The COVID-19 pandemic impacts the work of media professionals worldwide. Investigative journalist Andrés Bermúdez Liévano speaks about how journalists cope in Colombia.
Andrés Bermúdez Liévano (right) during an interview with a Shuar community member in Ecuador in 2019
DW Akademie: What effect has the pandemic had on independent media and freedom of speech in Colombia?
Andrés Bermúdez Liévano: The pandemic has hindered particularly the independent, smaller media from being able to report from the field. Colombia had one of the toughest lockdowns in the world – we spent the larger part of last year confined. After that, the transportation connections were even more expensive or non-existent. Many rural communities were scared of receiving people from the outside, because they are much further away from specialized medical care.
The pandemic slowed down economic growth in Colombia and brought us to our most difficult economic situation since the end of the 1990s. This has been hitting media outlets, especially smaller independent ones, very hard.
How did especially local journalists overcome these hindrances in doing their everyday work? How did they protect themselves?
Journalists were very concerned about the possibility that they might be responsible for bringing coronavirus to an area that has lower access to medical care than the cities. Most journalists got tested to make sure they were not carrying the virus without knowing. They also wore masks and sometimes helmets and conducted their interviews outside.
We faced bureaucratic difficulties, too. The government issued a decree at the beginning of the pandemic that allowed government institutions to take more time before responding to public information requests because of reduced workforce. This has rendered our very robust Freedom of Information and Public Information Request Laws ineffective and less transparent – now it takes you more than two months to request any form of public information.
Could you give examples for innovative approaches with which media responded to this challenging situation?
The Spectator, a national newspaper and the only media outlet in the country that had a robust health journalism team in place before the pandemic, really hit the ground running. Nevertheless, facing economic difficulties, they were considering reducing their physical presence from a daily to a weekly newspaper. With the pandemic, they started a subscription campaign and set up a soft paywall but made all their health coverage available for free. And they had a huge rise in subscriptions that allowed them to abandon that idea of having to become a weekly.
A bunch of new media outlets were born during the year, related to the fact that some traditional newspapers laid off a lot of people during the pandemic and those who lost their jobs created their own online outlets. We will see how sustainable these efforts remain during 2021.
In the region, the dynamic has been relatively similar with slumping ad revenue, slumping subscriptions, slumping circulation numbers. Some outlets have chosen infotainment as the answer to their economic slump and their readership increased. Other media outlets have tried to go for good quality journalism.
What role did COVID-19-related disinformation play in Colombia?
We have seen disinformation originating in Asia, Africa or Europe creep up here, too, and there's been more of an appetite for fake news but also for fact checking. There was a lot of disinformation about everything from public health and COVID-19 to politics.
Few cars commute in central Bogotá due to a quarantine imposed as a preventive measure against the spread of Coronavirus in April 2021
We had a scandal with a famous influencer sharing her "prescription" for a cure against COVID-19 – chlorine dioxide. Ten months after the virus arrived in Colombia, we are still seeing gullible people falling for these pseudo-scientific and opportunistic salesmen. Colombia Check has collaborated with the Latin American Alliance of fact checkers to combat the infodemic.
The one feature that stands out in our country is the fact that part of that disinformation has targeted the peace agreement and transitional justice, and in general, our transition towards peace.
Which aspects of the media landscape could be strengthened in future to make the Colombian media more resilient to such crises?
Firstly, science journalism should be paid much more attention to in Latin America. This is an opportunity for institutions that are training and educating journalists.
Secondly, we have become more aware of how absent [awareness of] mental and emotional health has been - the pandemic has shown us the importance of mental health and emotional health as part of coverage, but also as to how it affects journalists.
Thirdly, we saw more and more cross-border collaborative journalism in the region over the past few years. For example, the website Salud con Lupa ("Spotlight on Health") is covering health transnationally, with teams across the region.
The pandemic has also shown the weak spots that we have as societies, such as social and economic inequalities – and in Latin America, the most pressing problem is clearly climate. There has been also a lot of violence associated to deforestation and loss of natural coverage.
Andrés Bermúdez Liévano is an investigative journalist from Colombia and coordinator at El Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística (the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism or CLIP). Among other topics, he focusses on environmental issues and transitional justice. In 2013, he received the Gabo Award in innovation.
Edited for brevity and clarity.