

The article generated so much controversy in Colombia that the Times decided Casey and photojournalist Federico Ríos should leave the country for security reasons. Some public officials began a campaign of stigmatization against the journalists despite the fact that Ríos did not even participate in the production of the aforementioned article.

Three days later, the digital site La Silla Vacía published an article in which it described how the information published in The Times was in the hands of Semana magazine for months, but that it was never published. The article offered three versions regarding allegedly how the investigation was shelved, including one in which the outlet’s relationship with the government may have had influence. Alejandro Santos, the director of the magazine, denied this.

In the column titled “The pending explanation,” Coronell decided to use his space to question his own media outlet for this decision, as he explained in a column published by The New York Times on June 6.

Before the publication of the column requesting the explanation, Coronell told Santos about his plans. The editor said it was “unjust,” but that he would not prevent its publication, as Coronell wrote in The Times.

Santos also asked Coronell to eliminate a sentence in which the journalist said he would assume the consequences of his criticism, because according to what Santos told the journalist – according to the Times column – he would not allow anything to happen to Coronell.

However, two days after this criticism was published, one of the owners of Semana, Felipe López, announced to Coronell that he would no longer have a space in the magazine as of the following week, the journalist reported on his Twitter account.

In an editorial, Semana recognized four errors at the time of the development of the journalistic investigation – one of them, not having published the information they had at the time. It also assured that the investigation on the subject continues and that it will publish it in the future when they know that sources are not in danger. Semana said that “there were several flaws in the process, but never “political convenience.” Regarding Coronell, it simply said that they regretted “the exit,” but did not explain it or call it a dismissal.

Coronell, who did call his exit a dismissal, defended in his Times’ column the obligations that he believes a media outlet has to discuss its editorial decisions.

“In this era, more than any other in history, media are subject to citizen scrutiny,” Coronell wrote in that column. “They must publicly explain their decisions because they have equally public implications. I really hope that Semana, which has a brilliant journalistic record, comes out stronger.”

“As for me, I still have a question: was it worth risking, and finally losing, my opinion space to prove this? The answer is yes. I really wanted my Semana column because I could publish investigations, give opinions and ask difficult questions to power, including the power of my employer. If it did not work for that, it was useless,” Coronell concluded his column.

And indeed his column sparked a debate about the power of the press, and the influence other powers have over it.

However, Coronell’s return to Semana changed the perspective a bit. As stated by La Silla Vacía, his return "demonstrates the power of the audience in the new business models of the media." When Coronell’s dismissal was announced, the number of Semana’s followers on social networks fell dramatically and some subscribers publicly announced that they would cancel it, La Silla Vacía added.

This further added to a debate already underway in the country: whether it was prudent on Coronell’s part to return to the magazine, if he would remain as independent as he had been and what was behind that negotiation. The conversations concerning his return took place in Miami, where Coronell lives, with Alejandro Santos and María López, president of Semana publications and daughter of Felipe, who fired Coronell, according to Semana.

In his column "Volver" (To return), Coronell cleared some of those doubts that he said he had received in the days prior to his return to the magazine, which was announced on June 11. The first thing he said is he would not stop expressing his disagreement with the editorial decisions he may have with Semana. "I'll be back because Semana guarantees my independence," he wrote.

He also said that during the talks there was no talk of receiving more money, and that his relationship with Semana is stronger. He maintained that it is the duty of the media to be subject to public scrutiny.

“The media, although they are private companies, aim to inform about issues of public interest. For that reason they must be open to citizen scrutiny and offer explanations about what they publish or stop publishing. My request has been firm but respectful. Firmness is not arrogance, pride, or haughtiness,” wrote Coronell, who is also president of News for Univisión in the United States.

The Knight Center tried to communicate with Daniel Coronell and Alejandro Santos, but received no response at the time this article was published.

Journalism in Colombia at the center of the debate

Yet, before learning of Coronell’s return to the magazine, his case ignited a debate about the role of journalism.

Two of the four columnists at Semana pointed to Coronell as "arrogant" and lacking in prudence when criticizing his own media outlet so openly. Even María Jimena Duzán spoke of a "dictatorship of audiences in this era of networks and how manipulable the truth is in these times.” Daniel Samper Ospina, another of the magazine's columnists, supported Coronell and said that Semana’s decision had been a mistake.

