Official advertising used to censor media and to ‘self-promote’ leaders in Colombia, according to FLIP

In Colombia, “the misuse of official advertising is the main reason for censorship in the media after violence,” Jonathan Bock, director of the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP, for its acronym in Spanish), told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

Bock made this statement about a country that saw more than 60 years of internal armed conflict.

After twelve years of investigating the use of advertising from the State in Colombia, this is one of the three major conclusions reached by the FLIP investigative team.

The foundation also found that “official advertising operates as a hidden subsidy,” Bock said. “Many media depend economically and to a large extent on these advertising resources, which are allocated without clear rules of the game and deviating from the purpose they have.”

According to Bock, if the official advertising resources provided by the State are restricted, that would affect the finances of 50% or 60% of Colombian media.

Furthermore, “in the cases that we have documented, which are hundreds in the last twelve years, official advertising ends up buying the editorial position of the media,” the FLIP director said. “These resources do affect the editorial line of the media, which gives their pages to the marketing content of the institutions. They also publish institutional information disguised as journalism, without mentioning that it is paid content, or they publish an interview with a mayor that is previously agreed upon and is not mentioned.”

The data provided by the National Survey on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in 2023, carried out by the firm Cifras & Conceptos, confirm Bock's statements: 44% of the 585 people surveyed stated that they knew some media in their department who had stopped publishing for fear of losing official advertising. And, not only that, 48% knew of cases of journalists who modified their editorial position in exchange for an official advertising contract.

A million-dollar expenditure on official advertising in Colombia

Man with a beard in blue shirt

Jonathan Bock, director of the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), an organization that investigates the use of official advertising in Colombia. (Courtesy: Jonathan Bock)

To demonstrate the million-dollar spending on official advertising and its impact on freedom of expression, FLIP carried out an investigation into the spending made by Colombian public administrations during their management in the last four years. Its recent publication was titled “El costo del ruido” (The cost of noise) and can be downloaded here.

There they show that in the last four years 650 billion Colombian pesos (about US $166 million) were spent on official advertising, which for Bock is a very high sum for these resources.

In the FLIP report, they give as an example the case of former President Ivan Duque (2018-2022), who during the National Strike, which began on April 28, 2021, allocated resources “to direct public opinion, with the clear objective of creating the narrative that those protesting in the streets were affecting the interests of the country, and of mitigating the reputational risk” of Duque. During his term, the former president spent 46 billion Colombian pesos (about US $11.8 million) on official advertising.

Bock also said that this recent investigation lasted eight months, and that accessing the information they were looking for was very difficult.

“In Colombia there is a platform where all public entities must upload the contracts they carry out, but it is not easy to access those documents. The contracts then have addendums and changes, getting the clear information is difficult and takes a long time.”

Furthermore, he said that when they consulted the public institutions directly about the issue, they did not respond clearly or with complete information.

“Opacity makes it difficult to do these investigations,” he added.

Another of the difficulties that the FLIP director identified when investigating official advertising in Colombia is that “this topic is an issue that no one likes.”

“When it is discussed and shown, no one comes out in a good position, neither public officials nor the media. It is a matter of shame for the media, and it can affect their credibility even more that in the midst of the media crisis they accept that the main advertiser is the public institution and they adapt to the requirements that the institutions place on them,” Bock said.

The transformation of official advertising in the digital age

Bock not only spoke about the poor management of official advertising by public administrations in Colombia and how leaders use these resources for the “self-promotion” of their image and their efforts. He also spoke about a practice that is trending in the region and that goes hand in hand, according to him, with a lack of transparency: the new digital communication strategies implemented by public administrations.

“There is a change in how public administrations are not contracting with traditional media, and opting to make their communication strategies with social networks or digital platforms, and hiring influencers,” he said.

He gave the example of politician Daniel Quintero, former mayor of Medellín from 2020 to 2023, who at the end of his term was publicly accused of having signed million-dollar contracts with influencers to promote his administration. However, Quintero distanced himself from the accusations through his X (Twitter) account.

“In principle, the use of these new digital communication strategies by leaders is fine, but with it come other problems, such as the use of public resources for self-promotion,” Bock said.

For example, “with the phenomenon of influencers, you don't know if the person is saying something organically or if they are saying it because they are receiving public resources,” he added.

“I think this contaminates the digital conversation and is putting an additional point on these problems of official advertising: How do we also regulate the hiring of influencers? It is easier to identify this advertising in the media than in social networks,” Bock said.

For regulated official advertising

“There is a lack of legislation in Colombia to regulate the way that those public resources are distributed,” Tatiana Velásquez told LJR when asked about official advertising in the country. She is cofounder and reporter at La Contratopedia Caribe, a media outlet dedicated to monitoring the public administration in the Caribbean.

Woman wearing glasses and smiling

Tatiana Velásquez, reporter and co-founder of La Contratopedia Caribe, a media outlet dedicated to monitoring public administration in the region. (Courtesy: Tatiana Velásquez).

"The allocation of these resources is not being handled as state public resources or official resources, but as government resources, that is, depending on the conditions imposed by the government in power," she said.

This is how, according to her, public administrations in Colombia allocate the amounts of official advertising to some media to the detriment of others, guided by “cronyism” or preferences of editorial lines.

Regarding the censorship that is exercised with the improper use of official advertising in Colombia, Velásquez said “the advertising does end up influencing or directing the way in which the media cover the news and sometimes it is more evident in the regions [outside the capital], because it becomes the main, or even only, source of income for media.”

What's more, she added that official advertising is not only used by public administrations to "force a specific editorial line in line with the government in power, but to silence voices, and prevent uncomfortable coverage or a counterweight."

For all this, the journalist said that Colombia needs official advertising that is regulated: “so that it is not used as a means of intimidation or censorship towards the media, so that journalists do not feel afraid in doing coverage that is a counterweight, and so that many media can continue to survive.”

“What is at stake is freedom of expression, the right that Colombians have to be well informed, that the information is not manipulated by political or economic interests and that it is as close to reality as possible or that it includes the greatest number of voices possible,” Velásquez said.

She said that La Contratopedia Caribe does not accept official advertising, and will continue not to until it’s regulated in Colombia. The media outlet is financed with international resources based on scholarships that do not imply compromising its editorial line, as well as a crowdfunding program.

Bock, from FLIP, also raised the urgency of regulating official advertising in the country and questioned whether funds for official advertising could be allocated to a fund to promote journalism.

"It would be important for this resource to create a fund aimed at the media, without allowing it to be an instrument at the service of officials," he said.

Translated by Teresa Mioli
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