Old Stories in New Voices: An interview with Juanita León

The founder and director of La Silla Vacía, leading Colombian journalist Juanita León discusses the future of her country and industry.

Image Credit: Tania Bischof (@taniabischofdesign)

It is odd being sat in Oxford discussing events played out over five thousand miles away, but as Juanita León soon tells me, sometimes it is best to discuss things at a distance. When reading about the political situation in Colombia, certain names will continue to pop up in by-lines, León’s consistently appearing at the top of the list. This is to be expected given her serial involvement with the country’s most established publications and the flurry of awards her work has received over the years, a winding series of successes and innovations that has now brought her to St Anthony’s College as a visiting Fellow. After graduating from the School of Journalism at Columbia University in New York, León worked for El Tiempo, Colombia’s most circulated broadsheet and Semana a news and opinion weekly. As well as authoring and editing books on civil resistance by indigenous Colombians and the peace process taking place within the country, she founded the news outlet La Silla Vacía in 2009. The site provides analysis and insight into Colombian politics, mapping the root systems of power that hide beneath surface reporting, and has recently taken a firm stance against ‘fake news’ and the ‘post truth’ media.  León’s is a fascinating career, far from over and with no single place for a discussion to begin. In an effort to pin one down, I ask about her experiences of becoming a journalist in a country often stereotyped as being unsafe for those in the profession.

“Mine isn’t the usual path…being abroad as much as I have been. For a long time, in Latin America and in Colombia journalists didn’t have any training, they were mostly amateurs who liked writing.

“I was drawn to the profession because I wanted to explain things. I felt that a lot of people in Colombia, even those with money and power didn’t understand how things were done, how big public decisions were made. A lot of journalism was very formal, they never got inside and really explained… I wanted to do that more than, ‘topple the president’. Some journalists see themselves as the fourth power, an anti-power…but my main idea was to explain to the people how it all worked.

“Being a journalist now, we get so involved in what is going on, it feels like you can never stop or that the cost of stopping is too high. And at least in Colombia for a long time, especially in the 90s, being a journalist was extremely dangerous. 140 journalists were killed…the highest number before Iraq started. This idea that it is dangerous has stayed in the collective consciousness, so there’s this heroic image of being a journalist. This is still true for some, especially local, very courageous journalists in regions with organized crime, where the politicians may have links to them, or the business people have links. But I would say that these are more exceptions than the rule. Being a journalist in Bogotá, unless you are someone like Daniel Coronell who is such a great journalist  that he is really touching power in a fundamental way, most, even good ones like me, are not in danger anymore.”

León’s assessment is indeed accurate; the safety of journalists has never seen better days, but Colombia still remains 130th on the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. The great strides made still leave some distance to be covered. The principal cause of this is concentrated ownership of the media and the indelible web of connections drawn between figures on La Silla Vacía’s ‘Quién es Quién’ section.[1] There is an opacity, the problems of which recur and recur in the conversation around Colombian journalism. León’s seminal project at La silla does seem to be engaging with this. Originally stacking her roster not with veteran journalists, but the best and brightest of Colombia’s law and political philosophy students, following the new in the interest of shrugging off any enforced myopia has been the site’s MO since its inception. The focus on explanatory journalism is a furtive, but effective attack on the obfuscations and concealments that keep the powerful in place in Colombia, a task which is changing quickly in the age of social media.

“It is true now that we can see a lot of things that we didn’t before, but it’s also true that a lot of things stay hidden. If before the point of journalism was to dig up a lot of information, now if you are powerful you want to put up so much information to be dug through that you bury the things you don’t want to be found.

“The internet has changed the role of journalists in many ways. A lot of journalists in Latin America are still middlemen who bring messages from the powerful to the people and from the people to the powerful, but that role is being transformed because politicians don’t even call press conferences. They just put whatever they want up on Twitter. Society doesn’t really need the journalist to tell powerful people what they’re thinking or what they want…but that doesn’t mean we don’t have other roles that aren’t essential to journalism. Investigative journalism, explanatory journalism; they are still part of what we have to do.”

