Freedom of the press in Colombia

This summer I was lucky enough to spend two months in Bogota, Colombia, learning more about what the situation is for journalists.

A few team members got the ball rolling in late June for an index of freedom of expression in Colombia. I got to be part of the process for a day. We talked with journalist, lawyers, professors and bureaucrats. We talked about what would be important to include and how best to phrase it.

Six months later, there’s now an updated tool to compare how different departments in the country (US equivalent would be states) compare in terms of exercising freedom of press, speech and expression.

Indice Screenshot
Click on the photo for more information.



Proyecto Antonio Nariño evaluated the aformentioned using fourcategories:

  1. Access to information
  2. Environment to work as a journalist (evaluating the political, legal and professional contexts surrounding a journalist).
  3. Direct aggressions
  4. Impunity

A few things stuck out to me while going through the index in regards to accessing information. When we ask for information or documents from a government office, there’s a decent likelihood we can get them, or at the very least, we’re more certain they exist.

Not so in Colombia. Twenty percent of departments don’t have a public information registry or database. Ninety percent don’t have a clear way to organize documents or archive them.

Talk about making journalism and those data stories tricky when there’s not even a clear way to making sure that it’s there.

It’s hard to keep the government accountable in any country. But when those documents are hard to access, or simply not kept, it’s nearly impossible to do so.

Another element that stood out: Sixty-three percent of journalists knew a colleague who had changed their editorial position because the organization received advertising from the government. Colombian journalism is also finding ways to stay afloat financially.


ISIS, Latin America and Refugees: 5 things I’ve learned

ISIS and Syrian refugees have made big headlines in the past few weeks. If you haven’t been hiding under a rock, then you’ll know the latter group has been highly politicized, with governors (including, sadly, Illinois’ governor) declaring they won’t let refugees in.

So I was curious.  What’ve been the conversations about ISIS and Syrian refugees in Latin America? Turns out, Latin American countries are welcoming refugees with open arms, and Muslim communities are declaring ISIS as Islam’s enemy.

Here are five of the most interesting things I learned while I read a few papers.

  1. Several Latin American countries opened their doors to Syrian refugees early on. Uruguay and Argentina created special programs to resettle refugees since the civil war started in 2011.  Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro said the country would accept 20,000 refugees, according to the Guardian.
  2. Brazil has been the main destination in Latin America for Syrian refugees. Nearly 2,000 people have resettled there since the outset of the war.
  3. Many refugees from Asia, Africa and the Middle East make their way to the United States using well-trodden routes Latin Americans do.
  4. Al Quiblah, Argentina’s first Muslim radio program,  focuses on clarifying fundamental differences between ISIS and the Islam practiced by millions across the globe.
  5. There are between 400,000 and 500,000 people of the Muslim faith living in Argentina. An estimated 5 to 12 million Muslims live in the United States, according to Frontline.


30 Years Later: Remembering the Palace of Justice

This past summer I walked through the pigeon-filled Plaza de Bolivar. People walked by offering to take pictures of you next to a llama. Others sold kernels to feed the hoards of pigeons. Even in the commotion of a holiday afternoon, things were peaceful.

But on November 6, 1985 the commotion was different.

It’s been 30 years since 30 members from leftist guerrila group M-19 sieged the Palace of Justice. Nearly 100 people died, including magistrates as the military tried to re-take the Palace.  Those in the video produced by El Tiempo are family members of people who disappeared between November 6 or 7.

The motivation for the attack was to force the court justices to try then President Belisario Betancour and his defense minister for violating a peace treaty reached 18 months prior.

There’s still ambiguity and for many, there’s not closure. Eleven people disappeared after a tumultuous and fiery 28 hours. They haven’t been found since. Authorities mishandled identifying bodies: destroying evidence and moving victims’ bodies from where they were. It’s still not clear–or there’s not concrete proof–that Pablo Escobar had a hand in financing the siege.

But the wounds are still deep and the distrust still lingers. The military has been accused of violating human rights for forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings. A 2013 Truth Commission showed that the military knew of M-19’s plot, and “let it happen, hoping to launch a ‘ferocious response’ against the guerrillas,” according to a Business Insider article.

Everyone was caught in the crossfire between the government and the drug cartels during these years, whether directly or indirectly.

Our Brand is Crisis: Movie Review

Last night was a first for me: I went to a movie by myself at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday. (It was for an assignment though!) There were four other people in the theater if that tells you anything about the popularity of the political satire.

“Our Brand is Crisis” has its basis in a documentary that shares its name. Released in 2005, the documentary gives unparalleled access to how one American political consulting group built a 2002 Bolivian presidential campaign.

The movie isn’t phenomenal. Sandra Bullock pulls you in, but the rest of the film just moves along. I appreciated some of the context the movie provided though. (If you’ve seen the documentary, there are a handful of parallel scenes in the movie).

