In 2015, progress was made on a peace accord between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels. What role do the Colombian media play in advancing peace efforts? Media experts in Berlin discussed the challenges.
Left to right: Florian Meyer-Hawranek, Nina Ludewig, Matthias Kopp, Christina Mendoza Weber, moderator Martin Polansky
While the accord was hailed as a milestone on the long road to peace, it remains unsigned due largely to the ongoing political polarization in the country. To what extent, then, are Colombia's media willing and able to promote the peace process? And are the country's media structures suited to supporting peace in the long term? This was the focus of a panel discussion held mid-March in Berlin. It was moderated by Martin Polansky, former head of the German public broadcaster's ARD radio studio in Mexico City.
Florian Meyer-Hawranek, journalist (Bayerischer Rundfunk, Deutschlandfunk, Zeit Wissen) and Nina Ludewig, project manager Media Ownership Monitor
"Reporting in Colombia," said Florian Meyer-Hawranek, a journalist with the German public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, "often functions along party lines, without giving much thought to the facts of the case." The journalist recently spent several months working with Caracol Radio, one of Colombia's leading networks. "There are major regional divides which impact on the peace process", he pointed out, "and the main media outlets also focus primarily on the cities."
Matthias Kopp is DW Akademie's country coordinator for Colombia and currently based in Medellín. He agreed that reporting in Columbia is often not up to standard and that the leading private networks tend to be strongly politicized, often operating on the principle that "crime sells." Most of the major electronic media provide little in the way of real information and certainly no platform for public debate, he said. "Media organizations that offer real, independent reporting - in particular the print media and some of the online media - are scarce", he pointed out, "and the problem is that they don't have much of a reach." He said that the media needed to work towards greater diversification if they are to support the peace process.
Coming to terms with the past is also a task for the media, said Kopp. "Processing the years of conflict is a prerequisite for any form of dialogue, and public and community-based media need support in this." Working conditions for journalists are particularly challenging in rural areas where the conflict still makes itself felt, he said, because of poverty and poor security.
Media and finance run by the elite
Nina Ludewig is project manager for the new online resource Media Ownership Monitor, set up in Colombia in 2015 by Reporters Without Borders. At the panel discussion she turned the spotlight on country's media structures and criticized the strong concentration of media ownership. "Fifty-seven percent of audiences focus on just three media groups that are guided by economic interests and that actively oppose diversity of opinion", she said. Critical voices are not heard by wider audiences, she continued, and a deep urban-rural divide together with a shortage of different media in rural areas makes media plurality even harder to achieve. The major media stakeholders dominate the digital arena too, said Ludewig, "and they still aren't playing a significant part in supporting the peace process." The Internet is not yet a key medium, she added, but said that smaller digital media platforms could play a major role in future as promoters of dialogue.
Making headlines with peace
"Breaking news" and speculation rather than sound analysis characterize reporting on the peace talks, said Colombian journalist Christina Mendoza Weber, a news editor with DW Latin America. "But peace has to make the news headlines," she pointed out, "and the media should be looking at processing recent history as well as at different perspectives on the conflict." The country needs a new discourse, stimulated by reporting and documentaries, she said. The protagonists of the peace process are people living in rural areas, she continued, and the country's media must give them a voice. At the same time, small, community-based media organizations also require help in becoming financially viable, she said.
Journalism still plagued by insecurity
The panelists were highly critical of the lack of security for media professionals. Corruption is endemic, pointed out Mendoza Weber, and said that there are groups threatening the safety of journalists. "Self-censorship is a huge problem," said Nina Ludewig. The Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index describes the situation in Colombia as "difficult," ranking the country 128th out of 180 countries.
The panel members fear that there will be no significant changes to the country's media structures in the short- to medium-term. They say that politicians still need to understand that the media are not simply their personal mouthpieces. However, Kopp and Mendoza Weber feel that the increasing pace of digitization, greater sustainability of small media organizations and the application of higher journalistic standards can all help to strengthen Colombia's media landscape. "Colombia's media still have to get on the starting blocks if they are going to play a full and active role in the peace process," concluded panel host Martin Polansky rounding off the discussion.
Medien International is a discussion series organized by DW Akademie together with German public broadcaster ARD in Berlin. DW Akademie currently supports journalists and human rights activists in more than 20 countries in crisis around the world - including Colombia - with training workshops, seminars and advocacy measures.