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Despite the challenges, Colombia is speeding along the path toward digitalization. DW Akademie works to widen access to quality media — no mean feat in a country tormented by conflict.
DW Akademie’s Matthias Kopp is DW Akademie's country manager for Colombia manager where he works closely with partner organizations to support sustainable journalism. In an interview with the #speakup barometer team, he shares his insights on digital participation in Colombia.
Matthias, you have been working on media development projects in Colombia for ten years, for four years as DW Akademie's country manager. How has Internet usage changed in that time?
Media use has moved away from traditional media onto the Internet. Nowadays, even in the most remote areas of the country, people have mobile phones – in many cases, smartphones. There might not be network coverage, but they go once a week or so to a place where they have Internet access and can download their e-mails or check Facebook. So, access to the Internet is widespread, but still limited, especially in rural areas. We are starting to see how internet presents new opportunities in the educational sector here in Colombia: For example, together with the University of Antioquia, DW Akademie offers a diploma course in "Historical memory." It’s organized as an online course, and technologically it works pretty well. The connections are fast enough; the participants normally don't have problems watching the online presentations and discussing them with their fellow students.
Beyond education and private communications with friends and family, what do people in Colombia do on the Internet?
There have been huge changes in the ability to share and find information. On the one hand, that creates great opportunities for political groups and pressure groups to publicize their positions and proposals; on the other hand, there is the risk that false information can spread more easily. We saw this in 2016 during the referendum campaign on the peace agreement. Fake news was a big issue. The problem emerged especially in closed communities such as WhatsApp groups. You could describe them as almost parallel societies with their own version of the truth. Interestingly, fake news wasn't a big thing during the presidential elections in 2018. It’s not clear exactly why; it seems that people are now aware of the problem. It is still a problem, but it's a problem that has been identified. In the end, it is a similar debate to those we have witnessed in many countries.
You suggest that people have moved away from traditional media. Does that also mean that there are new media outlets on the Internet which people use to satisfy their hunger for information?
Yes, there are some interesting projects; there is more development in this field than in many other Latin American countries. A problem is that most of them depend on international development aid. I don’t know any projects that survive exclusively on affiliate contributions or other independent funding. In general, there is very limited public financing for alternative projects, so development aid is in high demand. But we have to be careful that we support promising media organizations without creating too much dependence. For example, Consejo de Redacción, one of our Colombian partner organizations, was very dependent on one donor. They realized that and changed it. We also help organizations find their own sources of income. Offering paid training seems to be working; there is a market for that in Colombia. So, the organizations can use that market to support their journalistic work.
DW Akademie itself supports the creation of journalistic products. What is the idea behind that?
Our project goal is to help victims of violent conflicts participate in processing the past by producing media. We want to create conditions where exactly that can happen. We work in the regions hardest hit by Colombia’s civil conflict, in places where many people were hurt. We try to work with victims' organizations, small local media outlets, alternative media, and community media — not with the big national media organizations. With the Internet, we have new opportunities to reach people.
The line between journalism and activism seems to be blurring here. Is this issue being discussed in Colombia?
What we support is journalism produced by those directly affected by the issue. Here, we are talking about victims of the conflict. In terms of the line between journalism and activism, I have a personal opinion about that: Any reporting that does not clearly reflect a political opinion should not be taken seriously. In an ideal situation, journalists must be explicit about their biases. The alternative is journalism that hides its biases beneath the surface. The big media outlets in Colombia are suffering from a crisis of legitimacy – as they are elsewhere in the world. Now that everyone has the means to publish their research or viewpoints, more people should do it. So, I see no problem whatsoever with certain groups and citizens producing their own publications. Our job as an organization working in media development cooperation is to show them how they can do that in a high-quality and professional way. To show them that, with solid research, they can distinguish between fake news and facts.
What potential do you see in Colombia in the field of digital participation?
I see a lot of potentials. Every day there are new apps, formats, and experiments being released. I find the most interesting development is taking place at all levels of society, in communities that are now using the Internet to disseminate and discuss issues. Crowdsourcing also has a lot of potentials, asking the community what they can contribute to a research project. At the Akademie, we are primarily focused on political and social issues. It's about achieving social change through communication. In that regard, there are lots of possibilities and there will be many more opportunities in the future.
What are the challenges Colombia faces on the digital path?
Internet access in the countryside is perhaps the biggest issue in Colombia. The state needs to step in and support the rollout of network coverage where it is not profitable for private companies to do so. For the previous government, this was a priority. And the benefits of that are clear to see: There were serious efforts made by the government to improve infrastructure. There is an expectation that the new government will continue on this path. Everyone has an interest in making the Internet more accessible for everyone. That includes the private sector, which is, of course, important to the government.
Naturally, there is a huge dependence on international tech companies that are in private hands, like Carlos Slim's Telmex or the Telefonica group. So, you have to be careful that there are no neocolonial dependencies, meaning dependencies on external powerful players like in the colonial era.
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