Awarding the 2020 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize to Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima held special significance for the press in her home country. It was the first time that the prize, created in 1997 in honor of a Colombian journalist who was killed by drug traffickers, returned home.
Bedoya Lima has dedicated more than 20 years of her journalistic life to covering the Colombian armed conflict and has fought for freedom of the press in the country because, among other things, she learned from Guillermo Cano himself to “defend, at all costs, the right of the people to be informed,” as she told the Knight Center in an interview.
“The courage and commitment of Jineth Bedoya Lima, doubly exposed to unacceptable risks as a woman and as a journalist, inspire profound respect,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, in an organizational statement. “We need the work of professional and independent journalists.”
Bedoya Lima is one of those journalists who needs few introductions. She was destined for journalism, as indicated by a profile made in the newspaper El Espectador, a publication which Bedoya started working for as judicial editor in 1999. "They were the days of the peace process of the Andrés Pastrana government in the Caguán region, but also of the onslaught of paramilitarism throughout the country, with an unpunished chapter of its incursion in Bogotá," the newspaper said.
Precisely because of this last topic, Bedoya began to investigate the world of prisons and their control by paramilitaries. Threats followed her investigations and on May 25, 2000, she was a victim of abduction, torture and sexual violence by members of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. The crime is still unpunished. Only three men have been convicted, but no intellectual author has been identified.
As she has said many times, she emerged from this episode "thanks to journalism." In 2002, she went to the newspaper El Tiempo where she is currently a general deputy editor. But she also dedicates another part of her life to her “It is not time to shut up” campaign created in 2009 to encourage women victims of violence, especially from the armed conflict, to report their violations.
Her journalistic work, and her fight against impunity not only in her crime but in that of other women victims of sexual violence, has been widely recognized. To her credit she has received awards such as the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF), the International Women of Courage Award presented by the United States Department of State and the International Press Freedom Award in Canada among others.
“In attributing the Press Freedom Prize to Jineth Bedoya Lima, the Jury recognizes and supports her outstanding courage and untiring commitment to uncovering issues of fundamental importance to society,” said Giselle Khoury, president of the Jury. “The Jury wished to join in Bedoya Lima’s forceful denunciation of increasing violence against women journalists in Latin America and many other parts of the world and her efforts to reverse this alarming global trend.”
And as with her previous awards, Bedoya Lima does not tire of emphasizing that they serve to recognize the work of women journalists.
“Although it is true that it falls on the shoulders of a person, in itself what it does is recognize the work that women do with journalism," she said. "I think that is very important to say because our situation as women communicators is very different from that of men.
Women journalists have to face discrimination, stigmatization, harassment and disadvantages many times with the beats covered, so it is a commendable job, and not only here in Latin America but in the world. And I do highlight the work that Latin American women journalists do because they are not easy times, because drug trafficking has led us to a state of anxiety in many countries in Latin America and still women have the courage to continue reporting at the risk of their own identity.”
The Knight Center spoke to Bedoya Lima about her recent award and the work she will now carry out as a result of this recognition.
Knight Center: It is the first time that this award has come back to Colombia. In fact, Ana María Busquets de Cano says that since the Foundation was created, they wanted the award to come back to the country. Do you think it will have an impact for Colombia and for the country's journalism?
Jineth Bedoya: Undoubtedly. I am very honored to be the first journalist to receive the Guillermo Cano distinction, first because I believe that he left us a legacy of commitment to the truth, to ethical journalism, to social responsibility and to defending at all costs the right that people have to be informed and to be accompanied by means of information. So being the first journalist to receive this distinction is a great honor, but above all it is a great responsibility. And, undoubtedly for Colombia, it has a very important meaning, but above all it will have very important repercussions because what the award mandates is not only to be recognized as someone who has worked for freedom of expression, but who also receives the mission of working so that freedom of expression is a reality for hundreds of male and female journalists.
And in Colombia we have regions where people communicate with the little they have, without financial resources, amid threats, amid intimidation, with official advertising that is selective when it comes to delivering resources, but also there are dynamics of corruption, where, unfortunately, in some cases there are public officials involved, there are state agents involved, so the responsibility is very great. That is why the award is so impactful for Colombia, and a year of hard work is coming so that what the award means can become a reality in many places in Colombia […] there is a lot of work to come for freedom of expression in Colombia and Latin America.