Jane Bodine, played by Sandra Bullock, has closed herself off from the world after her career as a well-known political strategist. She’s known as Calamity Jane in political circles, but at the beginning of the movie makes pottery high up in the mountains.

“I’m calm now,” she says.

But that changes as she dives into the world of Bolivian presidential campaigns—she’s in charge of directing the campaign of former president and losing candidate, Castillo. He’s 28 points behind the polls.

The political satire is based on the award-winning documentary with the same name. In the 2005 film, director Rachel Boynton takes us through the back doors and views of how an American political consulting group, Greenberg Carville Shrum, make a Latin American presidential campaign.

As presidential election nears closer we see different sides of Jane: a fierce competitor, an intelligent and ruthless strategist, but also someone who is equally as cynical as she is competitive.  So what exactly is she doing in Bolivia?

In part, it’s personal. And the tango between Jane and her rival Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thorton) is entertaining and provided the majority of the laughs. (She and a few friends she’s made launch a green, slimy ball of some plant at his hotel door).  As we get to know Jane more, we see a little bit more of the satire the film is trying to get across: even if you win a campaign, how successful can you be?

Through the laughs, there are snippets of the political reality that gripped Bolivia in 2002: indigenous groups protesting for better representation, an opposition to more privatization and a history of military coups. These snippets, though brief, made the movie much more believable (not all of Latin America is a hot, steamy jungle).

But the ending lacks in some of the charisma the movie had shown throughout. We don’t leave with a new lesson about politics or its inner workings: “It’s advertising,” Jane says. “And then you profit from it.”

Understanding the balloon effect

Balloons can take on a few roles: a nice gesture representing a cause for celebration, little animals or creators of uncomfortably loud noises.

Little children and adults know these things.  And one thing some do when playing with balloons is squeezing one part of it to only see the air move to another part of the sphere.

That’s what’s been happening throughout the drug supplying countries all over the world: try to move the air out of one part of the balloon and it just goes to another. There seems like there’s a change, but overall the same amount of air is in the balloon, hence the name: the balloon effect.

Many of the supply oriented policies I mentioned last week have this unintended cause: while supply in one area is eradicated, the profitability of the drug trade only has suppliers looking for different locations.

This short video below explains what that looks like:

So what does that mean for the policies in place meant to eradicate drugs?

‘“As a Latin American commission led by three former presidents (of Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil) put it recently: “Prohibitionist policies based on the eradication of production and on the disruption of drug flows as well as on the criminalization of consumption have not yielded the expected results. We are farther away than ever from the announced goal of eradicating drugs.”’

Well, from this Reuters blog, the future isn’t bright. I’m interested in learning more about how policies will play out in the future.



A few lessons from a Colombian internship

I held copies of two death threats a journalist received. One scraggly-written note read, “Shut up, or we’ll shut you up.”

This threat didn’t happen at the height of the drug conflict here in Colombia nearly two decades ago, when killings of journalists were at their highest.

It happened in 2013. That September 11 as Edison Molina rode home from work on his motorcycle he was shot four times. He died later in the hospital.

I had read about the deaths of Colombian journalists. But holding something physical, seeing the same handwriting he saw made me shudder.  It made me think of the kind of risks journalists throughout the world face to speak up and tell the truth.

And it made me appreciate even more the kind of respect for freedom of the press and expression that exists in the United States.

To say the least, then, I’ve learned a lot in my five weeks here in Colombia.(Though it saddens me to think this journey is almost half-way done.) One of my favorite parts of work is listening to the conversations my co-workers have. It’s from those I gain more insight into the world of journalism here.

One conversation stands out to me. We sat around the lunch table at Crepes and Waffles after a workshop evaluating a freedom of press index  built by a sister organization.

Someone mentioned how threats against journalists were considered just another part of the job. Even government workers think so.

“Pa’ que se metio a ser periodista, si sabia que esto era parte del trabajo?” a co-worker recalled a policeman saying when he discussed a case with her. (“Why did you become a journalist if you knew that was part of the job?”)

We awkwardly chuckled.

“The parts of the job that should come with being a journalist are getting a flat tire, missing a flight or having technical difficulties,” another commented.

Maybe so.

But the greatest challenge will be changing people’s mentality about what’s “normal” for a jouranlist here. There’s a lot that would have to happen for that shift to take place.

Justice would mean justice. Cases wouldn’t take 10 or more years to reach some sort of conclusion. The Attorney General Office wouldn´t release a man who confessed to the torture and kidnapping of a journalist and then arrest him again.

I’m just starting to get bits and pieces of the whole picture of the journalistic environment present here. It’s wonderful to be learning all of this, and at the same time, a bit scary to know all of this is real, not just a read of a newspaper article.