While Internet is one of the most powerful means of communication of our century, Colombia is knowing and using it in many ways. In a Spanish nation, with a certain amount of disdain for English, most of the sources of information about this South American country comes exclusively in Spanish. English sources can be rare and the image of Colombia to the international media would be confusing if one has to rely only on online translations. ‘Translator is traitor‘, said Luther. However, this new century brings a new challenge for the spreading of information on Colombia in English, due to the presence of foreigners and Colombians from the diaspora who are exposed to the English-speaking world.
I did an online interview to Adriaan Alsema, the creator of Colombia Reports, a news website that focuses on Colombian in English. I spoke also with Brian Andrews, an US journalist journalist based in Colombia and working for RCN.
A dialogue made between persons who are separated by thousands of miles, already shows the power of the Internet and its importance for modern-day journalism. It also a dialogues between three expatriates: a Dutch and an American in Colombia and a Colombian in Cambodia !!!
How is it that a Dutch decides to leave his Netherlands and come to a country like Colombia?
AA: After 32 years Holland got very boring. It’s a beautiful country and everything’s fine over there, but I had trouble finding something to do that really interested me.
You are a musician and creator of the ‘Good-Looking Intellectuals‘… tell us a little about this group, is it still alive, what is going to come?
AA: It’s just a band I started with a few friends. We made an album, did some shows, made some more songs and that was it. I think they’re still playing together, so if I want to continue making music here. I now don’t really have the time or the equipment to make music, but I would love to start a Colombian band and call it Doctor Love y los Gringos Postizos. Would be a laugh.
I have listened to some of your music and you are using Spanish… why this experiment to use different languages… is it the coming of a new modern inter-language pop? Which Spanish you feature? Colombian? European? Paisa?
AA: The Spanish I used in some of the songs was Google Translator Spanish with some Paisa and Venezuelan slang added to it. I didn’t really speak the language then. I just thought it sounded cool.
How has been to adapt to Colombia? Why Medellín? What do you think about this country? Are you afraid of Colombia? What your people say about you living in a city that was hold as ‘the most dangerous of the world‘?
AA: Adapting to Colombia is hard sometimes, because of the cultural differences. Where in the Netherlands everything is easy, here everything is hard. Sometimes this discourages me. Colombia is like a very sexy, but very bad girlfriend. She does all kinds of things wrong and keeps hurting me, but I love her with all my heart.
How was Colombia Reports born? How does it work? What are your future planes?
AA: Colombia Reports started as a weblog just to bring Colombian news in English in a way it wasn’t being brought. Even though Colombia is one of the most important countries for U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, the information available to those that don’t speak Spanish was very limited. The only time Colombia would be in the news is when something really good or really bad was happening. When we started in 2008 there was a very polarized discussion about Colombia. Uribe was either God or Satan and the FARC was either a group of liberators or a group of terrorists. Obviously things are a little more complicated like that, but if you do not have access to information you can’t really see the complexities of issues. The website has become the biggest news source on Colombia in the past year, despite competition and I hope to be able to make a profitable website that adds to a good debate and hopefully improved policies in Colombia, the U.S. and Europe.
Do you think an English-language media will have success in a Spanish country? How is the relation with Spanish media in Colombia?
AA: Our audience was never really meant to be in Colombia. We’re gringos after all and Colombians have dozens — and some very good — news outlets in Spanish to read or listen or watch. However, we are increasingly being read inside the country too. I think we just make a sort of round-up of what’s being brought in all these media. We unfortunately hardly have a relation with the Spanish-language media outlets here. I talk to Brian Andrews of RCN and Bertha Villa of El Colombiano regularly, but most attempts to just say hi to the traditional media here were fruitless. Colombian media can be very closed.
What do you think about Colombian journalism?
AA: There is some really good and really bad journalism in Colombia. When you look at what guys like Hollman Morris are doing it will be difficult to find a journalist anywhere in the world with balls like that. There’s a new breed of blogs like Silla Vacía (Empty Seat) that are doing an excellent job in reporting and of course there are internationally respected papers like El Espectador or Semana. Add to that CM& and at times W Radio and Caracol Radio and you find you have access to a broad range of information. Unfortunately, the “good’ news outlets not really very successful in reaching the broadest audience, so most people get their information through RCN or El Tiempo, media I consider insults to news consumers.
You know journalism in Colombia is a profession technically ‘under fire’, even if we can say that things have improved in the last years. However, denounces of the Federation of Journalism for Freedom of Press often report abuses. What do you think about the freedom of press in Colombia? Have been you an object of any pressure to this regard?
