Op-ed on homosexuality costs Colombian columnist his job

By Carola Guerrero De León

Feb. 17 was a day like any other for Yohir Akerman, former columnist for El Colombiano, until he discovered – while flipping through the pages of the paper – that he had been fired. The reason: claiming that “god was wrong” to reject homosexuality in the Bible in one of his columns.

Akerman spoke with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas about the possible motives behind the decision, his future as a Colombian columnist, and the implications of his dismissal for freedom of expression in the country.

According to Akerman, the column in question came in response to a report by La Sabana University that classified homosexuality as an illness. The report, authored by the University’s school of medicine, stated that, “gay and lesbian people deserve our respect as people, but it should be noted their behavior deviates from the common, and is somehow a disease.” The University would eventually retract the report.

Dissatisfied with the study's lack of scientific evidence, Akerman wrote his own column, titled ‘Enfermos’ or 'The Ill'. It was this column that would end his six-year career at El Colombiano.

In his column, Akerman wrote that “La Sabana University and the Constitutional Court should understand that continuing to define homosexuality as an illness, or treating the LGBTI community as abnormal based on the work of God is as abhorrent as defending slavery, promoting capital punishment for children, or demanding the stoning of women who lose their virginity before matrimony.”

The columnist supported his claims by citing Bible verses that ordered homosexuals, women who lose their virginity before marriage, and disobedient sons be stoned to death. "All these concepts are in the Bible and, as history has proven in regard to these issues, God was wrong," Akerman wrote.

At the end of the article, El Colombiano published a note stating that the column would be Akerman’s last for the newspaper. This is how Akerman received news that he had been fired.

"This newspaper promotes debate based on respect and argumentation," the newspaper wrote. "We believe that this column distances itself from these principles. For the author, not publishing this would have implied his resignation. We are publishing this and will accept his resignation."

In an interview with the Knight Center, Akerman discussed why ‘Enfermos’ was the column that got him fired, despite having written various similar accounts in the past.

“Some analysts say Enfermos was the drop that filled the cup,” Akerman said. “My columns about religion and the need for separation between the church and the state when it comes to legal and political decisions in Colombia were also uncomfortable for El Colombiano.”

Tension within the newspaper staff, especially between Akerman and the owners, was already well known before the publication of Enfermos.

Juan Gómez Martínez, former Medellín mayor and former governor of Antioquia, who is also a member of one of the owning families of El Colombiano, wrote a column titled ‘Akerman, the acolyte.’ In his column he says that Akerman’s presence at the newspaper is unsettling.

“He takes advantage of the liberty and independence this publication gives to its contributors to go against the religion EL COLOMBIANO defends,” said Gómez Martinez.

Two days after Akerman was dismissed, the newspaper published a column backing its decision. The publisher stated that El Colombiano encourages critical thinking and reflection with the goal of seeking the truth. To the contrary, Akerman’s lack of evidence, clarity and rigor, and his failure to meet minimal requirements displayed poor thinking skills and demonstrated his desire to create scandal in the name of gaining recognition.

Raul Tamayo, the husband of Pilar Gómez Martínez, one of El Colombiano’s owners, also wrote a column stating that Akerman’s opinions felt like “a cockroach in the soup.”

“Part of the Gómez Martinez family had already expressed that my presence there was a time bomb for them,” Akerman said. “The manner and the reasons for which El Colombiano fired me constitute a threat to freedom of press.”

The columnist told the Knight Center that events like this continue to be common in the country, despite of all the national attention currently placed on importance of freedom of expression.

Akerman said that the fear of losing their job causes many Colombian journalists and columnists to censor themselves.

“But I also know many more who do not fear saying what they think. We have to lose the fear of thinking differently, of asking uncomfortable questions, or, even of being physically attacked,” Akerman said. “Unfortunately, not everyone loses the fear.”

Shortly after Akerman’s ‘resignation’, Twitter users expressed their solidarity with the columnist and condemned the act as an attack on the freedom of the press in Colombia.

Gustavo Petro, Bogota mayor and active promoter of gay rights, referred to the event as an act of “facism.” While Colombian satirical writer, Daniel Samper Ospina, said the decision to fire Akerman proved El Colombiano was acting on the whim of its owners.

According to Buenos Aires Herald, in Colombia, the country’s major publications often have direct ties to political parties. El Colombiano is owned by two families – including the Gómez Martínez – who have close ties to the Democratic Center. One of the six Gómez Martínez brothers, Juan, was the director of the newspaper and a former minister under the government of Álvaro Uribe.

Martha Ortiz Gómez, current director of El Colombiano, received a letter from the Foundation for Freedom of Press (FLIP, for its Spanish acronym) the day after she fired Akerman.

Signed by FLIP’s executive director, Pedro Vaca Villareal, the letter states that the decision to eliminate Akerman’s column is painful to democratic deliberation and that it brings into question the plurality of the media.

“In the current climate of polarization and radicalism, Colombian democracy requires more—and not less—diversity of voices and opinions,” the letter stated.

Despite mourning the loss of his position in the editorial pages of El Colombiano, Akerman said he also found satisfaction in not giving in to the newspaper’s pressure to modify his column about LGBTI community rights.

Shortly after the event Akerman started working as a columnist for El Espectador on March 1.

“I will keep writing and producing columns that generate debate and make people think. I think that in a functioning democracy, the majority’s job is to fight for the rights of the minorities, and that is what I hope to keep doing,” Akerman said.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.