Colombia continues to be one of the western hemisphere’s most dangerous countries for journalists. Coverage of such subjects as the environment, armed conflict, corruption or collusion between politicians and illegal armed groups elicits systematic harassment, intimidation and violence.
The media are concentrated in three main groups: Luís Carlos Sarmiento Angulo, Ardila Lulle - who owns RCN TV - and Radial Olímpica-Valorem. Radio continues to be the most widespread medium in the country, but it is also the sector with the most precarious economic model. During the pandemic, more than half of the inhabitants of the departmental capitals obtained information through online news sites and social networks. Despite the media’s presence at the departmental level, local information is lacking in most of the country.
In 2021, Colombia was in the throes of the most serious public unrest in its history. Since an unpopular tax reform sent people into the streets on 28 April 2021, tens of thousands of protesters across the country have joined a strike to vent frustration over rising inequality – laid bare by the disastrous impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable communities and police brutality. National and local leaders, as well as key political actors, increasingly stigmatise critical journalists.
The Constitution of 1991 guarantees freedom of expression and information. Colombia has a jurisprudential heritage for each media sector, but the multiplicity of laws is such that it lends itself to confusion. From 2018 to 2022, the government modified television and information laws in Congress, while also making several attempts to restrict press freedom. During election days, “public order” measures limit information to that confirmed by official sources.
During the pandemic, media business groups, as well as approximately 600 media outlets nationwide, benefitted from government aid, compensating for the decline in advertising sales. However, this measure led to an inequitable situation for regional, community and independent media who have reduced sources of funding and who generally deviate from the official line dictated by the COlombian authorities. Regional media are co-opted by funding from the public sector or local companies, limiting their critical capacity.
There has been an increasing number of attacks against journalists by protesters during social mobilisations, a consequence of ideological polarisation, while trust in the media continues to decline. The result is a rejection of both the presence and the work of journalists. Social networks have become the main channels for disseminating human rights violations by the police during protest movements.
Coverage of environmental issues such as mining and deforestation expose journalists to violence, as do coverage of topics related to armed conflicts, social conflict around land claims, community organization, or the vindication of rights to ethnic communities and aspects related to a peace agreement. Themes related to corruption and alliances between politicians, armed groups and private companies, are also particularly sensitive for the safety of journalists.