COLOMBIA: Magazine Closure Deals Major Blow to Investigative Reporting
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?
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
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
But Samper and Cambio director Rodrigo Pardo, who was also
dismissed, cited first-hand data to show that the magazine was doing
"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
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
In the view of journalists, what happened to the magazine is a
sign of the growing corporate control over the media and news in
Inter Press Service
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