KC: Precisely regarding this, how much responsibility does this award mean for you? Do you have an idea what that year of work will be like?
JB: Yes it is a great responsibility. I think I have been in two very opposite states during the 24 hours after the announcement of the award: from absolute happiness in receiving one of the most important journalism awards worldwide, but on the other hand, there is fear, the fear that comes with taking on this responsibility, because so many people begin to see you as a reference on what you are going to do so that their voice is also valid. And that's where the burden is, in the good sense of the word, of what we really must do to make the award have a meaning but above all, have an impact in Colombia.
This is all very recent, but UNESCO has taken it upon itself to tell me "well, we are going to have a few days to think about what you want to do, how you want to manage it and what impact you want to give it." And I think I'm already thinking about that a bit, obviously with support of the Press Freedom Foundation, which does extraordinary work in Colombia, but without a doubt the first thing is going to be to have an updated snapshot of the impact on the press with this new crisis of COVID-19 and everything that it has brought us. […] We are going to focus a lot on that, on reviewing how the regional press is at the moment and how the press is going to be hit at the national level after we begin to overcome the crisis or in the midst of this coronavirus crisis.
KC: Does this mean it will be a kind of personal and perhaps local project?
JB: It is not so local because something that has attracted the attention of UNESCO, precisely after many years, is for the award to reach Latin America again and they want to make a very important emphasis on what press freedom looks like in the region. What I’m saying is what I initially think for Colombia because it is my number one objective, but it does come from a very regional perspective and, above all, a very gender-focused perspective because the award has highlighted that. It has highlighted the work I am doing on gender issues and how to make violence against women visible, and I think there is very little being done on the work of women journalists in Latin America. Yesterday in the middle of the press conference a colleague from Honduras asked precisely about that because the situation that they have had to face, especially when covering organized crime and drug trafficking, has had a much stronger impact for women, and I think, that this is also one of the goals, and we this idea with UNESCO of being able to take a regional look at the work of women journalists.
KC: You also spoke a little about the conditions of journalism in Colombia because this award specifically recognizes the work done on this issue. What do you think of press freedom in the country, what is the main threat?
JB: We have like two vectors at the moment. One is the continuing armed conflict. Although it is true that a peace agreement was reached with one of the actors in the armed conflict – the FARC guerrillas – we still have other groups that continue to cause harm. We also have the remnants of the former guerrilla and the rearrangement of criminal organizations that are causing a great deal of damage in the regions and in places where the State has never had a presence and, obviously at this juncture, they are taking advantage of this and filling those spaces that the FARC left.
And that is one of the biggest concerns we have because in the midst of that rearrangement many journalists have been threatened again. For many years, we have not known what this organization that calls itself Black Eagles is, but what we don’t really know is if they are people who are a part of state intelligence, hiding behind that organization – which we still don’t know if it exists or not – generating anxiety, especially in regions where support of the media is very weak, where democracy is very weak.
Additionally, there are threats and assassinations of social leaders and it must be remembered that many of these social leaders are journalists too, they are people who are dedicated to communication, who have their own media outlets in their communities, in their villages, in their localities, and that's a part.
But the other part, which is closely related to the same social situation that the country is experiencing and that can be summarized...in the protests, the marches and strikes that occurred in Colombia starting at the beginning of November last year and that extended until January of this year. The press unfortunately remained in the middle of that social confrontation with many attacks, intimidations, violence against journalists, ranging from damage to their cameras and work equipment, to intimidation and accusations for allegedly taking sides.
Those two vectors are the ones that concern us most at the national level because when this happens, because one day it will happen, the social outbreak will follow. And more [will come] after this: hunger, the social crisis that will be generated due to the impact of the coronavirus problem which will be reflected in that protest and in that social crisis, and the press will again, regrettably, be caught in the middle.
KC: On this last issue, on many occasions, the press finds opposition from citizens themselves in its fight for freedom of expression. What could the media and journalists do to gain an ally?
