Closed Signal – Translation
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today we’re starting with an audio which was recorded secretly. I’m warning you the quality isn’t great. Here’s the context: it was December 2018 and the voice you’re going to hear belongs to Juan Pablo Bieri, who at the time was the manager of RTVC, the public media system of Colombia. He had called the director of one of the television channels to his office…
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: Listen, Diana, I’m very worried. What’s that guy’s name?
[Daniel]: He said he’s worried about one person in particular: “a guy” whose name he can’t remember. RTVC’s legal counsel tells him the name.
[Martín Pimiento]: Santiago Rivas.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: Santiago Rivas, what do we do with him?
[Daniel]: “Santiago Rivas, what do we do with him?” Rivas is a Colombian journalist. He’s known, among other things, for hosting a TV show: Los puros criollos, which airs on public channels.
Later you’ll understand what Bieri is worried about, but let’s get back to the recording. Here Bieri asks the channel’s director a very concrete question:
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: So how do we make sure that he doesn’t appear on our products anymore?
[Daniel]: It’s a powerful question: what do we do to make sure Santiago no longer airs on public television. They couldn’t fire him because he wasn’t on contract with RTVC directly. So, he threw out some ideas…
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: We change his timeslot. We kill production.
[Daniel]: “We change his timeslot. We kill production.” he says.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: We move him to 3 a.m. I don’t know, but… but this can’t stand.
[Daniel]: Bieri proposes moving Santiago’s show to 3 a.m. In other words, take away his audience. What’s clear is that Bieri wants to remove Bieri from RTVC. And right after this, he gives some explanation why.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: He doesn’t know, I mean, he has no idea what he’s saying. And, secondly, he’s mocking… he’s mocking the state. He’s mocking the entity that puts food on his table, that pays his salary.
[Daniel]: He says, “He’s mocking the entity that puts food on his table, that pays his salary.”
What you hear in this recording, what the director of RTVC is ordering has a few clear causes and later had a few important consequences in Colombia.
Our producer David Trujillo continues the story.
[David Trujillo]: Maybe it’s important to get to know more about Santiago Rivas first. He’s a self-declared “jack-of-all-trades, ” meaning he does a little bit of everything.
[Santiago Rivas]: Visual artist, without a degree, turned journalist, turned TV host and through all this, a DJ and illustrator.
[David]: He’s 37 years old, and of these jobs, the one that bears on this story is his work as a host. In 2008, some friends recommended him to Néstor Oliveros, a television producer and director who was looking for a host for a new project he had in mind. Santiago had never done anything like that, but he felt comfortable with the idea.
[Santiago]: I had never had a problem with speaking in public. That’s something that… ever since I was little, I’ve been very histrionic. Not necessarily a good actor, but histrionic. So, I can do impressions, play parts, mess around, those kinds of things.
[David]: Besides, he liked the idea of the show: up to 30-minute episodes telling the stories behind unofficial national symbols like the sombrero vueltiao, emeralds, aguardiente, the National Team’s jerseys. It was going to be called Los puros criollos.
(SOUNDBITE MUSIC FROM “LOS PUROS CRIOLLOS”)
[David]: The show would take part in an RFP, or a competition among other proposals to become part of Señal Colombia, one of the public channels.
And here I have to explain something quickly: in 2004, the government decided to combine the public media outlets and created RTVC —National Radio and Television Colombia— the organization we mentioned earlier. The plan was that it would be supported by public resources and it would have the autonomy to make decisions. In other words, the government wasn’t going to make choices about its content.
In terms of television, RTVC took over the public channels that already existed at the national and regional level, and modernized them. One of those public channels was Señal Colombia, which has existed since 1970 and has had several names but has always had the same goal: offering people cultural and educational content.
So, in order to achieve that goal, Señal Colombia makes some of its own content and also opens up RFPs to choose products they think can work. Los puros criollos, for example, was a perfect match for what Señal Colombia was looking for: a cultural, educational show that talks about Colombia and its traditions.
[Santiago]: From the time we started making Los puros criollos, I knew there was a call for proposals at Señal Colombia, but we weren’t sure we were going to win. We had to go through all of the steps of the process.
[David]: And among those steps was the casting that Santiago finally hosted…
[Santiago]: I did a little of what I’ve always done. In other words, I get the script, I write in notes, take advantage of what Oliveros had put in, put in some things of my own, and improvise on those two things. And there the text was taking shape, as it were.
[David]: The people at Señal Colombia were so happy with that casting, which ended up being the pilot, that Los puros criollos ended up winning the RFP. Santiago would be the host and one of the writers. They gave them resources to make the first season, and in 2009 it went on the air. In every episode, they highlighted and explained some aspect of Colombian folklore. For example, la ruana…
[Santiago]: But not the yarn ruana, which is known as a poncho or a mulera. But rather, the real ruana: the wool ruana. Our symbolic article of clothing born and raised here.
