By Laura Silva Aya
At the level of global popular culture, Colombia is not often portrayed with kindness. Its violent history and the infamy of criminals and organizations associated with it has resulted in the re-production of stereotypes and narratives that are both infuriating and exhausting. To my disappointment, I find myself having to defend Colombia against this type of characterization constantly – explaining over and over again that comments and jokes about cocaine and violence are painful, insulting and reductionist.
Yet it needs to be acknowledged that there is a reason why our image is so negative. The heartbreaking truth for individuals who dedicate their lives to building a better Colombia is a violent one. In addition to human rights defenders, community leaders, and social progressives, journalists in Colombia face a harsh and dangerous reality. Complex and entrenched webs of power, violence, criminality, corruption, and impunity have ensured that investigating issues and informing the public with journalistic integrity means shouldering very heavy burdens. Journalists face censure, social, economic, judicial, and political pressure, threats of physical and emotional violence, structural and societal obstruction, kidnapping, and even death. According to the Foundation for the Freedom of the Press in Colombia (FLIP), there have been 403 attacks against freedom of the press with 578 victims in 2020 alone.
These circumstances are reflective of the general violence that has gripped Colombia for decades. With an armed conflict that has lasted for more than half a century and an illicit economy that has spawned an array of powerful and violent groups, journalists and members of the press at every level have been the target of repercussions for daring to tell the truth about the armed conflict and the relationships between the state and organized crime. As a result, so many cases of harassment, threats, and murder have been characterized by impunity for the perpetrators and an appalling lack of justice.
An especially poignant and somewhat personal case is that of Jaime Garzón. A comedian, journalist and political commentator, Jaime Garzón blended sharp political critique with unique, wry humour. In the 1990s, he hosted television programs about current affairs, during which he would personify a range of different characters. The most notable, memorable, and well-loved of these was a shoe shiner called Heriberto de la Calle. While there was plenty of silliness to his work, there was a powerful accessibility as well – his show opened the door to critical journalism through satire to Colombians from all walks of life, regardless of socio-economic status.
Beyond his journalism, he was also an activist, advocating for peace and social inclusion in a time of escalating political violence and terror. Beloved by many, he was killed on April 13th, 1999 on his way to work by unknown assailants. Though an investigation took place and individuals were jailed, there are still many unanswered questions regarding responsibility for his murder. In 2016, the State Council condemned the Colombian nation for his death, describing it as being motivated “by an alliance between members of the state and groups acting outside the law”.
Though I was too young to know who he was or what he meant after his death, I do remember, as a child, watching my mother sit in front of our computer for hours at a time, watching videos of him and weeping. It was only much later that I began to understand the incalculable loss his murder meant for journalism, for Colombia and for those of us who dream of building a more peaceful and inclusive country. For many, his brand of journalism through humour and critical thought was a light in the darkness, a refusal to succumb to pessimism and indifference, and an act of defiance through laughter. Now that I have developed my own critical and political consciousness, I grieve the loss of his voice profoundly, for I know that he would have called out the Colombia of today with the same acerbic irreverence as he did then.
21 years after his death, there are still individuals and groups that dedicate themselves to high-quality critical journalism and the protection of a free press in Colombia. There is even a new generation of journalists using humour to investigate and criticize current affairs. Infuriatingly, however, the opposition they face remains just as difficult, overwhelming, and dangerous. In a recent interview with Pacifista! – an independent Colombian publication – the journalists Julián Martínez y Diana López Zuleta have described the persecution they face for denouncing the links between the current Colombian president, his campaign finances, and a well-known narcotrafficker known as “Ñeñe Hernández”. The impact on their personal and professional lives has been massive. Because they refuse to censor themselves, they are in danger and have been forced to always have a security detail. Instead of investigating the threats against them and offering protection, the government is actively hostile to their work and an instigator of the social, economic, and psychological violence they face.
How can we not despair viewing the sheer opposition faced by journalists – in Colombia and across the world? It’s overwhelming – a feeling of hopelessness that is not likely to disappear soon. Honestly, I don’t really have an answer. What I do know is that to lose hope for a better and more peaceful Colombia would be to betray the courage of every journalist and social leader facing harassment, threats, violence, and every person who has lost their life in the pursuit of speaking truth to power. And I try to remember the words of Jaime Garzón:
“Yo creo en la vida, creo en los demás, creo que este cuento hay que lucharlo por la gente, creo en un país en paz, creo en la democracia, creo que lo que pasa es que estamos en malas manos, creo que esto tiene salvación”.“I believe in life, I believe in others, I believe that this story must be fought for the people, I believe in a peaceful country, I believe in democracy, I believe that what happens is that we are in the wrong hands, I think this has salvation”.
So let’s believe and use that vision as our compass. It’s the least we can do.
Letters from the Editors is a rotating column, written by The Graduate Press Editorial Board. It is meant to serve as a platform to discuss regional, personal, and political issues surrounding the role of a journalism in their respective societies.
Featured photo taken by the author: An homage to Colombian journalist and comedian Jaime Garzón at the National University of Colombia, with the words ‘We are memory and life’ next to it.