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COLOMBIA: Magazine Closure Deals Major Blow to Investigative Reporting ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By Javier Darío Restrepo, with Constanza Vieira and Helda Martínez
Inter Press Service
Sunday, Feb 14, 2010

What would have happened in Colombia if the financing of former president Ernesto Samper's (1994-1998) election campaign by the Cali cartel had not been uncovered?

What would things be like if the scandal over the links between rightwing politicians and the far-right paramilitaries had been swept under the rug by Congress?

And if the existence of hostages (like Ingrid Betancourt) held by the guerrillas had never been reported, and the country remained indifferent to their plight - would everything be the same today?

Many Colombians have been asking themselves such questions since the recent announcement of the closure of the influential weekly news publication Cambio - to be turned into a monthly general interest magazine - and the dismissal of its two top editors.

Cambio was well-respected for its investigative journalism, with each edition reporting on scandals and wrongdoing in this South American country that has been in the grip of an armed conflict for nearly five decades.

In 1995, Cambio journalist María Cristina Caballero reported that the Cali cartel had distributed "Samper for President" T-shirts during the Liberal Party candidate's campaign.

That was the thread that led to the unraveling of the scandal over the millions of dollars that the Samper campaign received from brothers Gilberto and Miguel Rodríguez Orejuela, the heads of the Cali cartel.

Unwittingly, Caballero provided the first piece of evidence in what became widely known in Colombia as "Proceso 8.000" - the case number of the legal investigation into the campaign donations.

Over the years, Cambio magazine has kept many people from turning a blind eye and has prevented the cover-up of many a scandal.

But in recent weeks, the publication's investigative reporting drove the circumspect officials at the Foreign Ministry to distraction by revealing details of the deal under which Colombia agreed last year to grant the United States the use of seven military bases.

The magazine also broke a scandal implicating former agriculture minister Andrés Felipe Arias, who is close to rightwing President Álvaro Uribe, in the handout of farm subsidies to wealthy business families, under the government's Agro Ingreso Seguro (roughly, "stable farm income") programme.

The programme enabled the government to distribute millions of dollars over the last three years to some of the country's largest landholders who have made sizeable contributions to Uribe's campaigns.

In 2006, Cambio magazine, which has been published since 1994, was sold to the Casa Editorial El Tiempo, Colombia's leading media conglomerate, in which Spain's Grupo Planeta - the Spanish-speaking world's largest publisher - holds a controlling interest.

"There were members of the board (in Cambio) who thought so much investigative reporting and denunciations were not a good idea," said the magazine's chief editor, María Elvira Samper, who was laid off. "I think the irritation with the editorial line and the worries about profit margins coexisted."

In the statement announcing the decision to basically close the magazine, the Casa Editorial El Tiempo said the "business model" had been exhausted, and the publication was not bringing in the expected profits.

But Samper and Cambio director Rodrigo Pardo, who was also dismissed, cited first-hand data to show that the magazine was doing just fine.

"A profit was turned in 2009, and for 2010 (advertising) sales already exceeded 1.5 billion pesos (750,000 dollars)," said Pardo.

"It is not to be credited that an organisation like El Tiempo would have to close a magazine that was generating profits," he added.

To say that the Santos family, which historically owned the Casa Editorial El Tiempo and now shares control with Grupo Planeta, has close ties to the government would be an understatement. Francisco Santos is vice president, and Juan Manuel Santos served as defence minister from 2006 to 2009.

That explanation is supported by remarks such as one by former minister Santos, who said the magazine was "a useful idiot for the FARC" guerrillas.

Another public figure close to Uribe, former presidential adviser José Obdulio Gaviria, called Pardo a "chief of the bigornia", an outmoded term that basically means "criminal" or "no-good."

The "silent operation" to close down the news magazine involved two stages.

At noon on Wednesday, Feb. 3, two executives, Luis Fernando Santos and Guillermo Villaveces, called Pardo and Samper into their offices to inform them of the decision to turn Cambio into a monthly general interest magazine.

The news magazine was to come out for three more weeks before Samper and Pardo would be let go and other staff changes would be carried out, and the new editorial guidelines would go into effect.

The two chief editors began to work on the next edition, in which they planned to inform their readers of the reasons for the magazine's transformation into a monthly entertainment publication and of the impact of the decision on journalism in Colombia.

But their work was abruptly cut short on Monday Feb. 8, when a new resolution by the board made Samper and Pardo's dismissal effective immediately.

Many believe the weekly news magazine is being shut down in punishment for its reports on not only the Agro Ingreso Seguro farm subsidies scandal, but also on the so-called "false positives" - young civilians killed by the army and passed off as guerrilla casualties in the counterinsurgency war - and the illegal wiretapping of opposition politicians, activists, journalists and even Supreme Court judges by the DAS, Colombia's main intelligence agency, as listed by columnist Alfredo Molano (see sidebars).

"Journalism that investigates, that asks questions and does not yield to pressure is a threat to the state of opinion that they want to impose on us," wrote columnist María Jimena Duzán.

Criticism was also sparked by the editorial position voiced by Grupo Planeta chairman José Manuel Lara, who said "today, an editor goes to ask people what they would like to read, and then seeks out the qualified specialist who can give them what they want."

That clashes with Pardo's reference to "journalism's social responsibility with respect to democracy and fomenting public debate."

Others have pointed to the awkward relationship between journalism and the profit motive. "There were too many business deals in the middle of all of this," Abad wrote, noting that Grupo Planeta is reportedly awaiting government approval for the purchase of a third TV station in Colombia.

Cambio's disappearance as a serious news magazine is regrettable "when the country needs more, not fewer, spaces for debate, and when it needs free media outlets," wrote columnist Santiago Montenegro.

In the view of journalists, what happened to the magazine is a sign of the growing corporate control over the media and news in general.

Inter Press Service

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