At one point, the colombian journalist Ricardo Calderón defined himself as “one of journalism’s unknown soldiers.” He did not exaggerate. Calderón’s investigations have impacted the country, going beyond being the usual media scandal that these generate and have had tangible consequences like “the removal, arrest and prosecution of dozens of suspected officials,” according to the award release that announced Calderón as one of the winners of the 2020 Maria Moors Cabot Prize.
However, Calderón has almost always been in the anonymity, particularly within non-journalistic circles. He has kept this way as a protection measure, but especially because he strongly believes that a journalist’s role is not to be the protagonist but rather “that the investigation and complaints serve to make the corrupt visible and contribute to improving society.”
Little by little, his name has come to the spotlight on occasions and in an unfortunate way, because his life has been at risk: in 2013 he suffered an attack and in 2019, as he said in an interview, he lived one of his “toughest” years due to the threats and intimidation against his family.
The "comfort of [his] cave," as he has defined that anonymity, has also been greatly affected, much to his regret, on account of the different awards he has won. In 2013, he received the Life and Work of the Simón Bolívar National Journalism Award from his country. In February of this year, he received the King of Spain Award, and recently the Moors Cabot, presented by the Columbia University School of Journalism, which recognizes “journalists for career excellence and coverage of the Western Hemisphere that furthers inter-American understanding.”
“For his courageous work, Calderón has been repeatedly harassed and received serious death threats. In 2013, he survived an assassination attempt after unidentified assailants shot his car outside Bogotá,” the award release stated. “In this age of social media saturation, Calderón continues to cultivate a low profile, publishing his investigations anonymously.”
LatAm Journalism Review spoke to Calderón about the significance of this award, what it means to do journalism in Colombia and the stories that have marked his life in his long trajectory to which he arrived without “bigger expectations” and which he eventually discovered was the career that he wanted to dedicate his “entire life” to.
LJR: The jury of the award recognized you for 25 years of investigations and your bravery. What does the Maria Moors Cabot Prize mean to you? How do you feel about receiving it?
RC: Without a doubt it is an immense honor that an unknown journalist like me has been picked to receive one of the most known journalism awards like the Maria Moors Cabot. I take it as a recognition to all the anonymous journalists that, far from pretending to obtain fame, they look for stories and investigations that help the community and the society.
LJR: This award looks to recognize the inter-American understanding through journalism. Currently, what is the most important story in the continent? Which would that be in Colombia?
RC: Due to the regional impact that it will have, I believe that the story of Alex Saab, the man captured in Cape Verde and who was identified as the main figurehead of the Nicolás Maduro regime, could end up having a big importance in several countries of the continent. Research so far shows that it was a key piece of the Venezuelan government to carry out a variety of multimillion dollar businesses and others unknown that passed through several countries such as Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Colombia and Venezuela, just to mention those in the region. At this time, one of the most relevant stories in Colombia has to do with the judicial process against the former president and current senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who faces a judicial process accused of allegedly bribing, through a lawyer, witnesses to make false statements against some of his political opponents.
LJR: How did you arrive at journalism and why did you pick investigative journalism, perhaps one of the most ‘ungrateful’ fields?
RC: I came to journalism by accident. After ruling out being a police officer and losing a few semesters studying marine biology, I started studying journalism with low expectations in the University of La Sabana. Toward the end of my studies, my friend Hernando Álvarez offered me to replace him as a sports journalist at the Semana magazine, the most important one in the country. Even though I completely was not knowledgeable about the subject, I accepted and, as a part of the newsroom, I discovered that it was a job I wanted to dedicate my whole life to. In investigative journalism I slowly started questioning stories about those responsible of massacres and human rights violations in remote regions and the dynamic of a country like Colombia took me each time to investigate full time about all types of topics that for different reasons were not covered in depth.
LJR: Colombia has been considered a dangerous country to practice journalism, and until years ago it was in the highest positions of lists that measured the lethality in crimes against journalists. What does it mean for you to be a journalist in Colombia and the type of journalism that you do?
