Investigative journalists combat Colombia’s muzzled press with The League Against Silence

November 6, 2019

Death threats. Corruption. Kidnappings. Censorship by big money. Judicial harassment. Physical assaults. Sexual violence. Assassination.

The attacks struck journalists in Colombia like rolling waves during the South American country’s more than half-century civil war between its military, guerrillas, paramilitaries and armed actors. It cultivated a culture of terror in the Colombian press that brought with it decades of zipped lips and untold stories.

And that silence was stifling.

“It’s not just the physical threats,” said Jonathan Bock, director of Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP). “No, it’s the chilling effect that creates fear inside their news organizations and establishes that there are topics where it’s better to not even try. It’s better not to speak.”

As Bock and members of FLIP documented those threats and the investigative stories left untold due to fear or censorship, they knew they had to do something more.

Thus was born La Liga Contra El Silencio — The League Against Silence — a journalism cooperative restoring the investigative voice of the South American country’s muzzled press.

Bock and other journalists formed La Liga in 2017 as Colombia was just coming out of over a bloody half-century of civil war.

It began small, as a dream for Colombia’s press, said former Liga director Sinar Alvarado, but has since evolved into a collaborative unit made up of 16 news organizations and hundreds of journalists working to eliminate the dangers that individual reporters face.

And as threats against journalists mount worldwide and financial pressures slash investigative resources, it’s projects like La Liga that could offer solutions to other national press corps suffering the same challenges.

“When this disease exists — censorship and misinformation exists like a disease — the only real and effective cure is journalism,” said Alvarado, who worked as the project’s director for years.

For decades, Colombia was one of the most dangerous countries in the world for the press. Many of those dangers still exist today despite the country’s peace process in 2016.

Colombia still remains in red in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, ranked 129 out of the 180 countries for press freedom, below countries like Afghanistan, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Nigeria.

In 2019 alone, there have been 340 documented violations of press freedoms in Colombia, including one rape, three murders, the kidnapping of five journalists, 108 threats and 45 instances of harassment, according to data compiled by FLIP. In the past 10 years, the organization has documented over 2,307 violations of press freedoms, 17 of which were murders.

The most recent of those killings came in late October when two hitmen shot Javier Córdoba Chaguendo multiple times while he was broadcasting in his studio in the western city of Tumaco, where territorial conflicts between illegal armed groups still prompt high levels of violence. Many murders continue in impunity.

“When you’re worried about your own safety, when you’re getting messages from people saying we know where your kids go to school, when you are afraid to publish something because … you’re worried that you may face a lawsuit, that really limits your ability as a journalist,” said Natalie Southwick of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

While violence has still dropped from what it was in decades past, La Liga journalists say violent targetings have been replaced by other threats like self-censorship due to financial strains and powerful media owners that may have their own interests.

The group’s solution was to dive into key stories they knew weren’t being investigated due to corruption or fear, placing a special focus on “zones of silence”: complex parts of the country with media vacuums, like the region where Córdoba was killed. They publish their investigations with one byline: “La Liga Contra El Silencio,” and offer the pieces up to partner organizations to run.

“The stories are not signed for security; a few journalists prefer not to sign their names to avoid risks,” Alvarado said. “It (the byline) also aims to strengthen the idea of a group, a collective that is La Liga Contra El Silencio. It’s not just one reporter — it’s a group, an alliance of organizations united under this name.”

The independent project is funded by FLIP, Reporters Without Borders, the Swedish-Norwegian Fund for Support to the Colombian Civil Society (FOS) and other international peace organizations. Among its partnering news organizations are Radio Ambulante, VICE Colombia, 070 and La Pulla, the satire section of Colombian newspaper, El Espectador.

The journalists made their first splash in 2017 when they revealed that Postobón, a powerful flavored drink conglomerate and owner of one of Colombia’s largest news broadcasters, was doing laboratory tests on children in one of the poorest zones of the country.

The precedent was set.

“From there, we began to have an identity, a journalistic identity of doing stories that can take a month, a month and a half to complete,” said Bock, the FLIP director. “Where we always look for who is trying to silence these stories, and tell that, too.”

The League went from publishing a handful of investigations in its first year to publishing nearly 70 in 2018 and 2019 and multiplying the news organizations in its ranks. The phrase “according to an investigation by La Liga Contra El Silencio” has been growing commonly in Colombia’s biggest media outlets.

In 2018, a team of 20 journalists from Colombia, Ecuador and France investigated the case of three journalists who were kidnapped and killed while reporting on the Colombia-Ecuador border, the failures of governments during negotiations with criminal groups and the history of bloodshed in the region.

In 2019, the organization made international waves with an investigation into sexual abuse and corruption in Colombian women’s soccer.

Its journalists have prompted resignations due to censorship from media officials, unveiled an underreported wave of murders of poor youths in Colombia’s second-biggest city, and dived into violence against public officials in conflict zones.

“It is shifting some of the longstanding power dynamics that have been used to put pressure on individual journalists and small outlets,” Southwick said, “And taking some of the power away from the actors that have been able to impose this censorship for so long.”

La Liga has not only breathed new life into depth reporting on the country, it offers a promising model for journalists and publications worldwide that struggle with the same problems, said Southwick, of CPJ.

The concept of investigative partnerships as a means of pooling resources has been a growing trend in recent years. Many work like one from ProPublica, The Marshall Project and This American Life. They partnered to investigate the handling of an “unbelievable” story of rape, which has pulled in awards and was recently adapted into a Netflix series. Others, like Report For America, take a different approach and use non-profit resources to send young reporters to local news organizations to cover under-reported topics.

But La Liga is distinctive, said Southwick, in the way that it has constructed a more permanent platform that not only aims to consolidate investigative resources in an age when newsroom budgets are being slashed to a breaking point, but which also builds up a more protective network for journalists who may otherwise be endangered.

Thus far, it’s worked, said Alvarado. The organization has not received a single threat of violence. “I’m not saying it won’t happen, it’s pretty probable that it will eventually,” he said. “But I think the cost of threatening the Liga is bigger than just threatening a single news organization or journalist.”

As Ginna Morelo, a long-time wartime and investigative journalist, takes over the project, she hopes to build it into its own media organization, one that continues to lay the bedrock for investigative work in the South American country. But as Colombia struggles with new territorial conflicts, and polarization and corruption at every level of government, La Liga’s challenge will be to mold itself around the country’s evolving realities.

“We’ve lived through very distinctive ages,” Morelo said. “We’ve transformed, we’ve grown, we’ve changed. We’ve had to learn a lot of things, both to cover the war, and to train yourself for today’s ‘post-conflict’ — how to cover the excesses in power, corruption, and the bads that are so powerful in this country.”

Megan Janetsky is a Colombia-based journalist. Find her on Twitter at @meganjanetsky.