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Colombia | Letters From the Kremlin

El Tiempo has adopted the prismatic color scheme of other clients of  Innovation International Media Consulting -- a Web design powerhouse

El Tiempo has adopted the bright, variegated color scheme of other clients of Innovation International Media Consulting — a Web design powerhouse

Observatório da Imprensa reprints a Portuguese-language version of a fascinating article on the heroic age and the current evolution of the Colombian press — one of the most technically competent and editorially courageous press corps in the world, given the constant threat to the physical safety of its professionals.

Semana, El Tiempo, El Espectador — all remarkable publications, as TV and Radio Caracol are excellent broadcasters.

Unfortunately, the English original is situated behind the FT paywall, and the article is too extensive to translate fully — you don’t want to haggle with the FT over fair use. I will reuntranslate a selection detailing concentration of media ownership that Brazilians should find familiar, so to speak.

Translation: Jô Amado

Rewrite:  Larriza Thurler

Author: John Paul Rathbone [“The history and politics of Colombian media,” Financial Times, 4/6/2013]

SImply put, the article examines the cartelization of the media sector and the politicization of a media in which editorial cartels — Deep Throat relationships — might be excused as a partial antidote to violence and intimidation.

What kept reporters safe was the “Kremlin,” a secret group of leading journalists who collaborated on their investigative work and coordinated the simultaneous release of anonymous articles throughout Colombia. “Thank God those days are over,” says  María Jimena Duzán, El Espectador‘s representative to the “Kremlin” at the time.

And these days are over, in fact. At the time, Colombia seemed on the brink of collapse. Only 30 years later it was now an economic powerhouse — a notable transformation reflected in the press and the challenges it faces.

Cartels and Conflicts of Interest

It is a revealing fact that one of the topics most discussed by Colombian journalists has less to do with survival, as before, and more to do with managing the conflicts of interest that have accompanied this new-found prosperity. Among the five Colombians on the Forbes billionaire list, the three richest control all the major media groups in the country.

Luis Carlos Sarmiento, with a fortune of $ 14 billion,  acquired El Tiempo, the newspaper with the highest circulation in the country. Alejandro Santo Domingo, with $ 12 billion, owns El Espectador, the second largest print title,, and TV Caracol, one of two private broadcasters in Colombia and a content partner with  Univision in the U.S.,and Televisa of México.  Carlos Ardila, with $ 5 billion, owns the TV and radio broadcaster RCN, the other private national network, which has a joint venture with News Corp. in the U.S. and is known for having created the Ugly Betty series.

On the American scene, this pattern of ownership is similar to that of the Murdoch family, which besides owning News Corp also controls a conglomerate along the lines of a General Electric. The very idea of such an arrangement seems unethical, compared with the long history of journalism in Colombia, which produced formidable talents — from Nobelist Gabriel García Márquez, who started his career as a reporter  to the martryed editor of El Espectador, whose name is immortalized by the  Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Award, presented by UNESCO.

“I am very optimistic about Colombia,” says María Jimena Duzán. “I am less sanguine about the press.”

Traditionally, the Columbian press has been controlled by elite families who used their liberal principles as a trump card,. For decades, these publications circulated among the political establishment. The Santos family, owner of El Tiempo from 1913 to 2007, is thebest-known example. Eduardo Santos was president of Colombia from 1938 to 1942, and  Juan Manuel Santos, his grand-nephew, is the current president. But the Santos family is not the only Colombian clan with business that hinge on the media.

Andrés Pastrana, president from 1998 to 2002, began his career as a journalist. The brother of Ernesto Samper, president from 1994 to 1998, is Daniel Samper Pizano, one of the most celebrated columnists in Colombia. Felipe López, publisher of Semana magazine, one of the most critical publications in Latin America , is the son of a former president and grandson of another. Semana’s current editor, Alejandro Santos, is a nephew of the current president.

“Not even in Africa will you find such incestuous relations,” says ex-vice-presidentFrancisco Santos, another ex-journalist and first cousin of the current president. Colombia remains a nation of contradictions and surprises.

The article goes on to unravel tangled webs of corporate interest and journalistic missions  that are not so very different in kind than that of Brazilian “coronelismo.” A brief example:

[Despite this pressure], journalists continue to expose corruption and scandals. Any number of politicians, for example, are being investigated for supposed ties to paramilitary groups.

The job of the journalist continues to make them targets of violence. In May, Ricardo Calderón, editor of Semana, escaped an apparent assassination attempt in the region of  Bogotá. The government warned that other such plots exist.