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Media and corporate cartel control elections in Colombia

Colombia, Colombian, Colombian Federation of Journalists, Media Ownership Monitor Colombia, Santo Domingo Group


Media and corporate cartel control elections in Colombia

Due to the strong concentration of media ownership and the diversification of its channels, the power of a few companies to influence public opinion in Colombia is practically coercive. Writes Javier Tolcachier

It is no secret that every media outlet has an editorial line, that is to say, a way of seeing and showing things. A vision from which each media outlet (or group of media outlets) gives visibility to what suits its particular bias and interest. The idea of journalistic neutrality, the supposed “objectivity”, is belied by a basic verification: in any media there is a choice about what to publish, what prominence to give to each news item, what aspects are highlighted and how the information is narrated.

In the case of private companies, this editorial look is reduced to what strengthens their business model and, by extension, to content that defends a model that favors the interests of capital.

This observation, which is a central premise for preventing naivety in the manipulation of information and for anyone to place what they see, read or hear within the framework of the intentionality that is imprinted on all production, becomes even more important in times of political definition, such as those that Colombia is experiencing in this second round to elect its presidential candidate.

The press in Colombia

Due to the strong concentration of media ownership and the diversification of its channels, the power of a few companies to influence public opinion in Colombia is practically coercive.

According to information gathered by Media Ownership Monitor Colombia (MOM), research, carried out by Reporters Without Borders in conjunction with the Colombian Federation of Journalists (FECOLPER), “the eight largest media groups concentrate 78% of the cross-cutting audience, which means that almost four out of five Colombians receive their information through the media of these groups. The three media groups with the highest audience concentration are the Ardila Lülle organization with 28.7 percent, the Santo Domingo Group with 19.5 percent and the Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo organization with 7.3 percent. ”

Far from being only active in the commodification of information and entertainment, all these holdings have extended tentacles in very diverse fields, which explains their intimate connection with the pro-corporate socio-economic model in force in Colombia.

Carlos Ardila Lülle, who owns almost 60% of the media, “owns more than fifty companies in the agro-industrial, industrial, communications and entertainment, finance and insurance, real estate and automotive sectors. His companies include the largest sugar refinery in the country (Incauca SA) and one of the most important soft drink producers in Colombia (Postobon S.A.)”.

The richest man in the country according to Forbes, Carlos Sarmiento Angulo, controls 33% of Colombia’s financial market through Grupo Aval Acciones y Valores S.A. and owns BAC Credomatic, the largest financial group in Central America, in addition to being the main beneficiary of Colombia’s road concessions.

Its group controls 28 media outlets, including El Tiempo, a national newspaper, a business daily, two regional newspapers, seven magazines, ten digital media and two television channels, according to the MOM report.

Finally, the Santo Domingo Group, through its holding company Valorem, has companies involved in real estate, tourism, transport, media and entertainment, industry and retail. In the communications sector, it owns Caracol Televisión S.A. (the company that owns Canal Caracol and BluRadio), the newspaper El Espectador and the magazines Shock and Cromos.

RSF’s investigation also demonstrates the intimate connection between these private media outlets and the political sphere. Many individuals who have held public office are board members or shareholders in these companies.

Moreover, their owners often contribute to political campaigns, such as Sarmiento Angulo, who contributed to the campaign of former president Álvaro Uribe.

In this context, is it any wonder that all these media outlets prominently expose the attempt to tarnish the credibility of Gustavo Petro, a candidate who has made social justice his main paradigm?

While overshadowing the broad popular support he enjoys, the proposals he puts forward and the hope he represents for a people suffocated by physical and economic violence, this compact propaganda system, given the failure of its natural candidate “Fico” Gutiérrez, has promoted (and continues to do so) the eccentric and retarded figure of Rodolfo Hernández, wealthy former mayor of Bucaramanga and currently on trial in a corruption case for mediating in favour of his son with million-dollar contracts.

In recent days, the agenda of the hegemonic media has focused on placing alleged scandals in Petro’s entourage on the front page – videos of his close political circle in which possible electoral strategies are explicitly analysed – and it cannot be ruled out that a similar manoeuvre will be attempted at the last minute to discredit him in view of the proximity of the elections.

The dispute in the digital sphere

As is the case all over the world, the Colombian population does not only watch television, listen to the radio or read newspapers, but increasingly uses digital platforms to interact and also to try to inform themselves.