[David]: Vallenato music.
[Santiago]: A rhythm that not everyone likes, but we all identify with.
[David]: Or Macondo.
[Santiago]: A place you can’t find anywhere but you can also find everywhere.
[David]: In total, there were 13 episodes in that first season.
The show was on at 7:30 at night: one episode a day. But their ratings weren’t good.
[Santiago]: At the time, Señal Colombia’s audience was very small.
[David]: But ratings in Colombia are measured on barely 1,100 television sets in the whole country, a very small percentage of viewers. For that reason, it’s hard to make precise measurements of the channel’s content. Besides, since social media was just getting started at the time —2009— there wasn’t much contact with audiences. So Señal Colombia decided to make their own measurements: they took their shows to different regions…
[Santiago]: To ask people what they thought of one or the other, and see how they rated them. And the top-rated show then was Los puros criollos.
[David]: And that got them to a contract renewal. So, they prepared a new season, but for bureaucratic reasons, it didn’t come out until three years later, in 2012.
People remembered Los puros criollos a little more then because reruns from the first season were still airing on different schedules. They also started recognizing Santiago, who was doing better and better as host.
[Santiago]: Obviously, at first, I was more timid in my improvisations. And obviously, I had a more, well, rigid style, you know? Years later, I obviously have a better… a much better flow.
[David]: And with that second season they were preparing a third and then a fourth. They also got national and international awards, and even though their ratings didn’t compare to the shows on private TV…
[Santiago]: It’s a show that a lot of people have seen, and it’s the most memorable program on Señal Colombia. I’m very proud of the show.
[David]: And ten years after Los puros criollos was born, Santiago still recognizes that the prestige of the program and the awards…
[Santiago]: Have brought me a lot of good fortune. I mean, well, not fortune like a cigar, a top hat, and a monocle, but, I mean, good fortune in work: it’s brought me a lot of work opportunities, some more interesting than others. And that, well, all I can do is be grateful.
[David]: Santiago became a public figure because of the program. They started hiring him to host events. They invited him to participate in radio shows, to write columns, and do commercials. He even hosted other two shows on public television.
His social media following also started growing, and there he would share his opinions on various topics there, including national politics. As always, there were people who supported his opinions and others who didn’t, but in any case, Santiago gave his opinions on whatever he felt like: he criticized the government, the opposition, injustice, violence, corruption.
They never said anything to him about his opinions in public media, and on the show…
[Santiago]: The only thing they didn’t allow was… and well, OK, that’s good, jokes that could sound victimizing. That was the only editorial filter, nothing that could seem sexist, racist, classist.
[David]: But they didn’t tell him anything else.
[Santiago]: I’ve been saying what I feel like on Señal Colombia since 2009. That hasn’t… I’ve never gotten any complaints about it.
[David]: Not even when he was giving his opinions against the government. And it’s worth clarifying that because even though the spirit of public media is to be independent, in most cases there is a political presence. In executive meetings, for example, there are people who are put there directly by the government. But even so, with such a pronounced government presence…
[Santiago]: There was never pressure on any kind of content. There was never a… censorship against anything. No… I mean, I… that I.. I knew of, never.
[David]: In May of 2018, while Santiago was preparing to release a book in which he criticizes Colombian politics and society, and they were just about to begin filming the fifth season of Los puros criollos, something important happened.
As a requirement of an international agreement, Colombia was supposed to pass several laws. Among them, the one that bears on this story, was a law that changed public media outlets.
Santiago found out about this bill not because it was being followed in the media, but because since he’s worked in public television since 2009, he knows its operation and talks about those issues with the people who work at RTVC. This new bill was known as the MinTIC Law, because it was presented by the Ministry of TIC, or Information and Communication Technology (by its Spanish initials).
[Santiago]: Reading the… the bill we were finding serious objections. Two that were fundamental to me.
[David]: One was that it left public television with practically no money. The reason is a little complex, but I’ll try to explain it: the waves that carry the internet, radio, mobile phones, and television travel across what’s known as the radio spectrum. It doesn’t have a physical form, it’s just the medium these waves move through and it belongs to the State.
But let’s focus only on TV. Private media outlets and cable operators have to pay that State for a license to use the radio spectrum. All that money goes to public television and it covers the majority of the financing for its content.
So, what the law was proposing was that private media outlets pay less for those licenses, which originally lasted ten years, but can now last up to 30 years. This, obviously, wasn’t a good bill for public television. For Santiago it was clear that:
[Santiago]: The problem wasn’t just that public television was losing its funding, but also that it was creating an oligopoly in the country’s economy. An oligopoly of people who aren’t being asked for anything greater either.
[David]: An oligopoly, or a small group of companies or people who control an entire sector of the economy. The law was more interested in looking out for the private outlets’ interests than the public outlet’s.
