Media play a prevailing role in the daily life of the average citizen of Colombia. At the beginning of the last century the habitual consumption was of national and regional traditional printed newspapers; as of today the consumption of electronic media (television and radio) in digital form either from mobile phones, computers or tablets has become the norm. Currently, television is the most consumed media with a penetration rate of 91 percent, used by 85 percent of all Colombian citizens. Nevertheless, radio continues being important with a 79 percent consumption level, followed by the press. Third comes the Internet, which has been gaining ground and thanks to the convergence of other media, it is common to observe today that the main newspapers, television and radio are consumed online.
In the recent history of the country, several circumstances/forces have played a decisive role in the media, directly affecting the freedom of expression and professional practice of journalism. Political violence emerged in the first half of the 20th century and polarised the country between two major parties, which further developed violence processes throughout the country and gave origin to insurgency processes that ended in the creation of different groups outside the law, turning Colombia into the Latin American country with the oldest guerrilla. The political violence and the presence of armed groups gave way to the violence of drug trafficking and the emergence of different drug cartels with disastrous and profound effects at a political, economic and social level. In the middle of both processes, paramilitary groups emerged, armies outside the law financed by landowners and politicians who tried to impose justice by their own hands without State control.
News media in Colombia demonstrate these forces and how they were installed in the exercise of journalism, affecting substantially the freedom of the press and the right of the citizen to be well informed. Historically speaking, since the emergence of partisan media, which took positions on national facts based on the ideological doctrine they served, media and journalists became the military target of guerrilla groups, drug cartels, paramilitary groups and corrupt officials of the State that were aligned with some of these outlaw groups. The recent history of journalism is full of unprecedented attacks to the media with high explosives, murders of journalists, collective kidnappings, intimidation and threats; but also, the payment of bribes and funding of journalistic programmes that direct their editorial positions to the benefit of the interests of these groups.
Many journalists went into exile or left journalism as they received direct threats from the guerrillas or some drug cartel, paramilitary group or any corrupt official allied to these criminal groups. During the 1980s and 1990s, Colombia was considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for a journalist to practice the profession. Although the main guerrilla group (FARC-EP) entered a peace process with the government in 2016, there are still several Non International Armed Conflicts in Colombia, two of them related to other guerrilla movements such as the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army - ELN) and dissidents of the Ejército Popular de Liberación (Popular Liberation Army - EPL) and different criminal organisations such as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia - AGC), called the Gulf Clan by the government, all of which affect freedom of the press. Since the demobilisation of the FARC there have been armed confrontations between ELN and EPL and the AGC in order to gain control over cocaine-producing areas. The work of journalists in such areas is particularly difficult and risky. More than often self-censorship is the norm for most of them in order to survive. In 2018 three Ecuadorian journalists were killed by Gaucho, a former member of FARC-EP, while doing their job along the Colombian frontier, showing the hard circumstances in which journalists have to work in Colombia.
The media landscape is structured by a dynamic ecosystem in which diverse sources of information compete for the market, where the average Colombian consumes 4 hours of media content daily. While television has the greatest penetration and consumption at a national level, radio is the prevalent market segment mainly at a rural level and newspapers enjoy the greatest credibility in terms of information content. As it is happening in other places of the world, print media are facing the emerging crisis brought by free online media, with a drastic reduction of circulation in national and local contexts. In some cases the most important media enterprises have reduced their print circulation up to 35 percent. Besides, 2 of the 10 newspapers with the largest circulation (ADN and Publimetro) are circulated for free (a relatively recent phenomenon in the country).
However, print media have resorted to many strategies in order to ensure their survival in the market. Thus, 5 of the 10 newspapers of major circulation are in tabloid format and have a distinctly yellow focus (Q’hubo from Medellin, Cali, Bogotá and Cartagena and Al día from Barranquilla). Both Q’hubo and Al Día belong to traditional publishing houses that own well-known regional media. Nonetheless, they have turned to the publication of types characterised by screaming headlines and information on judicial issues at the local level, which have attracted high audiences in a short time, mainly in popular sectors. The Extra newspapers, with similar content, have a presence in almost all capital cities and other municipalities with high population. It remains remarkable that half of the newspapers with the largest circulation in Colombia are sensationalist and do not offer neither texts in the major genres of journalism (reports, chronicles) and in-depth articles, nor do they have opinion columns that present analysis of facts. Also, international news is very scarce in these formats.
These media belong to private initiatives that use advertising and subscriptions as their main sources of income. The most important ones belong to large economic conglomerates of the country, some of them also owners of electronic and print media. In this respect, at a television level, the private channel Caracol has the highest news audience followed by the private channel RCN. For radio, the radio station Blue Radio, a subsidiary of Caracol television, has the greatest penetration. Both belong to the Santo Domingo family. The second most listened station is La W, which belongs to the Spanish group Prisa. Speaking of newspapers, El Tiempo has the highest national circulation followed by ADN, which is from the same publishing house, owned by Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo.
The emergence of print media in the 19th century was strongly related to political parties. Somehow, print media was considered a space for political and intellectual leaders to express their position from a perspective very much aligned to their partisan vision on facts of the current national context. In this sense, from 1886 to 1994, 22 of 28 Colombia presidents were previously media directors, columnists, or newspaper owners (Herran 1991). In different departments of Colombia, the main newspapers had a clear partisan affiliation and it was very common that their owners had important political positions at the local or regional government level. Regarding news media, the main political families of the country were the owners of any television newscast, national print media or publication of great national relevance.
Even though partisan journalism is still present, fundamentally at the regional level, a new dynamic has been gaining ground in the national media landscape. Currently, the principal media of the country belong to large economic conglomerates that have many interests at the commercial, banking and business levels. Hence, newspaper El Tiempo, ranking first for national circulation, belongs to Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo, owner of the Grupo Aval, part of the largest banking system in the country. Besides, he is one of the remarkable constructors with many road tenders in the country. On the other hand, the private channel RCN, as well as the National Radio Network RCN belong to the magnate Carlos Ardila Lülle. The most important private television channel Caracol belongs to Alejandro Santo Domingo, who also owns El Espectador, the second national newspaper for circulation in Colombia.
While the privatisation of television and the gradual commercialisation of news media has greatly reduced partisan journalism, it is not possible to affirm that this no longer exists. If the owners of these media conglomerates align their interests with any leader in charge, it is very probable that editorial policies will be influenced by this pressure. Such is the case of RCN, which has been highly criticised for having a very favorable approach to the policy of President Alvaro Uribe during his term (2002-2010). Multiple complaints were heard from independent sectors of the always favorable image and lack of criticism of government actions, which were evident in the news of the second most important private channel and the national radio network RCN. Consequently, media concentration through conglomerates and political parallelism are mixed in a highly harmful combination for media independence and freedom of expression.
Since its inception, journalism has been highly valued in Colombia. Great personalities of letters, including writers, intellectuals and statesmen, were highly respected and gave great prestige to the journalistic exercise. The famous phrase of Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez who affirmed that "journalism is the best job in the world" is frequently quoted in Colombia. Yet, this romantic and ideal perspective conceived the writing exercise as related to the literary or opinion journalism, pertaining to the intellectual and/or political elite. The reporting work that involves hard fieldwork was sometimes absent from such considerations.
Undoubtedly, there was a distance between intellectuals, statesmen and journalists who at the time worked as reporters in the newsroom of various print, radio and television media. The average journalist had either empirical skills (having learned the job in the news room without formal studies) or may have studied some liberal profession such as law and be reporting out of a passion to inform. At the time there was no clear path or formal training processes to start writing in media, and thus, to gradually develop the professional exercise of journalism.
In the 1970s, the first university programmes of Social Communication/Journalism began and were gradually positioned in the national context. These programmes arose from the need to professionalise journalists, providing them a humanistic, theoretical and practical training that would allow them to exercise with quality. Over the years, it was increasingly common that people who worked in the media, had to be professionals and graduated from these faculties. Recent studies estimate that 77.6 percent of active journalists in the country have a Bachelor's degree and 23 percent are specialised in journalism (Arroyave & Garces, 2016).
When the career was consolidated and had graduate journalists, the practice of journalism was regulated by the issuing of a professional card. However, this condition was questioned because it was argued that it affected freedom of expression. The card was abolished and today it is not considered a requirement to exercise journalism in the country. The Constitutional Court concluded that demanding a professional card for the practice of journalism is a violation of freedom of information (Unconstitutionality of Law 71 of 1975 - Judgment C 087 of 1998).
Nowadays, journalism is considered as a respected profession, although it is surrounded by several problems, particularly in those contexts that are not part of the main cities. On the one hand, a large number of journalists do not have direct work contracts with the media. Their payments are taken from the advertising quota, by allocating the revenues generated during a certain advertising space to pay the salary of journalists. But the companies that pay for this pattern expect some form of retribution from the journalists, which usually affects their professional independence. Besides, some studies demonstrate the lack of job stability and precarious salaries which affect the profession development (Gutierrez et al, 2010). On the other hand, there are problems of censorship, persecution and lack of access to information that affect the profession (FLIP, 2017).
The State has played a preponderant role in the media system, not only as owner of the electromagnetic system, authoriser of operating licenses and leader of public policy for its regulation, but also in different types of incidents that have even been denounced by labour unions of journalists and foundations that defend freedom of expression in the country. Indeed, concerning the state’s role of authorising licenses, several studies show that those media critical of the government have not had their license renewed, with no official justification. In addition, there has been direct pressure against media reports, ending at times in the dismissal of journalists. Recently, the Foundation for Freedom of the Press has documented the cases of more than ten foreign journalists on whom the Colombian government imposes illegitimate restrictions, such as requiring a university diploma in journalism to guarantee a visa in the country. As FLIP mentioned such a request goes against the Constitution, since having a diploma in journalism is not a requirement to work as a journalist. Another example of state intervention is the case of the Community of the Ring, a phenomenon of corruption in the military forces denounced by the journalist Vicky Dávila, which ended in her firing from the newsroom, even though she was one of the journalists with the largest audience at that time.
In the annual report of the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP), it is stated (p 37): “Recently, illegal actors such as guerrillas and paramilitaries have ceased to be the main aggressors against the press. Now, in that place are state servers and individuals. In 2017, the Foundation documented 33 assaults by illegal actors, 76 by officials and 72 by individuals.” The report also states that journalists received 129 threats, of which the fourth actor that perpetrated these threats was public officials with 5.4 percent, just behind criminal gangs (6.2 percent) and paramilitaries (7.7 percent). Overall, FLIP documented 310 attacks that affected 368 journalists, an increase of 43.5 percent more than reported in the previous year.
One alarming issue in the country is the use of the official advertising guideline that directly affects freedom of expression and distorts the role of creating a public sphere that understands the issues that affect citizens. In a recent national survey with active journalists carried out by the Antonio Nariño project, 62 percent said they knew journalists who modified their editorial position in exchange for advertising or political favors. For their part, 40 percent of national journalists said that there has been an improper governmental editorial control in the public media at departmental level, and 38 percent at national media level during 2017.