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TV Imitates Life in Colombia

A soap opera dramatizes the struggle for television stations to shed pervasive political bias.

By Stan YarbroSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 20, 1992



BOGOTA, COLOMBIA

FOR decades, powerful politicians have relied on their control of Colombia's prime-time news programs to influence the information received by millions of viewers. Critics say these news programs are full of distortion, or that they omit important stories. But Colombians, viewing such bias as inevitable, have simply learned to ignore it.

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Now a Colombian soap opera, "The Scorpion's Alternative," is heightening people's awareness of the problem by presenting it in fictional form. The program, aired Tuesday nights at 8:30, builds the action around a nightly news show or noticiero in many ways similar to the real thing.

The drama of Noticiero OKTV takes place at a time when its real-life counterparts are facing new opposition as part of a movement to privatize Colombia's television system, one of the last in Latin America still owned by the state.

A Conservative Party senator, Gustavo Rodriguez, last month introduced legislation that would end the system whereby noticieros and other private production outfits rent time on three state channels. Mr. Rodriguez says his privatization bill, or something like it, will be passed this year and that the new law will do away with news programs controlled by big-fish politicians.

"They are going to be fighting the hardest against privatization," he says, "but the fact is that every Colombian has the right to be informed in an objective manner. We just can't stand any more of this political orientation in the news."

Colombians may be tired of the bias in real news shows, but judging from the popularity of "The Scorpion's Alternative," they love to watch fictional manipulation behind the scenes.

Noticiero OKTV is owned by a corrupt businessman-politician, Salomon Fonegra, who views journalists' opposition to management as a remnant of discredited socialism.

In one scene, the burly media mogul becomes furious at OKTV's news director, Veronica Gomez, after the program reveals that Fonegra is planning to tighten his grip on information by buying a major newspaper.

"You acted without ethics, because the lack of loyalty of an employee to her company is perhaps the worst error that can be committed," Fonegra tells her.

"Surely, doctor," Gomez responds, "That rule can be applied in an engineering firm, in banks ... but the most serious error of a journalist is different - to lie, to hide the truth. I'm not ready to do that for the company."

The soap opera's scriptwriter, Mauricio Miranda, says he created Salomon as a reflection, perhaps slightly exaggerated, of Colombia's media elite. Several of the program's viewers maintain that the characterization is not exaggerated at all.

"There are several people who must see themselves revealed in Salomon's character," says Ruth Sanchez, a graduate student who watches the show. "But those people would never criticize the program because it would be the equivalent of admitting their own guilt."

Defenders of Colombian news, while granting that many of the programs' owners are politicians, say viewers are not being deceived. On the contrary, says Eduardo Verrano, the director of the state television institute, Inravision. He argues that by granting a program to each main political current, the government ensures the pluralism needed to get at the truth. Mr. Verrano notes that no sooner did the M19, a former guerrilla group-turned-political party, gain some electoral clout than it was given its ow n show.

Critics note that the system excludes those with less political influence and gives programs tacit permission to twist certain facts and ignore others.