Addressing Colombian news deserts

by Nadya Hernández
May 2, 2019 in Local News
Reporters in Colombia

In March 2019, the League Against Silence, an alliance of journalists and media outlets that fight against censorship in Colombia, published an article explaining how a representative of the House irregularly appropriated 7,000 hectares of vacant land in Vichada, one of the thirty-two states in Colombia.

The story that happened in 2014 was only publicly known five years later. According to data from the Foundation for Press Liberty (FLIP), in Vichada, 78 percent of the population lives in silenced municipalities — places where there are no media outlets that produce local news.

Colombia: A country in silence

In Colombia, 157 journalists have been murdered for reasons related to their professional work. The violence of the years-long armed conflict made journalism a high-risk profession. The persecution, intimidation and threats against the lives of the reporters sent a message of intimidation that negatively impacted the local news.

FLIP's research "Information Mapping" concluded that more than 10 million Colombians live in municipalities where it is easier to learn what is happening in the main cities — Bogotá, Cali and Medellín — than to learn about the issues happening where they live.

According to Jonathan Bock, coordinator of FLIP's Center for Freedom of Expression Studies, "The war had direct impacts on local journalism, as many media outlets closed due to violence (for example, a journalist’s murder). In addition to that, there was also a cultural barrier to debate because of fear, which has limited research and [decreased] coverage at the local level.”

Out of the 1,100 municipalities in the country, 353 have no local media and 313 have musical or entertainment media that do not transmit local news. More than half of Colombia's territory is a news desert.

This situation is similar in other countries in the region, like Brazil. According to Atlas da Noticias, 30 million people, or about 15 percent of the country's total population, live in these news deserts.

“These numbers are an urgent call to take action that incorporates different actors: universities, states, local and regional authorities and the private sector. It is necessary that everyone understands the importance of having strong journalism to protect public interests, including monitoring and controlling transparency and fighting corruption," said Bock.

Improving local media supply

Christian Barragan, director of LabMedia, believes that digital media can be an alternative to reduce news deserts in Latin America. “In a reality saturated with information, and which allows for the possibility of being virtually on the other side of the world, it seems ironic how difficult it is to find quality information about our community, neighborhood or city," he explained.

That's the reason Barragan and LabMedia are launching MediaTour, an initiative to support the creation of digital media in cities where there are little or no digital media with local content.

Through a crowdfunding campaign, he seeks to fund a tour of free workshops in 30 Latin American cities. He intends to reach more than 600 journalists and aims to create at least 90 new digital media platforms with local content.

“As a local journalist from Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela, I have witnessed the lack of local community digital media platforms, as well as the difficulties accessing economic and training resources,” said Barragan. “Research has concluded that smaller and midsize cities have less and less media; therefore, there is less local content that allows citizens to be better informed about their immediate environment."

Nadya Hernández is a Colombian journalist with nine years of experience covering issues such as peace building, democracy and local activists. She is also an International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) Fellow. 

Image courtesy of Fundación Chasquis.