But there was another worrying aspect of this new bill. They wanted to create —and forgive me for using such an obscure term— a “converged regulator.” There’s already something like it called ANTV —National Television Authority (by its Spanish initials)— but in this case, it would be more dependent on the president.
[Santiago]: In other words, it guarantees that the government will regulate public television content, which is a horror. That set off a very big alarm.
[David]: Because, OK, that regulator is necessary because it’s the entity that apportions money to public media outlets, it guarantees that the whole country has access to them, and on top of that, they give space on the shows to every region, to indigenous ethnic groups, and to Afro-Colombian populations. But one thing is very clear: public media cannot depend on any government. That’s their spirit and what makes them really public. No one imagines, for example, that BBC or Televisión Española having a party affiliation or promoting government policies.
So Santiago got together employees at RTVC, foundations, unions, and activists criticizing the MinTIC Law and started fighting back.
[Santiago]: When I say put up a fight, I mean having sit-ins, uh, calling people together, sharing memes. That’s all we have, I mean, all we have is a WhatsApp chat and some Twitter accounts.
[David]: They asked for support from journalists, actors, and writers to explain the implications of the law to the people and to ask the government to sit down with the sectors involved to discuss a new bill that would be more inclusive and better designed.
The media started paying attention to the issue: articles came out about the lack of funding for public television and how little time congress had to discuss such an important change. And it worked. A few days before the deadline to vote on the law was up, the government asked Congress to table it, and the fight stopped there.
Though, of course, it wasn’t a total victory for those who opposed the law because, to be exact, the bill was “tabled.”
[Santiago]: In other words, not voted down. Which means that you could take that text and it… make a few modifications and re-introduce it.
[David]: Introduce it to Congress, again, in the next legislative period.
On August 7th, two months after, a new president took office.
[Iván Duque]: Today, a new generation motivated by service and not by vain exercises of power comes to the presidency of Colombia.
[David]: President Iván Duque came to power with the support of former president, Álvaro Uribe, in other words, representing the political right in Colombia. He named Juan Pablo Bieri —who we heard at the start of this episode— director of RTVC. Bieri was the press officer of his campaign. He’s a journalist, and he was a host and reporter at various private media outlets.
This is an interview that Bieri gave a few days after being appointed.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: It’s an enormous responsibility that… that the president of the Republic, Iván Duque has placed on me. I’m here defending with, uh, all my might public media, public television, public radio, the information that every citizen has a right to.
[David]: Santiago didn’t hear about the change in management. He knew there was going to be someone new, but he assumed that everything was going to keep going without much change, like it normally happened in these cases. Besides, he didn’t have a contract with Señal Colombia, and since he had already recorded the fifth season of Los puros criollos, he didn’t have any ties to the channel.
At the time, he was worried because they had dusted off that controversial MinTIC Law, made a few changes to it, and introduced it to the new Congress. The new bill was presented in September by the new TIC minister, Sylvia Constaín, who had previously worked at private companies like Facebook and Apple.
So, even though the bill had some changes —like no longer taking money away from public television— in general, it was very similar to the previous bill, because, in the end, the government was going to control everything through the famous converged regulator. But instead of being completely independent, like international organizations recommended…
[Santiago]: They decided to create a converged regulator and make it zero percent autonomous.
[David]: And yes, that’s very dangerous. But since the bill isn’t at all clear —it uses very convoluted language, and, besides, it’s very boring to read all 56 pages of it— it was easy for it to pass into law without being discussed in depth. Because, as Santiago says…
[Santiago]: If you do something that seems to bore people, or seems not… not to captivate them, that doesn’t have a… a direct connection to their life, well, immediately, people let it happen.
[David]: That’s why the goal of the opposition was…
[Santiago]: To make the fight against the bill visible.
[David]: They had to sound the alarms.
Santiago used his social media to tell people what was happening. He also sought out opinion leaders who could help him tell the story. This woman was among them.
[María Paulina Baena]: I’m Maria Paulina Baena. I’m a journalist, and I’m a screenwriter and host of La Pulla, which is a video-column here at El Espectador.
[David]: El Espectador is one of the most important newspapers in Colombia. In 2016, a group of journalists, including María Paulina, started an audiovisual project to broach all kinds of topics —especially politics— rigorously, with facts, figures, and research, but at the same time…
[María Paulina]: We started to wonder, well, what can we do to reach young people in a direct, everyday language, but also make it cool, make it fun, but also make it biting, so it could have criticism and on top of that we could contribute something.
[David]: What they came up with was La Pulla: videos that offer criticism on topics like public education in Colombia, the LGBTI situation in Latin America, and corruption cases. The name of the column has a clear intention, because the idea is to pullar [call out, criticize] people in power.
[María Paulina]: Pullar, calling people pout, is the best way to make people upset.
[David]: And they started making people upset not just because of what they were saying, but because of the number of people who were watching them. One of their videos can have more than 500,000 views, and keep in mind that’s just on YouTube because they also publish them on other social media. That’s why Santiago contacted María Paulina in late November, because he needed to call attention on social media. On top of that, he had already collaborated with them on a few videos, so he knew the tone of their scripts and how they worked.
[María Paulina]: He said, “Oh! I need to talk to you about a law that’s going around and that they wan… that is super crooked and misleading”.
[David]: In other words, a law that would be harmful to public media.
Maria didn’t know what he was talking about, so Santiago told her everything: the fight they’d been in since early that year and the points that, according to the people who criticized the law, were very dangerous for public media in the country. He also told her how quickly they were moving the bill through Congress, and that the government needed to pass it before December 16th, when the legislative session ended.
Maria Paulina and the others at La Pulla were interested in the issue. So they started writing and investigating.
[María Paulina]: And we put a lot of care into it. We hammered out that text and that script a lot until we had it finished but, in the end, we realized: “This needs… It needs oxygen. This needs Rivas.” And I called him and said, “What if we hosted this together? You’re so involved in this topic.”
[David]: Santiago accepted, no problem. He brought up a few things in the script and they filmed it on December 4th. They published it two days later.
[María Paulina]: There’s an issue that’s slipping through the cracks that neither Congress nor the media want to touch. It’s a classic case of a law they try to pass in secret while you’re stuffing yourself with Christmas dinner. Don’t get stuck on the name, it’s called the Convergence Law or the Public Television Law. To explain this law, we brought in a friend of the show and expert in criollismo. Here’s Santiago Rivas!
[Santiago]: Let’s get down to why we’re here: it turns out that this law which they gave such the flowery name of TIC Law or Law of…
[María Paulina]: We made a sort of a script, oh, of the problems with this law, dissecting them more, you know?
[David]: Everything we told you earlier. After explaining one problem after another, the video ends like this:
[María Paulina]: What we’re left with is a law with a lot of drawbacks, and a government and a Congress that aren’t discussing it with the people involved. This is clear: they would rather approve it by way of a complicit silence and then plow through public television. Crafty!
[David]: When this video went out, a lot of members of Congress in the opposition started sharing it on social media with warning signs like: “Hey! “What is this?” People started paying more and more attention to it, and something that had gone unnoticed for months prior was now getting attention.
[Santiago]: Everything ended up happening on December 6th.
[David]: Which was when it was published. And soon you’ll understand what he means when he says “everything.” That day, Santiago went to RTVC headquarters to host an audition for a new project he was interested in participating in. He was already done, and he was about to leave.
[Santiago]: I ran into a bunch of people from Señal Colombia, including the producer assigned to the fourth season of Los puros criollos who’s a friend of mine, and he told me, “Listen, no, we’re really sad because they just told us that a lot of people aren’t going to have their contracts renewed.” And I said, “What do you mean?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, they fired us. They fired us.”
[David]: They weren’t fired exactly, rather, as their contracts were up, they had decided not to renew them. It was 19 people who had been working there for several years, and they didn’t give them clear explanations for the decision.
Santiago, affected by the news and in solidarity went to get a beer with them. But while they were talking about RTVC and the new management’s decisions, he found out, among other things, that they had pulled the plug on promoting the new season of Los puros criollos. And that’s not all.
[Santiago]: That was when they had told me that they had ordered a line-up update saying that Los puros criollos would not air that Thursday.
[David]: By “line-up update”, he’s referring to the document in which you find programming changes. Reruns of old seasons of Los puros criollos aired Monday through Friday at 7:30 p.m. That had been established for a long time because it was the show with the best ratings. The idea was that people would watch it and keep watching the rest of the programming. But Santiago didn’t really understand what was happening.
[Santiago]: I was left thinking, like, “Hey, you know? What the hell… Like, why? you know?” It’s weird because I was trying to understand what had motivated that move because, well, I didn’t have a contract. I wasn’t getting money for those reruns either.
[David]: So the decision couldn’t have been about changing the team, like what had happened with his friends.
That same afternoon, they talked about that on a radio show that was covering the MinTIC Law.
[Journalist]: You know what Los puros criollos is, right?
[Gustavo Gómez]: Yes, yes, it’s a great show with Santiago.
[Journalist]: Well, a series of reruns were scheduled to air throughout the week. Today, Rivas was on La Pulla.
[Gustavo Gómez]: Oh, yes. On El Espectador. I saw that.
[Journalist]: Yes, sir, and he was speaking precisely about this topic. He’s, more or less, one of the most visible faces that has opposed the TIC Law.
[Gustavo Gómez]: Yes.
[Journalist]: Well, they removed the scheduled reruns of Los puros criollos.
[Gustavo Gómez]: I mean, they’re upset with Santiago. Oh, but every action has its governmental reaction.
[Journalist]: It seems so. That’s the problem with having no independence in public media, right?
[David]: Los puros criollos isn’t a show that criticizes the government. And Santiago never used it to express his personal opinions, but there seemed to be no other explanation.
[Santiago]: I mean, to me it’s totally clear that they had gotten rid of them because I was putting up a fight and because the La Pulla video aired. Well, obviously, I feel upset, right? I feel… I’m angry, and at the same time, I’m sad.
[David]: The next day, December 7th, La Pulla recorded a video asking why they had done that to Los puros criollos.
[María Paulina]: What a coincidence that just yesterday we published a show with Santiago Rivas, the host of Los puros criollos, in which we criticized a law backstabbing public television.
[David]: And in the end, she concludes with this.
[María Paulina]: Welcome to the government were the people who stay quiet look the best.
[David]: Santiago also published a video on his social media.
[Santiago]: That is no way to defend a bill. That is no way to solve problems. We aren’t enemies because we’re critical.
[Daniel]: At the time, Rivas’ theory was based solely on the coincidence: the La Pulla video goes up and almost immediately they cancel promotion for the fifth season of Los puros criollos and take the reruns off the air.
That audio we heard at the start of the episode, of Juan Pablo Bieri, would come out later. But that first week in December, you could already tell that what was happening was a kind of censorship.
We’ll be back after the break.
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Before the break, it seemed that RTVC was censoring Los puros criollos in retaliation for Santiago’s activism against the MinTIC Law. And, suddenly, the journalist became news.
[Santiago]: And that Friday it was a big thing. I didn’t stop responding to chats all night, nor the whole next day, and more or less the whole next month.
[Daniel]: Several media outlets called him to request interviews, so that he would say what happened.
David Trujillo continues the story.
[David]: Santiago decided to focus on the MinTIC Law and tried to stick to the same talking points:
[Santiago]: In other words, like, “Look, we’re trying to have this debate and they lash out at us. So, we think that confirms our right to have a debate and puts renewed strength into this debate because I defend this shit precisely because these things happen. So something has to be wrong here.”
[David]: The scandal was so big that Juan Pablo Bieri himself, the director of RTVC, felt obligated to explain what had happened. This is Bieri in one of the interviews he gave on the radio.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: The decision to take Los puros criollos off the air… off the air was made a long time ago for many reasons. I can’t show repeat after repeat after repeat of those seasons on the air because you don’t meet people’s expectations. So I had given the order to take that… that season off the air to continue meeting expectations and start running another marathon of shows… of shows that have won awards on Señal Colombia.
[David]: And he added that…
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: It seems to me, and I’m saying this with full respect to Santiago, it seems a little egocentric to me to think that because he speaks against the government and speaks to La Pulla or with el pullo or whatever, against the government, that I would have made a decision to take him out of the line up for that.
[David]: And he made one thing clear:
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: There are no political leanings here. Here we have a management decision to make public television with a State path, not with a path from the management in place or the president in office.
[David]: In other words, public media serves its function regardless of what administration is in place. We tried to contact Bieri to have his version of the event’s
Bieri also made a video giving an official statement though RTVC’s website and social media. He said that the best episodes of Los puros criollos would run until the end of December and he clarified what he said in the media about the alleged censorship.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: Let me tell you, that version of events is fake news, and I object to the insinuation that there is censoring in RTVC.
[David]: But the scandal didn’t stop there. A little more than a week after the La Pulla video went up, a journalist published an article in which reported something serious was reported. It seemed that Santiago’s case wasn’t the first instance of supposed censorship, because a month earlier —in November— when President Duque gave an interview on Radio Nacional, management —in other words, Bieri— ordered the director of the show not to allow two of the journalists to ask questions. These journalists, Andrea Olano and Carlos Chica, told the media what happened.
[Andrea Olano]: That day, when we got there at 5:30 in the morning, uh, our director —who is Darío Patiño— was very upset. He came up to Carlos and me and told us that, uhm… well, that they had told him the president was going to give an interview to Radio Nacional and that he had received a series of directives, one of them being that Carlos and I couldn’t ask questions.
[Carlos Chica]: And Darío told us that he was really sorry that we couldn’t participate in the… in the… in the interview because two outside guests were coming to… to conduct it.
[David]: That interview aired live on November 28th and Andrea and Carlos were there at the table, but weren’t able to speak. During the length of the interview, they didn’t ask any questions.
Bieri, again, denied in another interview that that happened.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: That is censorship, but the difference is… is that it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen. And it’s not going to happen, at least not in my administration and under my management. I have no idea who’s providing this information, what kind of information we’re talking about or what they think is happening on public radio or TV in our country. I don’t know what kind of person thinks that there’s a dictator behind RTVC. How could they think that? That’s completely false.
