Note added 10/13 – Claudia LÃ³pez writes:
I don’t have enough words to explain to you how absolutely surprised and disconcerted this reaction from El Tiempo’s directorship leaves me. It never crossed my mind that El Tiempo would fire one of their own columnists for criticizing the newspaper, even less that they would to so without warning, instead notifying me about it publicly, and even less without even offering a single argument to contradict the criticisms. I never imagined that the directorship of the newspaper would turn to someone in power, instead of journalism, to report or contradict its information or opinions.
There is neither trust nor conditions to keep writing in El Tiempo now. I can write somewhere else. I’m not worried about that. But I do believe that attention must be called to the excessive risk to Colombian democracy when the most important newspaper in the country refuses to debate well-founded criticisms about the risks and conflicts of interest between its business, political and journalistic activities.
“El Tiempo rejects Claudia LÃ³pez’s statements as false, badly intentioned, and slanderous. The Directorship of this daily understands her strong criticism of our journalistic work to be a resignation letter, which we immediately accept.”
This is the testy, thin-skinned postscript that El Tiempo, Colombia’s most-circulated daily newspaper, added to the bottom of this morning’s column from Claudia LÃ³pez, whose Tuesday missives have consistently been among the paper’s most read and most commented contributions.
The columnist and think-tank researcher, who is spending this semester as a World Fellow at Yale University, is known for being a tenacious and outspoken investigator, and gets some credit for breaking the “para-politics” scandal in 2006. Her column has made her one of President Ãlvaro Uribe’s fiercest and best-known critics. We have cited her on a few occasions.
So what did Ms. LÃ³pez write that caused El Tiempo to give her the boot? She chose to turn her sights on the newspaper itself. She argued that El Tiempo has used the “Agro Ingreso Seguro” (AIS) scandal (the subject of Friday’s post), in which an agricultural subsidy program gave large sums of cash to some of the country’s largest landholders, to benefit the presidential aspirations of a family member.
“Unlike other written media, El Tiempo did not dig deeper into the AIS program, focusing only on the scandal’s political effects,” writes LÃ³pez, noting that the scandal was, however, broken by the weekly magazine Cambio, which is owned by El Tiempo.
But LÃ³pez goes on to argue that El Tiempo’s focus on the scandal’s political effects sought to harm the prospects of one 2010 presidential aspirant – former Agriculture Minister AndrÃ©s Felipe Arias – and explicitly to help another possible candidate, former Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos. (Both Arias and Santos have said that they will run in 2010 only if President Uribe is unable to run for a third term.)
LÃ³pez backs up the allegation of favoritism by citing a web forum on eltiempo.com, an article about comments in the forum, and a political analysis article contending, without citing poll data, that “AndrÃ©s Felipe Arias emerges weakened and Juan Manuel Santos is strengthened by the AIS scandal.”
Using subtle tools like a web forum and “political analyses” to benefit one candidate is a common charge leveled against media everywhere. But in this case, the candidate allegedly benefiting, Juan Manuel Santos, is a member of the family that owns El Tiempo. (Actually, since a 2007 sale to Spain’s Grupo Planeta, the Santos family shares control of the newspaper.) Candidate Santos is also a former editor at the newspaper.
LÃ³pez’s accusation is serious and documented, and her attack is strong.
El Tiempo’s journalistic quality is ever more compromised by the growing conflict of interests between its commercial purposes (to win a third television channel) and political purposes (to cover the Government that provides this channel, and its partner in the campaign), and its journalistic duties.
In this morning’s coverage, Claudia LÃ³pez accused El Tiempo’s management of benefiting a relative’s political aspirations, and demanded that it itself. Instead of an explanation, she was publicly fired.
This is extremely disappointing from a newspaper whose prominence in Latin America would lead one to expect that its columnists could cover any topic they choose. A newspaper whose editorial staff includes Enrique Santos, the current first vice-president of the Inter-American Press Association, a prominent press freedom association. And a newspaper that, every week, publishes the often hilarious fabrications of JosÃ© Obdulio Gaviria, a far-right figure who until recently was one of President Uribe’s principal advisors.
Claudia LÃ³pez has lost her space in El Tiempo, but Gaviria, who frequently attacks her in his columns, isn’t going anywhere.