RC: For me, Colombia is the best country in the world. Not only because it is mine, but because it has unique people that are always willing to move forward despite the difficulties. And among those unique peoples there are dozens of anonymous reporters, especially in regions that, with little resources and much courage, are willing to tell what the powerful, ilegal groups and administrations want to hide. To be a journalist in Colombia is a permanent challenge, it is to look to bring the truth to light, despite the risks. It is an obligation that must be honored trying to do journalism that is serious, responsible and documented.
LJR: In your speech when you were awarded the Simón Bolívar Life and Work award, you said that journalism is not made to have your byline published but rather for the outcomes. What do you hope to achieve with this type of journalism, with your investigations?
RC: I have always believed that journalists must never become the news, nor be more important than the voice of the victims, nor to look for public recognition because of what they denounce. We must also not act like police, attorneys or judges. Journalism, as I understand it, is a service to the community in which what is the most important should be that the investigations and complaints work to bring visibility to those who are corrupt and for them [these investigations] to contribute to better the society. A byline, an award or the applause cannot be the motor that motivates a journalist.
LJR: José Miguel Vivanco, from Human Rights Watch, wrote that “few countries owe as much to a journalist as Colombia owes to Ricardo Calderón,” regarding the Cabot prize and when referring to the fact that you have exposed many “mafias.” What do you think of what he said and do you think that there is indeed a kind of debt the country owes you and your work?
RC: José Miguel Vivanco was very generous with the words that he wrote and I am very thankful. I do not do my journalism work in search for applause or for someone to thank me for doing my job. The simple fact of knowing that some of the investigations and denouncements have served to purge institutions, expose corruption and restore the dignity of victims is more than enough.
LJR: What could Colombia do precisely for the silent work of so many journalists in the country who have even given their lives?
RC: No one doubts that one of the most important values of a democracy is a free, protected and strong press. And to that extent, the State should make greater efforts to protect and guarantee the safety of dozens of reporters, especially in the regions, so that they can report without fear of losing their lives. Fighting against the impunity that exists in cases of threats and murders of journalists is a historical debt that the Colombian justice has and has delayed to correct.
LJR: Your safety, for example, has been in danger for years, how are you doing at the moment, what kind of protection have you received from the State and what could the international community do, perhaps, to show support for journalists who work in difficult conditions not only in Colombia but throughout the region like Mexico, Nicaragua, to name a few?
RC: At this time, I work discreetly in my investigations implementing self-protection measures. Seven years ago, for a brief time, I had National Police security escorts that accompanied me for some months. The most important support from the international community toward journalists in the region could consist in insisting with greater force so that the governments where there are journalists at risk make real and effective commitments to ensure their safety.
LJR: Of all those investigations and stories that you have covered, which ones do you consider to be the most interesting/important or which ones have you learned from the most ?
RC: You always learn something from all the investigations. Both from the successes and the mistakes. That is one of the most interesting parts of this job because it gives the opportunity to constantly learn. No investigation is the same as another and that in itself is a very interesting professional challenge. There are several stories that, due to the difficulty, the risks and the time invested, have left an impact. One of the first consisted in exposing how a senator of the Republic ordered paramilitary groups to beat 14 rural people to death. That case revealed the alliance between politicians and those criminal organizations. On account of this complaint, that politician was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
Another of the most exhausting was the investigation into the Administrative Department of Security - DAS -, an intelligence agency that depended directly on the Presidency of the Republic. For over two years, I published 152 articles that demonstrated how this entity - a kind of Colombian FBI - was at the service of paramilitary groups and had developed an espionage strategy against Supreme Court magistrates, journalists, human rights defenders and opposition politicians. The complaints led to the closure of this 60-year-old entity.
Another investigation, which lasted a little more than two years, was the one that revealed through various stories, how dozens of convicted soldiers with long sentences for murders of innocent civilians were living a type of resort life with luxuries and commodities, and additionally many of them were not even in the jail where they were supposed to remain, and they would also go to vacations to the beath.
One of the most recent investigations consists of a series of complaints along 18 months about corruption from various generals of the Military, some of which ended in prison. During that investigation it was also revealed how units of military intelligence had developed an espionage strategy using resources given by the United States government to carry out illegal monitoring against dozens of journalists - several of them Americans.
This story was originally written in Spanish and was translated by Perla Arellano Fraire.