With peace reached in Colombia after 53 years of conflict, demobilised guerilla insurgents are directing their attention to a less violent activity: agitating political debate in the nation.
With makeup spread out on a small table covered with black felt, Yadira Suárez puts the final touches of blusher on her face as she prepares to host a live online news programme for Nueva Colombia Noticias. Minutes later, she sits down with two guests and faces the camera. “Good afternoon,” begins Suárez, perfectly poised in the small recording studio in a residential neighbourhood of downtown Bogotá. “Today we’ll be discussing the crisis in Honduras.”
Launched and run by 25 former guerrilla fighters, who along with 8,000 other combatants have handed in their weapons as part of a historic peace accord signed with the Colombian government last year, it’s a broadcast that until recently few in Colombia would have imagined possible.
Yet since February, NC Noticias has been up and running, offering daily reports and debate programmes about current affairs and Colombia’s peace process, which are streamed online and on YouTube.
Though at first glance she may resemble any other newscaster with her sleek hair and easy composure, Suárez in fact belongs to a group of budding journalists, all of whom fought for the now defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) – once the most powerful guerrilla army in Latin America, who battled successive governments for more than half a century.
Farc: a timeline
1964: Farc is founded by Manuel Marulanda – alias “Tirofijo” – who fights for land reform to defend peasants who don’t own property. Over the next decades, the guerrillas fight government troops, bomb civilian targets and take hostages for ransom.
1998: President Andres Pastrana begins peace talks with Farc.
2002: Pastrana breaks off three years of peace talks with the Farc in February. The government declares the south a warzone after rebels step up attacks. Later that year, hardliner Álvaro Uribe becomes president, and launches a stepped up military offensive against Farc.
2008: Colombian army rescues presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who was held in captivity for six years by Farc.
2012: President Juan Manuel Santos announces new peace talks with Farc. They start in Norway and later move to Havana, Cuba.
2016: The Santos government and Farc sign a peace accord in September, but a month later, voters reject the deal in a shock referendum. President Santos is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the war, after which the government and Farc sign a revised peace deal, which is approved by Colombia’s Congress.
2017: Farc formally end their existence as an armed group in June. In September, Farc launches a political party.
They hope NC Noticias can offer a different take on Colombian politics and society in a media landscape long dominated by traditional outlets. “We are informing for peace,” says Suárez, an unassuming 31-year-old, at the channel’s bland studios. “We’re spreading news that people need to know.” Suárez, who joined the Farc when she was just 15 years old, brings radio experience, having helped run the Farc’s radio station, Voices of Resistance, that once carried through the jungles of Colombia.
NC Noticias is funded by the governments of Colombia and Norway, which was a mediator during the four-year peace talks. Run by a band of ex-guerrillas, who rote learnt Marxist-Leninist dogma, it’s not surprising that the network’s editorial stance is unabashedly left-wing and anti-establishment.
But Manuel Bolívar, the 32-year-old network director, says NC Noticias aims to focus on social issues in a more nuanced way and report on inequality and injustices – from the lack of decent housing, transport, schools and hospitals for the poor to the damage caused by oil and mining multinationals in rural communities. “We must through our journalism show the reality and problems of Colombians,” says the university-educated former rebel.
For Bolívar, that means speaking up for Colombia’s often neglected and vulnerable communities – its indigenous and Afro-Colombian people – along with students and unionists, while seeking to attract a loyal following among them. “One of our main objectives is to be the voice of those who for such a long time in our country haven’t had the chance of having a voice,” he says.
During its weekly live online debate show, The Hot Table, NC Noticias also strives to bring together people from all ends of the political spectrum in what is one of the most politically polarised countries in Latin America.
The fledging reporters here are learning as they go along and receive training from media consultants. With some barely literate, getting through crash courses on basic reporting procedures and editing skills is a challenge.
They are also getting accustomed to not using words such as “imperialism”, “comrade” and “the bourgeoisie” – so often cited in guerrilla speak. “We’re learning a new language,” says Simon Nariño, who runs the channel’s technical department, and who spent three-and-a-half years in prison for crimes of rebellion. Like others on the team, he still goes by the nom de guerre he acquired while he was a rebel.
