Alarm bells are ringing for freedom of expression after a sharp deterioration in relations between the media and the government, which is being led for the first time by a leftist president. Frequent attacks on journalists and publications may, however, have had the effect of increasing trust with some groups, by reminding them of the importance of watchdog journalism.
Gustavo Petro – the first left-wing president in Colombia’s history, who came to power in 2022 – has repeatedly attacked the media and journalists, sending or sharing dozens of tweets which criticise them for the way they cover his presidency. He has issued corrections and made accusations of lack of transparency, targeting newspapers including El Colombiano, El País, and El Tiempo, radio stations, online magazines, and native digital media. His lines of attack are diverse – he has criticised or mocked well-known journalists on subjects including peace dialogues with illegal groups, energy policy, health reform, and even allegations of sexual harassment.
Colombia is one of the countries where attacks on journalists have a troubled context. For years reporters faced intimidation and violence from rebels and paramilitaries. The Foundation for the Freedom of the Press warned of the possible consequences of attacks by the president for the independence of journalism, recommending that he ‘refrain from publishing any message that citizens may interpret as permissive towards violence against the press’. In 2022, 218 threats to the press were reported, the highest number in the past 15 years. Two journalists were murdered.
The president, whose ‘Total Peace’ agenda seeks to end endemic corruption and fighting between factions, has run into scandal following media investigations led by the influential Semana magazine. It is alleged that his son, Nicolás Petro, received money from two former drug traffickers for his father’s campaign. The president’s brother, Juan Fernando Petro Urrego, is facing accusations that he had connections with groups which allegedly took government money which was intended to persuade small militia groups to turn themselves in to the justice system. Investigations are ongoing.
The combination of attacks and scandals has gone some way to unite the media in seeing its role as being a watchdog towards the government. This increasing confidence among publications may be one of the reasons that both traditional and digital-native media brands have seen their trust scores increase.
Some publications have taken a more openly partisan position towards the new government, especially those backed by corporations and political factions that worry about a left-wing president. Billionaire banker Jaime Gilinski, via his holding company, purchased regional newspaper El País, based in Cali, which has been at the centre of protests which paralysed the south of the country. If the newspaper becomes more anti-government in its tone, it could signal a trend towards more polarised media. Other powerful conglomerates may be eyeing up local media, which have been weakened after the pandemic.
Despite the tumultuous political landscape, overall consumption figures online and offline fell compared with last year and the pandemic peaks. ElTiempo.com, the paywalled website for one of the two national newspapers, still leads weekly online news use (29%), with Noticias.CaracolTV.com, the digital arm of private national TV news network Caracol TV, in second position (23%). One factor helping explain falling online news consumption is the ongoing shrinking of Facebook as a news platform. Fewer people are using it, thanks in part to the rise of platforms like TikTok, which is popular with younger users, but not such a powerful driver of traffic to publisher websites.
But people actively avoiding the news (41%) and polarisation will also be at play. Respondents say they are avoiding particular topics (36%) and checking news sources less frequently (25%). Among those who actively avoid news topics, four in ten say they are avoiding national politics; three in ten are avoiding stories about crime and the war in Ukraine.
Big free-to-air TV news channels are still hugely influential in Colombia. Caracol News TV, part of privately owned Grupo Valorem, and RCN News TV, part of Ardila Lülle Organisation, are the biggest offline news sources but both saw falls.
High inflation, high unemployment, and tough economic conditions have led to many small businesses closing, but they seem not to have been translated yet into a dent in online news subscriptions, which are small but growing: 14% of respondents say they paid for a subscription, 2 percentage points higher than last year. El Tiempo and El Espectador are using AI and other automatic technologies to find successful ways to convert users into subscribers.
Full Professor and Director, Doctoral Program in Communication, Communication School, Universidad de La Sabana, Bogotá, Colombia
Colombians in our more urban-based sample get their news more frequently online (including from social media) than from TV or print, which are both losing reach. TikTok saw a big rise for the second year in a row, part of a wider trend with younger people across South America.
Pay for online news
Trust in news overall
Trust in news I use
Trust in the news (35%) remains low by global standards, possibly related to concerns about both political polarisation and the spread of misinformation. Some media outlets have increased their trust scores in the last year, perhaps a reward for persistence in the face of attacks by the president. NoticiasUno (71%) and NotiCentro 1 CM& (63%) are among brands to have seen biggest increases this year.