Google’s YouTube is the most used platform in Colombia by the population aged 16 to 64, followed by Facebook (32 million active accounts), TikTok with 13, Instagram with 12 and Twitter with 3.2 million users.

According to data collected in the report “Is there Internet concentration in Latin America? El caso Colombia”, of the 61% of the universe that uses digital platforms, 78% use search engines to find specific news information, which in Colombia, as elsewhere, is monopolised by Google (97.2% of cases).

Perhaps this is why, due to the search engine’s preferential algorithmic bias, when we analyse which pages receive the most traffic from Internet users in search of information, we find a similar lack of plurality, with few exceptions.

The ranking of the aforementioned report places the newspaper El Tiempo (Grupo Sarmiento Angulo) in first place with a 43.6% reach among the analysed public, El Espectador and Bluradio, all belonging to the Santo Domingo group, appear in second, fifth and seventh place. In third place is Publimetro (Swedish group Metro International) and in fourth, the Gilinski Group’s magazine Semana. In sixth place is, an independent news website.

Beyond this, different political communication strategists have pointed out that the digital campaign that allowed Hernández to place in the second round was based above all on Whatsapp messaging groups and short messages, with a strong emotional impact, in an attempt to differentiate himself by distancing himself from the verbiage of the tribune, but also, as usual, demonising his adversary without debating substantive proposals.

On the other hand, digital networks offer impunity, without the need to take charge of complex government plans, to debate ideas, or to be publicly confronted. At the same time, the hiring of influencers and experienced publicists on these segmented platforms allows the form to be the substance and the real political intentions to be blurred by the screen of their trivialisation.

What do the candidates propose to democratise communication?

The programmes of the two formulas differ in their general content in a defining way. The programme of the Historical Pact promotes a new contract of social and human sensitivity, environmental protection, a strong boost to the rights of women, workers, young people, the elderly, reparations for injustices against Afro-Colombian and indigenous populations, and an unwavering commitment to the fulfilment of the Peace Accords, among other issues.

In contrast, the proposal of Hernández’s Anti-Corruption League represents more of a catalogue of pragmatic measures of a typically anti-bureaucratic nature with a modernising slant, which in no way modify the neoliberal scheme in which the country is immersed.

However, despite the differences, and although in different ways, both programmes emphasise the need for digital innovation, the extension of universal internet connectivity and production based on new technologies, without any clear intention to regulate the actions of digital monopolies.

On the issue of the media, Gustavo Petro’s government platform identifies as key elements the strengthening of the public network of regional channels and media for the production and dissemination of high-quality cultural content, with an emphasis on public and community radio stations.

The program’s text also expressly includes democratic participation in state media and the reform of RTVC, Colombia’s public media system, to ensure its institutional, popular and independent character, so that it can be “the voice of the multitudes, the expression of multicolored democracy”.

It also pledges to “promote a public, cultural and institutional radio law that articulates and contains similar parameters to the TV law and to strengthen cultural and educational content, as well as its infrastructure (physical and equipment), territorial presence (decentralisation) and its alliances with symphony and philharmonic orchestras”.

The guarantees manifested in his proposal for the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press, in the context of the preservation of individual and collective human rights, do not seem to want to question or affect the accumulation and concentration of ownership present in the field of broadcasting.

In the case of the “engineer” Hernández, there is no mention in his programme of any aspects related to communication, beyond the emphasis on digital.

Once again, this election in Colombia shows that, in the absence of a major social effort to democratise and decentralise the exercise of communication, democracy continues to be a prisoner of economic power, retaining much of its plutocratic character.

Democratisation must now include, as a matter of urgency, social scrutiny of digital platforms in the form of regulation and public policies that guarantee their service to the common good.

However, even within the framework of a progressive government, perhaps urged by priorities such as ending hunger, physical violence and the violation of basic social rights, perhaps constrained by the difficulty of breaking with the communication status quo in view of a transcendental election, the impulse towards laws or policies that redistribute power over social subjectivity, power currently held by media-business conglomerates with a cartelised discourse, is not entirely clear.

The recovery of communication spaces as a fundamental human right and a premise of any real democracy will continue to be a pending mission in Colombia that the popular movement will have to demand from the new government.

Javier Tolcachier is a researcher from the World Centre of Humanist Studies, an organism of the Humanist Movement.

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Contents published under this byline are those created by the news team of BLiTZ

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