Less conspicuous changes have also been brewing in the media industry. The best weapon against consolidated ownership is, of course, independent funding. Gathering a consistent supply of funds from sources (preferably impartial) is a modern Herculean labour. In the UK, sites like Novara and Double Down continue to employ crowd-funding as a financing model, following behind the Guardian’s mesh of “supported by”, “paid content” and “advertiser content”. The challenges faced by outlets outside of monopolies are the same across the world and such adaptations have appeared with a similar frequency in Colombia, despite responding to a distinct ecosystem.

“I think that the business model is a factor that really determines content. Part of the problem in big media is that they became so dependent on advertisers, and in Colombia Government advertisers, that you become a shy reporter, especially in an economic crisis.

“But on the other hand a lot of advertising is dead for the media. It is so much more efficient to advertise using Google or Facebook…the only thing they can’t provide is native advertising.

“Philanthropy has become a big source of funding, at least in the third world, and that mean journalists start covering things that the commercial press wouldn’t cover. If an NGO wants the media to talk about hunger or poverty, this is an interesting way of making sure that those issues are made visible.”

Unfortunately, philanthropy and grant systems haven’t always provided the cleanest of breaks. Dropping bad money like a bad habit is imperative for independent media, but alternative methods are not free of criticism. At its outset, La Silla Vacía was funded by the OSF, George Soros’ grantmaking network committed to “Building vibrant and inclusive democracies whose governments are accountable to their citizens.”, a goal in concert with the transparency and rigour that guide León’s work. The directora is very much aware of the stigma Soros’ name carries, but the relationship between the two institutions seems to have brought positive results.

George Soros is potentially a controversial character because he is hated on both sides. But I think the key thing is that I totally identify with the causes that he funds, and I think his supporting of open societies where all kinds of ideas circulate is something that I truly believe in. And in any case, the OSF doesn’t fund us anymore, but in the many years they did, they never told us what to publish, they were so respectful and I never felt they were trying to direct me one way or another. I mean, I am aware they were funding me because I was as liberal and progressive as they were, I guess if I had started writing articles against gay rights, they wouldn’t have funded me anymore!”

Anyone who has seen Juanita León’s interview with former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe knows the value of an awkward question. With independent media permanently caught between the necessity of funding and the anxieties of influence it brings, I can’t help but ask about frying pans and fires- whether well intentioned philanthropists can be worse than the government, and if external financial involvement is a necessary evil.

“It depends on the case. Specifically, in the case of the OSF, since they never required any type of coverage from us and they financed us because we were already aligned with what they believed in, it didn’t make any difference. And getting any money from the government instead would have been really difficult for us since we cover them; we don’t cover Soros. But I understand there needs to be a discussion. I never saw Soros as an evil.”

León’s career has been carried by the many currents that shaped the last three decades of Colombian politics. As seen, the waters now are far safer, but hers still seems a unique position. The female founder of a new, innovative news establishment, I ask whether or not her gender has had an impact on her career, and if she has seen that change.

“The thing with Colombia is it is a very socially stratified society. The biggest discrimination is against poor people; they are so excluded from everything. Of course there are issues with gender, but when you are a rich woman, you are so much better off than a poor man, so probably just because I was privileged, I never felt, at least in the media, any kind of discrimination because of gender. And there are a lot of women that are media directors in Colombia. I guess the only time I felt ‘wow, it is weird to be the only woman in the room’ is when I get together with the owners of the media. There are very few of these meetings, but I am the only woman…I think the media in general in Colombia is quite female, so I think there are discrimination issues here [in the UK] that are not as predominant in Colombia, just because there are other sorts of economic discrimination that take over everything.”

Considering I first saw Juanita León speak in Oxford alongside former Guardian head Alan Rusbridger, it is no surprise that many of their views and experiences surrounding the future of the press were common, especially as international scope cements itself as the norm for many publications. León’s first two books, however, focused on particularly Colombian issues. No somos muchos pero somos machos[2] outlines the progress of indigenous struggle in her country, whilst País de plomo: Crónicas de Guerra[3] explored the title issue on most international bulletins when it comes to Colombia: the internal armed conflict between paramilitary groups, state forces and rebel organisations.  It was for her coverage of the 2016 peace negotiations that León earned a García Márquez Award, a decade after the bloodiest period of violence in the conflict came to a tentative close. Quickly followed by multiple political scandals, the events of the 1990s through the early 2000s play a defining role in the international perception of the country, something León has seen begin to shift, if gradually.