What NC Noticias lacks in expertise, it can compensate for by having journalists on the ground. About 4,000 disarmed rebels still live in 26 demobilisation camps scattered across Colombia, set up during the peace talks. The channel has two reporters in each camp, armed with laptops and cameras, who send reports back to Bogotá. This gives NC Noticias a unique position, allowing it to draw from reporters’ experience and knowledge of their former strongholds and swathes of impoverished rural Colombia that both the state and traditional media have barely ventured into. “We’re providing the possibility of telling this other [story about] Colombia that hasn’t been told in our country,” says Bolívar.
NC Noticias, though, is still far from becoming an influential media outlet. Currently, it has a tiny following – The Hot Table segment gets about 5,000 viewers tuning in each time. But this could change ahead of next year’s presidential elections. Under the peace accord, the Farc’s new political party – the Revolutionary Alternative Common Force – will have 10 automatic seats in congress.
Veteran Farc leader Rodrigo Londoño – best known by his war alias, “Timochenko” – is planning to run for the presidency of Colombia. And with a direct line to “Timo”, as he’s called by his comrades, NC Noticias will have privileged access to cover every step of the campaign of their former commander, whom they back unconditionally.
“With the upcoming presidential elections nearing, I can see this channel gaining much more support, and general interest from all sides of the debate. People will want to know about them, whether they agree with them or not,” says Steven Grattan, lecturer and researcher on the journalism and public opinion programme at the University of Rosario in Bogotá. “After years of silenced voices and harsh criticism, they will finally be given a voice – albeit a kind of propaganda machine. But this exists in other areas of Colombian politics. Colombia’s media has long been dominated by the narrative of the right-wing.”
But changing that narrative is set to be an uphill battle in Colombia: NC Noticias will struggle to convince many Colombians they are a credible alternative to traditional news media and not just a mouthpiece of the Farc.
“That’s a perception that will continue for a long time and something we face every day,” says Bolívar. “We don’t feel shamed by it. We’re precisely a journalistic endeavour that was borne out of the peace talks between the Farc and government.”
Still many Colombians, especially the urban elite, despise the Farc. They point to the thousands of kidnappings and killings of innocent civilians at the hands of the guerrillas who sowed terror during a civil war that claimed the lives of approximately 220,000 people. “The war brought many painful events,” admits Suárez. “We recognise our mistakes. We have spoken to our victims, and some have said that they have forgiven us.”
In many ways, NC Noticias reflects the struggles the demobilised Farc face as they transition from an armed insurgency to a political movement, while trying to garner trust and support beyond their left-wing sphere of influence. If, and how, disarmed rebels adapt to and carve out their place in the media landscape – and society at large – is one test of whether Colombia will enjoy lasting peace.
While Bolívar wistfully reminisces about his life as a rebel – tears come to his eyes when he discusses the past – he and his team are gradually reintegrating into society. Each former rebel is helped by a monthly government stipend of about $220 (€187), or nearly 90 per cent of the monthly minimum wage. Other ex-combatants will head back home to their villages and hope to set up small farms and businesses. Others, though, haven’t disarmed. The government estimates there are about 1,000 Farc dissidents, some involved in cocaine trafficking.
Meanwhile, for Bolívar, the fight is now played out on the airwaves and not on the battlefield. He says, with a smile, “The revolution continues.”
Colombia’s media landscape:
For decades, Colombia’s leading print media was largely in the hands of the country’s political family dynasties. Today, the country’s mainstream media and prime-time television are in the hands of another group of powerful people: billionaire magnates.
El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest circulation newspaper, was owned by the liberal-leaning Santos family from 1913 to 2007. Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s current president, is a member of the family. Self-made Colombian billionaire Luis Carlos Sarmiento bought El Tiempo in 2012. He also owns Grupo Aval, a financial conglomerate, and is thought to be Colombia’s richest person.
Another Colombian billionaire and jet-setter, Alejandro Santo Domingo, owns Caracol, a private television station that dominates prime-time evening news. The Santo Domingo family also owns El Espectador, Colombia’s oldest and second-biggest newspaper.
Colombian magnate Carlos Ardila Lülle owns rcn television and radio, the country’s second-most popular private broadcaster. His conglomerate, Ardila Lülle, also owns Colombia’s biggest soft-drink producer, Postobón.
The director of Colombia’s current affairs magazine, Semana, is Alejandro Santos, the nephew of the current president. Semana is known for challenging the status quo and criticising the government. The award-winning weekly has uncovered corruption scandals involving police and military.