From broadband expansion to innovative digital media, digital participation is rapidly improving in Colombia. The country now has an opportunity to move beyond the restrictions created by its violent civil war.
The decades-long struggle between guerrillas, paramilitary groups and the army in Colombia has shaped the country's politics and society in many ways, including in terms of its digital participation. In large part due to the conflict, many regions were totally cut off from technological development with very different concerns than issues such as Internet access.
In the third most populous country in Latin America, a security apparatus was built up in the shadow of the conflict. This security apparatus must be understood as a restriction on freedom of expression – both offline and online – which is secured in the constitution, works largely in practice and has recently been defended by the Supreme Court. The restrictions begin with an extremely long data-retention period of five years and extend to the hacking and interception of journalists. Surprisingly, data protection and data security do not seem to be a major concern either for those directly affected or for the general public. Specialist NGOs such as the Karisma Foundation and Colnodo are doing important awareness-raising and advocacy work here.
Violence prevails in social networks
Violence is deeply rooted in Colombian society, and it is also reflected in online behavior. This aspect is important to mention since communication through social networks has become part of everyday life for most people in the country. Although digital media outlets present an opportunity to raise their voices, women – in particular – are often confronted with its negative effects, such as hate speech and cyberbullying. According to observers, the number of such incidents has risen. Sometimes, those affected are also physically attacked. In light of the fact that, according to the Institute of Peace and Development, 124 representatives (male and female) of civic organizations were killed in 2018 alone, this is a risk that cannot be underestimated. The threat to human rights is as much to do with organized crime, whose power and influence extends deep into state institutions through widespread corruption.
The negative aspects of the Internet have become very clear at the political level: the referendum on the 2016 peace agreement with the FARC was accompanied by a major political disinformation campaign on social media, organized by opponents of the agreement, which was only partly counteracted by fact-checking initiatives such as Colombiacheck.
However, the ongoing implementation of the peace agreement – which officially ended more than 50 years of civil war and demobilized a guerrilla army in 2016 – gives some hope that things will improve. Most recently, however, there have been delays and setbacks in the implementation of the peace agreement, thanks in part to the rightwing populist government that took office in 2018. In any
case, the peace agreement includes a national development plan, through which the rural regions, in particular, are to be promoted. Ending the conflict with the FARC guerrilla also releases large quantities of state resources that can now be used elsewhere.
Smartphones have become part of daily life
As far as Internet access is concerned, there have already been positive developments. Colombia recently undertook enormous steps to becoming an online country. Nearly all municipalities are connected now; a majority of the population uses smartphones; and Internet penetration has reached 60 percent, trending upwards. The experts interviewed by #speakup barometer agree that the government – together with private companies – is serious about closing the digital divide and investing heavily in not only technical infrastructure, but also education to make its slogan "The digital future belongs to everyone" become reality.
Private initiatives are also working hard to get the rural population online. But setting up broadband Internet connections across the country is not easy, in large part due to weak infrastructure, difficult geographical conditions, and underdevelopment caused by the ongoing internal military conflict in certain regions. In some parts of the country, violent actors still severely restrict state and entrepreneurial activity.
Innovation is the goal
Although going online has become more affordable, accessing the Internet is still too expensive for a portion of the people. Costs must be further reduced for the declared aim that the general population participates in technological development to be accomplished.
Innovation is seen as an important policy goal in Colombia and the start-up scene is supported by the state, as well as with royalties from mineral exploitation. There are tech incubators set up with public funds and President Iván Duque has plans for further measures, including a five-year income tax exemption for new entrepreneurs.
The media landscape is more diverse
As a rule, people in Colombia today have more access to relevant information and public debates than a few years ago. The big media companies are controlled by the elite and – due to their various forms of dependence – are not critical of the powerful in politics and business. Against this background, the country's media landscape has been enormously enriched by the opportunities offered by the Internet. A large number of digital media outlets have been founded in recent years, such as “La Silla Vacía,” and have put issues on the agenda that are frequently ignored in the two major national print newspapers, including human rights, social inequality and sexual diversity.
Although new online media outlets have to survive with much fewer staff, who often work in precarious conditions, they often take an investigative approach, working at a professional level. They also employ modern journalistic techniques, such as working directly with data. Their financing is, however, challenging: Almost all of these digital media outlets depend on external sources of funding, be it from foundations or development cooperations. This raises concerns about their sustainability and independence.
A historical chance for participation
There is also a wide urban-rural divide in the media sector, insofar as there are far fewer options and a lack of variety in rural regions. Overall, the demand for information is also not particularly high either. Many people use the Internet primarily for entertainment and direct communication with family and friends.
Because most mobile customers in Colombia can use WhatsApp and Facebook without data restrictions (through the Free Basics program provided by Colombian telecommunications companies Avantel and Tigo), their Internet use is often limited to these services, since other services require the purchase of mobile data. There is still a ways to go before Colombia becomes an information society in which the majority of the population has access to all technological possibilities available, and thus is able to play an active role in society and politics. As the experts surveyed agree, the course must, therefore, be set to encourage digital participation as the country reinvents itself after its long conflict. It's an opportunity for people to get involved in ways they might never have before.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer