Photo: President-elect Gustavo Petro / Source: Luisa Gonzáles / Reuters
For over a decade, Gustavo Petro was a leading opposition figure in the Colombian government. His election as president now puts him on the receiving end of criticism. While Petro has been supportive of the media at times, some of his statements raise concerns. How will Petro and the press interact during his term?
The tense relationship between power and the press is at the very foundation of democracy. During Gustavo Petro’s presidency, the Colombian press will likely become a check on government power, exercise an oversight role, and influence the court of public opinion.
Colombia media outlets vary in quality, ranging from yellow journalism to prize-winning investigative reporting. But the way that Petro interacts with the press, especially reporters who are critical of his administration, will determine his democratic credentials. Petro has not always treated critical news outlets or journalists with kindness; the next few years will put him to the test.
During his term as mayor of Bogotá, Petro was known for his temperamental mood and impulsive personality. He appointed a trusted loyalist, Holman Morris, as CEO of the city’s public news outlets (including Canal Capital) and turned it into what many considered a propaganda outlet. At the same time, Petro empowered Morris to make bold moves and investments that expanded access, broadened content options, and diversified staff.
As a presidential candidate, Petro’s treatment of the press warrants mixed reviews. While he was happy to share interviews and articles that cast his government programs in a positive light, he ruthlessly attacked journalists or opinion leaders who criticized him. In one high-profile example, he tweeted that there were neo-Nazis at news outlet RCN, after the agency published a critical op-ed from conservative Jewish pundit David Ghitis. After critics lambasted his statement, Petro doubled down rather than backing off, saying that RCN used freedom of speech as a “cover for xenophobes and slanderers”.
Petro has used his Twitter account to further attack journalists. When journalists such as Vicky Dávila of Semana Magazine question or fact-check Petro, his followers often hound them. Their methods frequently rely on threats and demeaning language. Senator Gustavo Bolivar, a close ally of Petro, is believed to be behind several anonymous Twitter accounts that coordinate attacks on Petro’s critics. While Petro isn’t responsible for his followers’ actions, he has also rarely asked them to back down.
As President of Colombia, Petro will no longer be another keyboard warrior or Twitter activist; he must now abide by a higher standard. Pedro Vaca, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, has previously criticized Petro for his hostile attitude toward the press and urged him to moderate his tone. It remains to be seen if Petro’s election will prove a turning point.
Petro’s contentious handling of past presidential debates doesn’t bode well for his relationship with the press as president. While Petro attended the vast majority of debates early on in the race, once his first round victory seemed secure, he suspended his participation. While avoiding the press can sometimes be a legitimate strategy to avoid scrutiny and limit on-air mistakes, Petro’s approach toward debates changed again when he had to face Rodolfo Hernández, another critic of the press, in the runoff election. Petro became a fierce critic of Hernández’s decisions to limit his availability to the press, skip debates (or condition debate participation on friendly moderators), and use TikTok as a platform, going as far as saying “corruption cannot be fought over TikTok.”.
Petro’s changing attitudes towards debates suggest that Petro’s support for a vibrant exchange of ideas applies only when it suits his interests.
Petro’s “frenemy” treatment of the press, swinging from opportunistic support to bitter hostility, will intensify during three key points early on in his administration: when he faces growing criticism and unrest due to inflation and economic malaise; when members of his political coalition face corruption allegations; and when the incoming government faces blowback over growing insecurity in urban and rural areas alike.
Rising food and fuel costs are likely to be the first flashpoint in the Petro Presidency. Citizens will demand that Petro act to simultaneously prevent prices from soaring, increase subsidies, and avoid raising taxes on individuals. The first bouts of public unrest against the government will provide an early glimpse into Petro’s temperament and governing style, including his ability to work with dissatisfied members of the coalition, the police, and his critics in the media .
How Petro responds to his administration’s first corruption scandal will also be worth watching. During the campaign, Petro brushed away criticisms levied against members of his party list, such as former Medellín council member Alex Flórez, former Senator Piedad Córdoba, and even his own brother’s alleged attempt to improve conditions for allies imprisoned on corruption and parapolítica charges. Most recently, investigations have targeted César Pachón, a senator from Petro’s coalition, for alleged bribery, graft, abuse of authority, and coercion. As president and head of his party, Petro will have to respond to many allegations of corruption. Petro’s attitude and public comments concerning these allegations (intimidation, victimization, radicalization, or dismissal) will matter in his new role as president even more than they did when he was a candidate.
Finally, security-related incidents such as terrorist attacks and kidnappings are likely to put Petro to the test. Whether Petro comforts victims, becomes the investigator-in-chief, or resorts to conspiracies, the press will carefully pick apart his response. Petro’s reaction to the press will reveal more about tell his overall attitude toward criticism.
No matter how Gustavo Petro responds to the press in the coming years, media outlets will confront other issues as well. Petro comes to office amid a bleak outlook for press freedom in Colombia. According to the 2022 Press Freedom Index, Colombia ranks 145th out of 180 countries in freedom of expression. The country fell 11 spots compared to its 2021 ranking. Moreover, according to the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, 2022 was also the most violent electoral period for the press in the last decade.
Since his election victory, Gustavo Petro has been open to dialogue and compromise with a broad range of actors, many of whom have been sharp critics and historical opponents of the president-elect. His relationship with the press going forward remains to be seen. Criticism of the press is legitimate, especially given the declining credibility of several media outlets. However, this does not excuse elected officials who attack or censor the press.
The powerful have to be especially tolerant of criticism, even more so if they hold elected positions. For a well-functioning democracy, Petro’s defense of pluralism, open public debate, and the politics of love and life must apply not just to public policy, but to his relationship with the press as well.
Sergio Guzmán is the Director of Colombia Risk Analysis, a political risk consulting firm based in Bogotá. Follow him on Twitter @SergioGuzmanE and @ColombiaRisk.
Paola Morales was an intern at Colombia Risk Analysis and is a current undergraduate student at Universidad Javeriana. Follow her on Twitter @paolacmb9.
This piece was adapted from Colombia Risk Analysis’ most recent sector report on the communications sector, read the full report at https://bit.ly/SectorRiskCommunications_2022
All opinions and content are solely the opinion of the authors and do not represent the viewpoints of Global Americans.