“The coverage of Colombia has changed a lot. When I was covering the peace protests with FARC[4] in ’99 and ’00, there were many international reporters there. Then the Iraq war started and, like a pack, they all went. And when the peace process started again, they came back, when the ‘No’ vote won the referendum [on the peace deal with FARC], , they left! The interest is very intermittent and dependent on the big issues. I think Colombia in general is not an interesting place for most reporters, but young people, especially young Europeans are interested in Latin America. Working hear, English guys and girls call me to say ‘look, I’m doing my thesis on this or that in Latin America’. But unfortunately programs like Narcos have sparked too much interest. There is more interest in Colombia because of Narcos than because of news coverage. But because Colombia is starting to resemble a more normal country…more part of world trends, young people are talking about it.”

The image she speaks of needs no elaboration. Distance can give impartiality, and León’s time in New York with Flypmedia, in Cambridge as a Harvard Nieman Fellow, or teaching journalism at New York University will have injected new perspectives into her reportage. However, the authoritative status given to callous misrepresentations of Latin America is particularly false-hearted. León is keen to stress the distinctions between the state of her industry now and in decades prior.

“I would say most journalists are freer now than before. I also think, since the demobilisation of FARC, it is harder to stigmatise a journalist by saying he is a FARC militant or sympathiser. That’s helped. With the demobilisation of the paramilitary, lots of people are freer to say things, and we have a democratic government. The problem now [for journalists] is mainly economic. Jobs have been lost, the big media companies have reduced their teams, and so a lot of journalists feel very vulnerable about their future because they know the business is changing very fast, and most of them are becoming obsolete.”

Far removed from Netflix’s reconstruction of Hacienda Napoles and other visuals of Colombian society that border on Nixonian propaganda, in 2018 certain newsrooms predicted their own dystopian scenes when discussing that year’s presidential election. Many worried that, if the current leader Ivan Duque were to prevail, his Centro Democrático would usher in a new wave of right wing governance. With perhaps the best seat in the house, reporting awards hanging off the back of it, León is less concerned with the events as they have unfolded, describing the party as “not a threat” to journalists, citing the previous ruler, Santos, as overseeing a “less vibrant” journalism due to state advertising in the media. As our discussion comes to a close, she points out that the fears over Duque, part realised and part dismissed in the times of Covid-19, are indicative of greater trends in the national conversations her work has explored and guided.

“The peace process has become like everything that happens in Colombia, you have high hopes, then there’s some reversal and you lose all hope, and then you see that things start moving very slowly and a lot more slowly than expected.

“In Colombia there is nothing revolutionary. For example, the ‘paro nacional’[5], thousands take to the streets and the media covers it. Then you see that they’ll start the discussion, be very legalistic, and maybe a little thing will come out of it, but we’ll go one step ahead, not ten steps ahead. The good thing about that is that something like Venezuela couldn’t happen in Colombia because we are just a very conservative society. We don’t like dramatic changes.

“When they de-penalised abortion in the first three months, that was a huge decision by the court, but when you see what happened with doctors saying they object to it, and it then becomes a smaller thing. I could find a hundred examples of that, where you think ‘oh this is so revolutionary’ or ‘oh this is so terrible’. Like Duque, people on the left thought the election of Duque would be the end of the peace process…a dictator coming back to power and then he comes and it isn’t like that. He starts negotiating things, it is neither good nor bad…It goes both ways.”

With Barranquilla nearing the precipice of a public health disaster, one might hope that this slow rate of change in Colombia would speed up. Growth and progress are not always visible in a narrow frame: Colombia’s ruling party was only formed in 2014, but in an attempt to keep power in the hands of the ‘superpoderosos’, and the Coronavirus is seeing once declining inequalities start to strengthen. Fittingly, León’s career has been witness to both great developments and the agonising recurrence of such old patterns. However, when it comes to opening up democracies and fomenting popular engagement, she seems to be setting the pace.

[1] ‘Who’s Who’

[2] We are not many, but we are brave

[3] Country of Bullets: Tales of War

[4] Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – Colombian Rebel group

[5] Nation wide strikes at the end of 2019