AA: The freedom of the press is mostly under fire on a local level. Journalists of local newspapers or radio stations are the ones who receive most the threats. On a national level, you see that certain media just are not critical at all and are just trying to make money. The government is one of the biggest advertisers on for example television. This gives the government a lot of influence in media and makes it difficult for media to function independently. The same can be said about Fox, CNN or MSNBC and their links to corporate America though.
Information about Colombia in English is often done by foreign media. Do you think such information is reliable?
AA: Information always is partly reliable. It’s important to use several news sources to make sure you hear all sides of the story. CR tries to bring as much news from all sides as good as we can, but thinking CR we will inform them enough, is wrong. You always need more than one news source and should never rely on one news source to inform you. All news is made by humans and humans forget things or understand things wrong.
Colombians tend to ‘promote’ Colombia ‘showing the ‘good things about their country’. What do you thing of such a position? Can it be objective?
AA: People that do that forget that only showing the good things is withholding information. Colombians are very sensitive about the image of their country and rightfully feel stigmatized about how the country’s been portrayed. I think the answer to the stigma is not showing only the good sides, but showing that things are a little more complicated than people think and that Colombia has it’s pretty and its ugly things like any country.
What is the dream of Colombia Reports, its future plans?
AA: My dream is to establish Colombia Reports and make sure it can function independently and inform people the best way it can. If CR can transform itself to a profitable and reliable news source and add to a healthy and well-informed debate in both Colombia and abroad I will have something to be very proud of.
Recently you associate with Colombia Passport, a blog magazine on Colombia… why this? Is it going well? is the magazine inside the projects of Colombia Reports?
AA: While Colombia Reports became more a newspaper with lots of facts and quotes etc. Colombia Passport already had developed itself as a website with more space for analysis. Sometimes the perspective gets lost in 200 / 500 words articles. A magazine however is able to add perspective to the daily news and in its own way, add more to the debate. Facts need to be analyzed and Colombia Passport offers that possibility.
Briand Andrews from RCN News
The number of readers is growing. Surely Colombia Reports will become a reference for information about Colombia in English. We have to update that Colombia Passport became a blog once more and it has not more relations with CR.
What other media says about CR? We tried to contact some journalists who reports about the country in English. The only answer was from Brian Andrews from RCN Colombia News, who is reporting from Colombia, but has little contact with CR as he mentioned.
BA: As for your other questions, RCN News in English/www.colombianews.tv is the first English-language video news to be produced in Colombia for a global audience. Many of our viewers are in the United States, Canada, and Europe. We also know a huge number of Colombians in the country watch us to improve their English. We also know many non-Spanish speakers who live in Colombia watch our online programs to stay informed with what is happening here because there are only a few options for news in English here. In addition to our internet product, RCN News in English produces English-language editions for TV Colombia, Noticias RCN’s 7am and 1230pm editions, and for Avianca. Starting next month, our video clips in English will be shown in more than 300 taxis in Bogota that are participating in the Taxi TV project.
What is the purpose of the channel in English?
BA: The purpose of our program is simple: To bring Colombia to the world in English. We want to show everything about Colombia… the good and the bad… to give people the information they need to make an informed opinion about the country and what’s happening here. We realize there are very few options out there right now. And our internet platform is the most effective way to reach the world with the news from Colombia. We have spent several months making our website more searchable on Google and Yahoo. Plus, more people are getting their news from the internet than watching TV… so online is the best way to spread the word about Colombia!
We are also interactive. We invite viewers to send us their beautiful photos from Colombia for inclusion in our changing photo banner at the top of our home page. We also solicit comments and feedback from our viewers on both our homepage and in our new Facebook fansite. You can get there by going to facebook.com/colombianews.
Do you think Colombia is ready for information produced in English?
We believe Colombia is ready for English-language news. So many people who live here want to speak a second language. We also believe the English-speaking world outside the country wants to know Colombia. I believe our timing for this project is perfect. I’m also very pleased with our reach.
What about the freedom of press?
In terms of Freedom of the Press, I have never encountered a situation here where I have been prevented from covering a particular story. My greatest challenge in getting information is getting people to return phone calls and emails. Colombia is still a very closed place, unless people know you. Its not like the US where you can just pick up the phone and call someone for an interview. Here, it takes weeks, in same cases, for people to call you back on a story. It’s just how it is here. Another challenge we face is that many of the Government entities or Ministries we need to deal with do not have people who speak English on staff that can facilitate media issues. This is why my bilingual staff is very important.
This is then the picture of how it is developing. Surely, the English reports on Colombia will follow a similar scheme of what happens in Spanish: in a side big companies of information like RCN, Caracol, El Tiempo… In the other side, independent groups like Colombia Reports and Colombia Passport or forums like that on poorbuthappy.com. The goal should be always what news consumers expect: get the more objective view on Colombia. Let’s see how it will develop in the next years.