[David]: He explained that the two people he sent were experts who were going to give analysis on the first 100 days of the administration and that he didn’t know why the journalists on the show hadn’t asked the president anything. Other journalists echoed what happened. They recalled how Duque had said in his campaign that he didn’t shy away from questions from journalists and that he respected the independence of RTVC. In the end, the discussion ended there.
Meanwhile, Santiago was giving interviews in the media; he continued fighting against the MinTIC Law, but now…
[Santiago]: The way the scandal blew up is what gives us such gigantic visibility. People start looking at the bill and saying: “But, what is this thing? Who’s implicated in this? Who’s voting for this? Whose working on this?” And then it really came to a head. So, well, of course, because we kept going out and talking about it, this law —which had never been debated— starts being debated. And it starts to collapse under its own weight.
[David]: The deadline to vote on the bill had already passed, but the government asked for more time to deal with the bills that were left. From a quick count of potential votes, it seemed like the MinTIC Law was going to be voted down and that meant that it couldn’t be voted on again. So the TIC minister, in an attempt to save the bill, asked to have it tabled and let them vote on it the following year. The bill was tabled —again, not voted down— on December 19th.
There would be another difficult fight against the MinTIC Law, and they had to prepare for that. But meanwhile, Santiago was taking the opportunity to disconnect and celebrate the end of the year.
But on January 18th, 2019…
[Pedro Vaca]: I was in this chair, uh, and I couldn’t believe it.
[David]: This is Pedro Vaca…
[Pedro]: I’m the director of the Foundation for Freedom of Press —the FLIP, for its initials in Spanish— in Colombia since 2013.
[David]: The FLIP is a non-governmental organization that defends exactly that, freedom of the press. It gathers stories of violations of this fundamental right, it gives legal counsel to journalists, and it reports cases to the authorities. The FLIP had been investigating Santiago’s case from the beginning. RTVC had already officially responded to a questionnaire in which they denied engaging in censorship, but…
[Pedro]: On January 18th, we consolidated the information. In the information we collected, we had a piece of audio.
[David]: That same audio we heard at the start of the episode. The tape is about 14 minutes long and it begins with formal greetings to a group of people in an office.
[Diana Díaz]: Hello, good afternoon.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: Hello, Diana, how are you? How have you been?
[Martín Pimiento]: Could you get me a tea, I couldn’t drink this one, please.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: Oh, and a rag, please.
[Martín Pimiento]: A rag because the girl made a mess over here.
[David]: Remember that this audio was recorded on December 6th, the day the La Pulla video criticizing the MinTIC Law went up. You can tell that this is a meeting at the RTVC offices. We don’t know how many people are there, but four people speak: Juan Pablo Bieri, the legal advisor Martín Pimiento, the management adviser Alejandra Cendales —both hired by him— and Diana Díaz, the director of Señal Colombia at the time, who had been there for around three years. The identity of the source who recorded it hasn’t been made public.
Remember that then Bieri starts telling Diana that he’s very worried about “that guy.”
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: Listen, Diana, I’m very worried. What’s that guy’s name?
[Martín Pimiento]: Santiago Rivas.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: Santiago Rivas, what do we do with him? How is he linked here?
[David]: Diana answers…
[Diana Díaz]: No, he’s not linked.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: So how do we make sure he doesn’t appear on our products anymore?
[Diana Díaz]: Well, we have… a series, a new season of Los puros criollos to release.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: With him?
[Diana Díaz]: Yes.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: That can’t happen.
[Diana Díaz]: But the thing is this: We can’t not air it.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: We can’t what?
[Diana Díaz]: We can’t not air it because it’s part of…
[David]: What Diana is trying to explain is that she can’t take the fifth season off the air because the shows on public TV are approved far in advance by the ANTV, the National Television Authority. If they don’t follow through with those shows, there are sanctions by the authorities.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: But he already recorded the series?
[Diana Díaz]: Of course. It’s… It’s already sent in. It’s already finished. It’s already paid for. It’s already everything.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: It’s very hard to do that. We’re going to… to change its time slot. What are we going to do then? Help me out. This guy… this guy is doing some things.
[David]: If you didn’t understand, what Bieri is saying is: “It’s very hard to do that. We’re going to change his time slot.” And he asks his legal advisor to help him think of a way to do it, because as he says “This guy is doing some things.” It’s hard to understand the audio we’re about to hear, but it feels important for us to leave it in. The advisor, Martín Pimiento, says:
[Martín Pimiento]: I’m finding myself in a dilemma, Diana, with this character. Not because he’s good or bad, but because I feel like I have an enemy beside me.
[David]: He says to Diana, and I quote: “I’m finding myself in a dilemma, Diana, with the character. Not because he’s good or bad, but because I feel like I have an enemy beside me.” And he continues.
[Martín Pimiento]: If he takes part in a production that is funded with State resources, the least he can do is stay quiet in the face of public policies presented by that State.
