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Opinion: Struggles between Gustavo Petro and Colombia media stir populism

In this turbulent time in Latin America, when the winds of populism and authoritarianism blow strongly from north to south, it is increasingly urgent to strengthen the intrinsic values of democracy. In the current maelstrom, when both left-wing and right-wing regional governments are cracking down on media freedom, it is mandatory to ask whether we can reverse this regional trend.

A few weeks ago I traveled to Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, as part of an exchange program promoted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), based in Washington, D.C. On this study trip I visited different media outlets—both traditional and alternative—which allowed me to learn about the work they do and the challenges they face.

In Latin America, press freedom is suffering a progressive collapse. Just look at the recent report from the Paris-based organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF). In 2023, according to RSF, only a handful of Latin American countries, including Costa Rica, Argentina, Belize, Uruguay and the Dominican Republic, rank among the top 52 nations where the press is not operating under significant restrictions and attacks.

In nations where democracy is eroding, the actors who control the state impose their self-serving narratives. And journalists who challenge these narratives, who investigate and critically scrutinize the government’s actions, are considered enemies, as Donald Trump has demonized the U.S. mainstream media.

This type of hostile environment caused 93 Nicaraguan journalists to go into exile in 2022 alone, and a total of 178 since 2018. Thirteen Guatemalan journalists have followed the same path; the esteemed journalist and director of the independent newspaper El Periódico, José Rubén Zamora, was sentenced earlier this year to six years in prison for alleged money laundering charges that he denied and human rights groups denounced as fraudulent. Since its creation in 1996, this medium had exposed widespread corruption in Guatemala. Its last digital edition was May 15.

“Journalists live in a permanent state of threats and intimidation,” Guatemalan journalist Julia Corado told an international media outlet.

During the mandate of Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, it has been reported that more than 10 journalists have gone into exile. In 2022, 125 attacks occurred against Salvadoran reporters, while a community journalist was imprisoned for 11 months, accused of illicit associations, a detention that occurred within the framework of the “emergency” regime that Bukele implemented in March 2022. Those measures have resulted in what human rights groups say are arbitrary arrests and human rights violations. More than 70,000 Salvadorans have been detained and imprisoned, including many innocent people, allegedly for being gang members.

In 2022, 13 Mexican and 7 Haitian journalists were murdered, making them the most dangerous nations to practice journalism, according to monitoring carried out by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), based in New York.

In Colombia, I was told during my visit, the media confront opposing realities. In the nation’s capital there is virtually no censorship or threats against the media.

“Here, the press is strong, we have very good journalists in all media. The press imposes its agenda,” Daniel Pacheco, general editor of the digital news site La Silla Vacía, bluntly told me while discussing the oppressive conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

However, Colombia’s regional media outlets face many pressures, according to the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP), based in Bogotá. In the last four years, FLIP has documented an annual average of 200 threats against journalists, a number that has been increasing steadily. In 2022, there were 218 threats, eight cases of journalists being forced into exile, 20 physical attacks, 84 incidents of harassment and two murders of journalists, which occurred in the provinces of Córdoba and Nariño.

What is happening inside Colombian territory is alarming, amid rising tensions between the left-wing President of the Republic, Gustavo Petro, and the national media. Nicolás Petro, son of the Colombian president, was arrested on July 29 and charged with money laundering and illicit enrichment, charges that he denies. His ex-wife, Daysuris Vásquez, also was arrested. The Colombian Attorney General’s Office investigated the case after Vásquez accused Nicolás, in an interview with a magazine, of receiving 1,000 million pesos ($250,000) for his father’s presidential campaign that were not reported. Colombian media have reported that the funds allegedly they came from the former drug trafficker Santander Lopesierra and businessman Alfonso Hilsaca, who has allegedly financed illegal groups and has been imprisoned on two occasions.

Two weeks later, a media outlet reported that a drug trafficker organized a celebration to support Petro’s candidacy. The president described this investigation, documented by journalist Ricardo Calderón, as “slanderous” and “false information” in messages that he published on the social network X, formerly called Twitter. Calderón is a seasoned investigative journalist who in the last 25 years has revealed high-profile cases such as illegal police eavesdropping under the Álvaro Uribe administration. He also reported on the privileges of the military in the Tolemaida detention center during the mandate of Juan Manuel Santos, to name a few.

At least some Colombians approve of the media’s aggressive coverage. “It’s good what the media does, thanks to journalistic work they arrested Petro’s son,” a woman told me on a cool afternoon in the north of Bogotá.

Before assuming power, on August 7, 2022, Petro began to use Twitter very actively to make announcements and issue positions on current issues in Colombia. But, as president he has used the social platform to question the press. In January 2023 alone he made about 34 references to nine differnt media outlets.

“The frequency with which the president disputes the press suggests a strategy to position his narrative and his agenda on networks. Likewise, he intends to sow doubt before the audience about the suitability of the media to do their job,” FLIP lamented.

Pedro Viveros, a political analyst and columnist for the newspaper El Espectador, said that Petro’s behavior corresponds to that of a populist leader.

“When a politician is populist, the first thing he does is mess with the media, that is the way they guarantee an audience. If the president fights with the media, his political group, his mass of followers, will end up following him, which is almost half of the country,” Viveros said in an interview with local media.

Abelardo Gómez, a university professor and general editor of the news portal La Cola de Rata, an independent digital media website dedicated since 2011 to regional investigations, said that this clash between the president and the press is a fight that “will leave many victims.” At the same time, he points out that the Colombian media that are investigating the president are those that traditionally have represented the interests of the wealthiest economic groups.

“Why now and not five years ago? Because he is a left-wing president and he is openly questioning the economic powers that are the true powers in Colombia?” Gómez told me in an phone interview. “Petro is opposing the traditional powers.”

The dispute is both harming press freedom and diminishing the president.

Automated social media accounts also are being used to attack the Colombian media, deployig publications that appear to be coordinated with the government’s coalition of political parties. During the week of August 13-21, hashtags such as #CaracolMiente, #SemanaMiente, #ElCololombianoMiente, #RCNMiente and #ElTiempoMiente were trending on X, Tik Tok, Instagram and VK (Russian Facebook). Those tags were mentioned 3.1 million times during that period, according to tracking.

Political attacks on the media dovetail with a strategy to spread false information, says Raúl Hinojosa, a UCLA professor of political science. Donald Trump and other populist leaders have used that strategy to condition supporters to accept whatever narratives they are told.

“Populist leaders try to break critical dialogue,” Hinojosa said. “We cannot forget that Trump invented the concept of ‘fake news’ and he did it knowing that he is the main liar.”

As misinformation spreads and the cult of leaders increases, one consequence is that citizens become less interested in democracy. In Latin America, according to the latest Latinobarómetro report, only 48% of the population supports democracy, a reduction of 15% compared to 2010 when support for democracy was 63%.

“It is very difficult to have a society with a healthy democracy if that society does not enjoy freedom of the press,” says Carolina Jiménez, director of the Washington Office on Latin American Affairs (WOLA). “I would love to see the presidents of Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela talking about the importance of the press operating in an environment free of violence and with all guarantees.”

That aspiration is transcendental. In the current regional context, it is urgent that democracy be strengthened to not allow incubators to be created where populist apprentices are nurtured.

And more than ever, journalists are needed to monitor power. As Javier Darío Restrepo, who was a teacher in journalistic ethics at the Gabo Foundation, founded by the Colombian Nobel Prize-winning author and journalist Gabriel García Márquez, says, “It is the duty of the journalist to protect his readers or recipients from the deception of power.”

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