JB: The problem in Colombia, and not only in our country but in other countries in the region, is that the political confrontation permeated all spheres of society. It reached all sectors and that political confrontation has generated great divisions, very strong polarizations and the press is no stranger to that. Today in Colombia it is very difficult to have a high-profile discussion on political or economic issues, on social or security issues, because immediately the journalist is typecast on side A or on side B.
And the same anger that people carry, and the same situation of having to take sides leads to the journalist being rated as good or bad depending on what they report. It is very difficult to reach a middle ground when there is so much hatred and so much anger reflected in that polarization.
So to tell the journalist, ‘you have to do A or B,’ is almost like throwing seeds in the middle of the desert, because the same polarization, even if you do a good job, leads one of the sides to pigeonhole it to one side or the other.
What I believe is that journalists cannot lose track of to whom we have a responsibility. And we owe it to the people, to our readers, to those who follow us, but above all to those who do not have the possibility of speaking, of having a voice. And I believe that when social issues are covered, the fact is not that the journalist is on one side or the other, the fact is that the journalist knows how to accurately reflect and show what is in front of him. Don't just limit yourself to the short story, dig a little deeper. And we have lost that a bit. Digging and investigating I think gives us powerful tools to have authority when informing. That would be what I would recommend to journalists in the midst of this type of crisis where we do it well, they will point us out, but the best way to do it well is to dig, investigate, confront and have all the voices. Those are the basic norms of journalism and they have always been, and at this time it should not be an exception.
KC: You have been clear that you also engage in activism with your campaign. Have you been accused of taking sides because of it?
JB: Yes, there have been moments. I think I have received more criticism from the same journalists on the subject of engaging in activism than from the people. Because people end up feeling that the person who has access to a media outlet and who has the possibility of reaching many people ends up being my escape route to be able to tell what is affecting me and what is causing me pain.
But in the case of journalists, there is a lot of resistance to believe that one can do activism from the basis of journalism.
When I was part of the delegation of victims in the peace process with the FARC in Havana, there was a sector that rejected my participation because they said that I was going to Havana to wash the sins of the guerrillas when it was totally the opposite. I decided to go so that I could tell the guerrillas directly what they couldn’t tell the country. But some people didn't take it that way. It is very difficult when the issues you touch or the issues you face have political and social implications with long-standing wounds that are open and have been impossible to heal.
But I continue to believe and I support it, I think it is part of the banner of my work, and that is that journalism and activism are compatible when they are done for a social cause and when they are done to transform someone's life.
That's why I do it, that's why I have a campaign and that's why I dedicate half of my time to my work as a journalist and the other half to drive a campaign that aims to make visible a topic that nobody has wanted to talk about since forever.
KC: Your colleagues and friends point out that talking about Jineth Bedoya is talking about the fight against impunity. The fight has been 20 years long, perhaps with more obstacles than victories. Where do you find the strength to continue?
JB: Being able to give someone a voice I think is the best reward for reporting, even though someone does not get the answers they are looking for. When you set out and embark on this fight for justice, every day you are asking yourself questions about why, where is it, who did it, why did they do it, what motivated them, and every day you expect answers but the common denominator is that the answers never come. And in the midst of that, to be able to start to get voices that say, 'I am going to report it, and I am going to say, and I am going to tell, that is going to make me feel better,' I think it is an incentive to do this work, because in the end there are no answers from the judiciary, but, yes there are responses from humanity; yes there are responses from people, as such, to say, 'well, I cannot see my victimizer in prison, but I was able to speak and that was a load lifted from me to have strength and to be able to continue my job, support my children, support my family, develop as a professional, or become a housewife or do a job and an entrepreneurial project.’
Speaking allows many things, even if justice is not there in front of us. And that has happened to me. In other words, there are 20 years in which there has been more sadness than achievement and answers while fighting to find justice. But in the end, when one realizes that the work is no longer for you but for the people that you meet along the way, that has to give you strength. And I have done that through journalism so it is like a complement. It is to understand that giving a voice to many people through the work that one does ends up being their true justice.
And, also, I want to see it that way because otherwise I wouldn’t be here, because one ends up getting engulfed in the pain and anxiety that lead to a state of depression and no future that so that it is impossible to continue. You have to try to find the best, the best of the worst situation you can face.