[David]: And perhaps what he says here is the most serious. I’ll repeat in case you didn’t understand it well: “If he takes part in a production that is funded with State resources, the least he can do is stay quiet in the face of public policies presented by that State.”
When Pedro Vaca, from FLIP, heard this…
[Pedro]: I couldn’t believe that conversation had even taken place. Because I believe that, uh, a democratic society and public authorities —even if they think that way— when they have public funds they should abstain from making those kinds of judgments and using the mechanism of censorship.
[David]: He also couldn’t believe it because it’s uncommon for there to be such explicit proof of censorship. The FLIP has taken on many cases in more than 20 years, but generally, they’re stories in which a journalist is killed or they discreetly reduce a media outlets budget —whether they’re private or public— for talking about certain issues. But such a clear order for censorship is a very rare case.
The recording isn’t illegal because…
[Pedro]: All public officials have reduced privacy, in other words, this isn’t a recording from a private space that… where they’re talking about issues from the director of RTVC’s personal life.
[David]: So, they took the next step.
The FLIP has an independent initiative that’s called La Liga Contra el Silencio [The League Against Silence].
[Sinar Alvarado]: It’s a journalistic project that’s constantly looking for examples of… of censorship in the country and trying to… to investigate them and make them public through as many media outlets as possible.
[David]: This is Sinar Alvarado. He’s a journalist, and at that time he coordinated La Liga Contra el Silencio which groups together several media outlets, including Radio Ambulante. So, as Sinar explained, La Liga looks for examples of censorship and makes them public. One of them was the case of Santiago and Los puros criollos. Sinar had been in touch with him from the beginning, and at that time…
[Sinar]: I asked him: “From one to ten, how sure are you that there was censorship here?” And he told me, “Ten.” But we didn’t have any concrete evidence that there was in fact censorship.
[David]: So, it was difficult for La Liga to publish something without evidence at the time. But when Sinar heard the recording on January 18th, he knew that was proof not only of censorship but also that Juan Pablo Bieri had lied publicly.
Remember that in that recording Bieri proposes moving the show to three in the morning to get rid of its audience and later he says:
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: No, the series is ending.
[Diana Díaz]: No, the series isn’t… I mean, they already finished the season a while ago. They sent in the episodes a while ago.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: Yes. And if Los puros criollos are made again, they’re doing it with someone else. There’s no way he’s doing it again. There is no chance that under this management Santiago is going to work again with this management, with this… with this company, in any co-production or production. There’s no way.
[David]: Again, I’ll repeat what Bieri says at the end, and I quote: “And if Los puros criollos are made again, they’re doing it with someone else. There’s no way he’s doing it again. There is no change that under this management Santiago is going to work again with this management, with this company, in any co-production or production. There’s no way.”
When he heard the audio, Sinar felt…
[Sinar]: On the one hand, outrage as a journalist, it was about a journalist censoring journalists. And on the other hand, I felt this typical excitement you get in… in this job when you know that you have a bomb.
[David]: A powerful story. So, Sinar’s decision was to make a post on all of La Liga’s platforms, and on top of that, since the story had started with the video from La Pulla —which is also part of La Liga— the response would go out on La Pulla. So, he contacted María Paulina Baena that Friday, January 18th.
[María Paulina]: He writes to me and says: “It’s very important for us to meet in person.” “We can’t do it over the phone.” “No, we need to meet in person.” So, I was left petrified, I mean, what happened?
[David]: They met at a café. Sinar told her everything about the recording and told her that it was proof that the director of RTVC had censored Santiago because he spoke out against the MinTIC Law on La Pulla.
[María Paulina]: And I said, “That can’t be.” I couldn’t believe it!
[David]: They planned to publish together —on La Pulla as well as La Liga— on January 23rd, or the following Wednesday. Sinar gave María Paulina the audio on a flash drive. She ran to her office, put on her headphones and started listening.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: No, and besides, did you see the thing on La Pulla?
[Diana Díaz]: No. I saw something… that they published something, but that was today, wasn’t it?
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: Yes.
[Diana Díaz]: No, no, I haven’t had the chance to see it.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: The thing on La Pulla…
[David]: And here, he’s talking about President Duque…
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: This man who was elected politically by the Colombian people, by the majority, nor this company that’s… that I’m at the front of… I’m not willing to put up with constant badgering from La Pulla, much less him.
[David]: I’ll translate what Bieri is saying again: “This man who was elected politically by the Colombian people, by the majority, nor this company that’s… that I’m at the front of… I’m not willing to put up with constant badgering from La Pulla, much less him.”
While María Paulina was listening to the recording…
[María Paulina]: It was like being in a horror movie. Like nervous laughter, sobs, shouting, water breaks. No, that was terrible.
[David]: She kept on listening to what Bieri was saying…
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: It’s the typical… the typical guy who… who, seriously, sometimes comes right on time to pick up their paycheck at the window, and on others he denigrates the person who’s paying them. In other words, he’s biting the hand that feeds him. So that is a very bad sign.
