“The work of a journalist is always to counter power. The power that the president wields now, that others wielded before, and to all those in power. We must approach them with a critical eye, because this is what allows society to make better decisions.”
These were the words of journalist Daniel Coronell, just minutes after he was named Colombia’s journalist-of-the-year in October of 2013.
Coronell’s approach to journalism is one based firmly on principle — but in a hostile environment like Colombia, where reporters can be killed just for doing their jobs, that approach is not always easy.
Perhaps Coronell has less to fear as one of the country’s most high-profile journalists. He was the director of a Colombian news channel before becoming vice president of major television network Univision. He is also a columnist for Colombia’s most respected weekly newsmagazine, Semana.
Despite the advantage his fame has given him, even he was forced to spend time outside the country between 2005 and 2007 because of threats to his family. Many other Colombian journalists, particularly those who live in the countryside where illegal armed groups operate, haven’t been so lucky.
Colombia: a harsh environment for journalists
Within Latin America, Colombia is the second most dangerous place to work as reporter, after Mexico. According to Reporters Without Borders, some 56 journalists have been killed in the South American nation in the last 14 years.
Impunity for those who murder journalists is staggeringly high. A report just released by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that just two convictions have taken place in the last ten years.
Colombia has registered some minor improvements, moving it from 5th to 8th on the CPJ’s list of countries with the highest rates of impunity for journalist murders. While Colombian authorities have taken some positive steps, including creating protection programs for journalists and increasing the number of arrests, the overall decline in violence directed toward media workers has been largely due to the “waning” of the conflict with the FARC guerrillas, according to the report.
In addition to the direct violence against journalists, which has produced much self-censorship over the years, there are other institutional constraints. Many major news outlets are fiercely partisan. Until very recently, El Tiempo, Colombia’s biggest daily newspaper, was owned by members of the current president’s family. Other outlets have similar ties to dynastic families with large business interests, directly affecting their independence.
The biggest thorn in Uribe’s side
Yet even in this environment, Coronell has maintained his adversarial stance toward power, doing true investigative journalism and exposing corruption and hypocrisy at the highest levels of the Colombian government.
No one knows the potency of Coronell’s investigative work quite like former President and current Senator Álvaro Uribe, whose hard-line administration governed Colombia from 2002-2010.
It was Coronell’s investigation back in 2002 that uncovered new evidence of links between the Uribe family and drug trafficking. He discovered that a helicopter belonging to Uribe’s father — given a license while Uribe headed the Civil Aeronautics agency — was found at a cocaine processing plant in southern Colombia in 1984 (reportedly the biggest such plant in Latin America at the time).
The threats that followed the publication of this information finally caused Coronell to take his family abroad for more than a year in 2005.
In 2009, Coronell reported that Uribe’s sons had benefited unfairly from private business deals by means of government decisions made by officials who worked for their father. They represented the third generation of Uribes directly exposed in his published work.
Over the last month, the Semana columnist has released a string of revelations that have infuriated the ex-president. In deeply reported articles, Coronell has shown that Uribe — the current president’s biggest critic when it comes to peace talks with the FARC — offered the guerrillas many of the same concessions that Santos has, just to bring them to the negotiating table.
Uribe’s claims that the country is being “handed over to narco-terrorists” have been proven to be nothing more than a political sideshow. In his mediation attempts, the former president offered the rebel group a demilitarized zone for talks, public funds for “social projects” to appease the guerrillas into talking and even Congressional seats.
Coronell released the three stories over three consecutive weeks. He allowed Uribe to deny the allegations and attempt to clarify what his government did or did not offer the FARC. The journalist then exposed those denials — that Uribe didn’t give public funds to rebels, nor offer to change the country’s constitution to allow FARC members to run for office — as lies with yet another article, “The indelible traces.”
It was a wonderful display of exactly what journalists should be doing — holding powerful people and institutions accountable and exposing their hypocrisy. While Uribe has yet to be prosecuted for any of the alleged crimes he committed while in power, Coronell’s exposés may at least shift public opinion, perhaps paving the way for an eventual day in court.
Hopefully Coronell’s work inspires more Colombian journalists to take an adversarial approach the political and economic power centers — both domestic and international — that have so damaged their country.