For Javier Darío Restrepo, a professor of the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism (FNPI) and a reference for journalistic ethics in the region, what Coronell did was "a demonstration of admirable independence and honesty," according to a column he wrote for the FNPI site.

Restrepo told the Knight Center that pointing to Coronell as arrogant is "understandable" because the journalist is being seen "as a simple subordinate within a traditional power structure," who is denied criticism and opinion. However, for him, "the informative omission of the magazine was a public fact and it was about the denial of a public right to information. These issues should be discussed in public since the reader is more than a simple client. This is one of the points that, in this case, have emerged: what is the place of the reader?”

“From submission, or from the arrogance of power, any criticism is unacceptable audacity. Everything depends, therefore, on the position that is given to the media and its function,” he said.

Revista Semana. (Screenshot)

Revista Semana. (Screenshot)

For Restrepo, Coronell's dismissal was "a misplaced gesture of power," and he said his reinstatement was an attempt to regain trust and subscribers because the credibility Semana “was seriously affected.”

The FNPI professor considers that a “fundamental” issue to improve journalism in Colombia is to overcome the idea of the journalist as “just another salaried employee.”

“The relationships in a newsroom are of the team, not of employers and employees as in any factory or company. It is necessary to understand that that of a media outlet is a different structure. This is a public service company (one of information) in the hands of private businessmen who provide a public service,” Restrepo explained. "This gives newspapers and public information companies a character dominated by the service and the public that subordinate the economic and the sense of power.”

One of the facts highlighted during the Coronell case was the public’s distrust of the media in general. According to the Trust Barometer from Edelman 2019, just 44 percent of Colombians who participated in the study trust them.

So for Fernando Alonso Ramírez, editor of the newspaper La Patria of Manizales and president of the Board of Directors of the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) of Colombia, Colombian media can take advantage of this episode to improve those flaws, which will lead to more trust from the audience, according to what he told the Knight Center.

This can be done, he believes, without falling to the "dictatorship of audiences." For Ramírez it is serious that the message remains that Coronell’s return to Semana was produced exclusively by the intervention of the audiences "because it would be a terrible signal."

“I always prefer what Jack Fuller said, and I paraphrase him: a media outlet is important because it represents the values of a community, but it is much more important when it questions those values, and this principle is at risk because of the dictatorship of the click,” Ramírez said.

“Coronell’s return needs to be understood as an important gesture of the media outlet to reconsider and correct. And that is very valuable,” he added later.

Ramírez also highlighted two worrisome issues in the framework of this debate. The first is that within hours of the announcement of Coronell's return to Semana, a community radio journalist was killed in the south of the country. However, this news did not get as much attention as "the departure and return of the columnist director of an international media outlet to the country’s main magazine."

“It seems that we forget that there is no worse violation of press freedom than the murder of a journalist,” said Ramírez, who clarified that it is not a responsibility of Coronell, but of what matters to the media.

The second is the lack of debate about the news itself.

“What I lament most of the dismissal from Semana is that dozens of columns have been written on the importance of having good columnists, and another group regrets the departure of this columnist, but far fewer question that the terrible episode of extrajudicial executions, known with the terrible euphemism of false positives, could have returned to Colombia,” Ramírez said.

For both Restrepo and Ramírez, the crisis that the Coronell case sparked can also be exploited by the media to improve their work and their approach to audiences.

“Centered on their concern to survive within the turmoil caused by digital technology, journalism thought little or none about maintaining its identity within this vortex of changes. As the crisis deepens, journalism is rediscovering its identity, especially the role that corresponds to it in the life of today's society. This is, in my opinion, one of the paths that are opened as opportunities," Restrepo said.

For his part, Ramírez believes that it is time to do better journalism. “Trust is gained by showing that you try to make the best journalism and that is built on a day-to-day basis, not with punches from time-to-time.”

“For the media, we have to learn that we need to make our internal decisions more transparent, that audiences know how we resolve our dilemmas, but that we do not lose the ability to confront those audiences when appropriate,” Ramírez said. “Now, I'm still hoping that the murder of a journalist in Colombia will be treated with the same or more seriousness than the removal of a journalist’s column.”