[David]: “He bites the hand that feeds him,” he says and adds that that it’s a very bad sign. But remember that Santiago didn’t have a contract with RTVC. And, well, even if he did, anyone who works for the government has the right to criticize it. That’s what freedom of expression consists of, which moreover is protected by the constitution.
María Paulina spoke with the rest of the team at La Pulla. That afternoon they put together a script and that night they filmed another video that they wouldn’t publish until the following Wednesday, January 23rd. Because they made an agreement with the FlIP to wait for the government to respond.
And that’s because there was proof of censorship, even though Bieri had denied over and over again that it had happened. On January 21st, the FLIP sent a message to the president’s office telling them that this recording existed. They also contacted the TIC ministry and proposed for someone from RTVC to come to the FLIP office in Bogotá.
This is Pedro Vaca from the FLIP again.
[Pedro]: I sent that message, right? And in that message, I really insisted that there be a response. I explained that we have a recording, I explained that that recording was explicit, and I explained that we needed to have a government version of what was happening.
[David]: The president’s office asked if they were going to publish the information.
[Pedro]: And I told them yes. Yes, because this is an organization that is obligated to report acts of censorship, and for us, there’s no doubt that there was such an act.
[David]: They asked for a week to respond before publishing, but to the team at FLIP, it seemed like too important an issue to postpone. The TIC minister contacted Pedro directly and offered to meet with him on January 24th, a day after they planned to publish.
[Pedro]: Her —and the presidency in general— opted to play their cards, putting it off and not prioritizing it. And, well, let’s say that the FLIP isn’t an organization that gives up easily and is compassionate toward the State, which has all the mechanism needed to give priority and relevance to an issue that deserves it.
[David]: So, two days later —on January 23rd, around 10 a.m.— the new La Pulla video revealing the audio went up.
[María Paulina]: The director of RTVC, Juan Pablo Bieri, is a hypocrite, a cynic and a liar who enjoys silencing people who don’t think like him.
[David]: She gives a little context on what’s been going on, and she presents key parts of the audio, like the part about not biting the hand that feeds you or that neither he nor the president have any reason to put up with La Pulla’s constant badgering. In the end, she played the order Bieri gave to Diana Díaz.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: As for Santiago Rivas, there’s no message for him.
[Diana Díaz]: No.
[Juan Pablo Bieri]: “What happened?” “No, the season is off the air. It’s over.” “Why is it over?” “Because everything that has a beginning has an end, period. It’s over.”
[María Paulina]: You know? Bieri is absolutely right: Everything that has a beginning has an end, and this is the end of his management of RTVC.
[David]: Social media was blowing up with this video. Media outlets picked up the story, and some used the hashtag #RenunciaBieri [“Bieri resign”]. And several politicians in the opposition found another reason to criticize the government. They demanded the same thing: Bieri’s resignation.
Bieri defended himself in several tweets: he said that the recording was illegal and that it affected his privacy. The TIC minister, Sylvia Constaín, said this in an interview…
[Sylvia Constaín]: There was clearly an argument. During the argument, uh, well, Juan Pablo was clearly upset. What is clear is that the decisions that were made were different from the decisions suggested in that… in that discussion, that again I will reiterate was not a public discussion. As for whether or not there was censorship, there are entities that are in charge of that issue.
[David]: In other words, the Attorney General’s Office was the entity that had to determine if there was bad behavior on Bieri’s part and, if so, remove him from his position and deem him unable to hold other public offices. Vice-president Marta Lucía Ramírez said something similar to the media.
But the FLIP, the opposition, and journalists insisted that no amount of censorship could be tolerated: so even if they hadn’t done it, the intent to censor is still very serious.
The day after the scandal, and after all of the pressure it generated.
[Journalist]: The director of RTVC, Juan Pablo Bieri, resigned from his position while Attorney General’s Office investigates if there was censorship against the program Los puros criollos.
[David]: Days later, President Duque accepted his resignation, but he never made a public statement.
[Daniel]: The MinTic Law was finally approved by Congress in the middle of 2019, without many changes, and the president ratified it a few days later. In August, different organizations and Santiago Rivas sued the law before the Constitutional Court.
In October, President Ivan Duque named Bieri communications advisor to the administrative department of the Presidency. He didn’t mention anything about the censorship case that was being investigated by the Attorney General’s Office.
When we contacted Bieri to have his version of the events, he responded that he prefered not to speak. Before he resigned, he had denounced corruption inside RTVC and was waiting for the authorities to resolve that issue. At the time of publication, there had been no word from the authorities.
David Trujillo is a producer with Radio Ambulante. He lives in Bogotá.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura and me. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Miranda Mazariegos, Rémy Lozano, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, Elsa Liliana Ulloa, and Luis Fernando Vargas. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.