News Media

Colombia Table of Contents

Freedom of the press and broadcasting were deeply rooted cultural traditions in Colombia. Governments generally respected constitutionally guaranteed rights of freedom of speech and the press. One exception was the Rojas Pinilla regime, which suspended them. As a result of the interparty political conflict that characterized Colombia through much of the twentieth century, civilian governments also frequently censored the opposition press, either through harassment by political activists or through government-issued state of siege decrees. Nevertheless, in the 1980-88 period, freedom of speech and the press were respected.

In 1987 all newspapers, other than the official government organ, Diario Oficial, were privately owned and under no governmental restraints. The press published a wide variety of political views and often vigorously criticized the government and its leaders. Almost all news outlets were affiliated--officially or semiofficially--with either the Liberal or Conservative party. The urban middle and upper classes, for whom the press was a vital instrument of influence, purchased most newspapers. Traditionally, newspapers were the most credible sources of political information, as well as the major organs of political debate. In contrast, Colombians viewed radio and television as primarily entertainment or cultural media. Nevertheless, some journalists used the press as a vehicle to political power. For example, television journalist Andrés Pastrana was elected mayor of Bogotá in 1988.

Colombian journalists were generally well trained, and the top columnists had sophisticated worldviews. At least five daily newspapers, as well as a number of weekly news magazines, served Bogotá. Two morning newspapers, El Espectador and El Tiempo, each had circulations of over 200,000 on weekdays in the late 1980s. The Sunday circulation of El Tiempo reached 350,000. Although both were affiliated with the PL, El Espectador tended to support the New Liberalism Movement faction of the party. El Tiempo, one of Latin America's leading dailies, provided comprehensive and sophisticated coverage of international news. The small El Siglo and businessoriented La República were both affiliated with the Conservatives. El Siglo represented the party's right wing. Its editor, Alvaro Gómez, a kidnap victim himself, took a highprofile stand against drug traffickers and Marxist guerrillas. A new afternoon daily, 5 P.M., appeared in Bogotá in the mid1980s , with an independent and nonpartisan orientation. In August 1988, former President Misael Pastrana Borrero launched a Bogotá daily, La Prensa, in an apparent attempt to compete with El Tiempo and El Espectador and to consolidate his control over the Social Conservatives.

Colombia had more than forty regional newspapers, including several with a daily circulation of more than 100,000 copies. The newspaper with the largest circulation outside the capital was Medellín's conservative El Colombiano (123,700). Both El Colombiano and Cali's El Occidente (53,000) took strong antidrug stances. El Colombiano's editor, Juan Gómez Martínez, was elected mayor of Medellín in the March 1988 elections. The most widely read weekly general news magazines in Colombia were Cromos (65,000), Semana (40,000), the Conservative Guión (35,000), and the Liberal Nueva Frontera (20,000), all published in Bogotá.

Colombia had a flourishing and modern printing and publishing industry in the 1980s. In the 1983-87 period, Colombia led Latin America in the export of Spanish-language publications, ranking second only to Spain. In 1986 Colombia sold more than US$59 million in books and other publications to thirty-two countries; this was double the 1979 sales. A relatively small group of five printers and ten publishers spearheaded the export drive. The Andean Common Market (Ancom), also known as the Andean Group (Grupo Andino)-- primarily Venezuela--accounted for 55.3 percent of Colombia's exports of printed material and remained the industry's principal market. The Hispanic population in the United States absorbed about 20 percent of Colombia's publishing exports in 1986. Of the 1,100 entities in Colombia dedicated to publishing, about 400 were large scale. The two leading Colombian publishers were Editorial Oveja Negra and Carvajal.

The state regulated the broadcast media. The Telecommunications Division of the Ministry of Communications administered and controlled radio and television broadcasting. The government-run television and broadcasting network, the National Institute of Radio and Television (Instituto Nacional de Radio y Televisión-- Inravisión), controlled three television stations: two commercial and one educational. A semiautonomous agency administered by a board of directors appointed by the president, Inravisión leased time to private companies and also transmitted as National Radio and Television of Colombia (Radiotelevisora Nacional de Colombia-- RNC) and National Radio Station (Radio Cadena Nacional--RCN). Colombia's largest and most influential radio station, Colombian Radio Station (Cadena Radial Colombiano--Caracol), was pro-Liberal, whereas RCN was pro-Conservative. The state imposed some guidelines to ensure equal time for political candidates. For example, the government ensured that each of four announced candidates running in the 1986 presidential campaign received equal time for a series of national television appearances. Beginning in 1987, all legally registered political parties had access by law to national television; a different party was allotted ten minutes of time each week night, under an alphabetical rotation system.

The state reserved the right, in effect, to censor the telecommunications media in a national emergency. A press law, in effect since 1959, provided for freedom of the press in time of internal peace. This freedom, however, had to be balanced by a sense of responsibility to help maintain tranquillity. The law provided for the prohibition of news threatening national security and for censorship before publication during times of crisis. In issuing a decree on terrorism in January 1988, President Barco noted the state's constitutional right to control telecommunications media if considered necessary to reestablish public order in a crisis. That month Barco also announced the Statute for the Defense of Democracy and the amendment of habeas corpus procedures. The statute caused general concern within the media that the new measures could lead to press censorship. El Tiempo editorialized, however, that the statute should have been even stiffer.

In addition to the statutory regulations, an unofficial regulatory apparatus--consisting of political parties and economic interest groups, including financial conglomerates and drug traffickers--exerted strong pressure on the news media. For example, a powerful financial conglomerate, the Great Colombian Group (Grupo Grancolombiano), reportedly waged a campaign of intimidation in the early 1980s against El Espectador by withholding advertising in retaliation for reporters' probes into its business practices. Drug traffickers took more drastic measures to intimidate the press. For example, in 1983 a newspaper journalist in Buenaventura was machine gunned to death after he had written a series of reports accusing officials of involvement with drug trafficking. His editor also was assassinated that year. Hitmen hired by the Medellín Cartel assassinated El Espectador's nationally recognized director, Guillermo Cano, in December 1986, shortly after his newspaper published a series of reports on the cartel. In October 1987, columnist Daniel Samper Pizano of El Tiempo fled the country after his name appeared on a death list. Drug traffickers assassinated approximately thirty journalists between 1983 and 1987. They were also blamed for kidnapping television journalist Andrés Pastrana in early 1988.

The media themselves have exercised self-restraint in times of crisis. For example, in response to M-19 demands for publicity in exchange for releasing Alvaro Gómez, the owners and directors of Colombia's major news media collectively agreed in July 1988 to exercise self-censorship when reporting on terrorist acts. They banned the transmission of all texts, interviews, and contacts with "kidnappers and terrorists" and with the kidnap victims.

More about the Government and Politics of Colombia.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress