Colombian reporters 'have counted so many dead that we lose count'

Inter Press Service Interview with Javier Darío Restrepo

BOGOTA - "Freedom of the press is merely rhetorical," says veteran Colombian journalist Javier Darío Restrepo. "The only thing that counts are free reporters."

Independence is to be found in the spirit of the journalist as an individual, he argued in an interview with IPS on the eve of World Press Freedom Day, May 3. "And all sources lie, until it has been proven otherwise."

Restrepo was born in 1931 in Antioquia in the northwest -- the province with the greatest number of victims in Colombia's decades-long civil war. His career as a newspaper reporter has spanned more than half a century, he has worked in television for a quarter century and has been publishing books for 20 years, and he is highly respected in the region.

IPS: Colombia is still one of the countries in the world with the greatest number of reporters who have suffered threats, exile or murder. How is that reflected in the news?

JAVIER DARÍO RESTREPO: In self-censorship. Reporters, particularly in the provinces, are dealing with the touchiest issue in Colombia: the armed conflict. And they are squarely in the sights of all of the violent groups, who know their families, where they live, their routines. So the groups don't even need a sniper (to intimidate reporters). And that is reflected in how they do their reporting, because there is a latent fear.

But journalists in the provinces don't only censor themselves because of the pressure from the armed groups. They also do it because of the pressure from those who are not armed, who sit on the newspaper's management or boards of directors.

For these reporters, a telephone call from within the newspaper where they work, demanding that they write such and such a story or they won't get paid or will get fired, has a greater impact than the threat of a bullet to the head.

There have been horrible cases, like when a journalist refused to get on a police helicopter to cover an anti-narcotics operation first-hand. Even after the helicopter was shot down, she was practically fired for refusing to take the flight. That happened around four years ago, in the Magdalena Medio (a region in central Colombia).

A survey of 200 reporters in 20 cities carried out by the Observatorio de Medios (Media Observatory) of the University of the Sabana, asked them what were the worst pressures they suffered. According to the poll, the biggest pressures came from within the newspapers themselves. That includes editors, chief editors, directors, shareholders and advertisers.

IPS: What interests does the management of a newspaper respond to?

JDR: Obviously, those of the advertisers. And that includes, of course, the government, with its official advertising. They also respond to the interests of friendly politicians, or the board of directors, or the shareholders. And when someone has a friend who holds shares in a media outlet, they turn to him because they know he can get results, either by imposing silence or pressing for a specific news story.

That happens in all media outlets everywhere, although it is very accentuated here, and journalists are not in a good position to resist these pressures.

Among the causes of the limits on freedom of speech, which I have seen all over Latin America, the first is the government's official advertising.

However, I ran into a really beautiful exception. It almost made me want to shout "Land!" like Rodrigo de Triana (up in the crow's nest of Christopher Columbus's ship La Pinta).

IPS: Where did that happen?

JDR: In Buenos Aires. The Argentine Journalism Forum held a congress on ethics in December, where spokespersons from the different regions in Argentina talked about the conditions facing the media in their provinces.

They complained that one of the main causes of the limits to their freedom was official advertising. But all of a sudden this young reporter showed up, who looked like a university student, all delicate and wearing glasses. She presented this tiny newspaper called "El Diario Chiquito (The Little Newspaper), and said "In my newspaper, we don't accept official advertising.

That's a good start towards independence. Their newspaper is supported only with a thick classified ads section and by means of very strong relations with local industry and businesses in their town. After publishing their paper for 13 years, they now have the means to buy their own headquarters and their own printing press. Why? Because people trust them and their newspaper.

I'm just mentioning this to show that it is possible. And that what is happening everywhere is that newspapers take the easiest route to support themselves, regardless of the fact that they are sacrificing their conscience and freedom of speech and information.

IPS: If it weren't for human rights organisations, which have documented these things and kept track, perhaps we would still not know that the (far-right) paramilitaries have killed 3,000 campesinos (peasant farmers) in San Onofre (a municipality in the northwestern province of Sucre) alone since 1998. How is it possible that we reporters did not even notice?

JDR: I have asked myself that many times...We are also victims, and perhaps to a much greater extent and with greater intensity than the general public. You cover one news story after another, to the point that you lose your sensibility. We have counted so many dead that, first of all, we lose count. And then we just stop caring. When that happens, the reporter has to pull up short, to keep from losing his or her sensitivity, and especially to avoid losing the clarity that must characterise his or her work.

IPS: Instructions for interpreting news coming out of a country where self-censorship is the norm?

JDR: The same instructions as for any source of news. And experience shows that all sources lie until it has been proven otherwise. Or, if you want to put it a different way, the same precautions should be taken as when you drink water, breathe the air, eat or take medicine, because all of these elements could be contaminated. The same is true about the news: it is presumably contaminated, so you should be on the defensive here or anywhere else in the world.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey