TV Imitates Life in Colombia

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

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.

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.

A recent example involved coverage of last year's drug-trafficking trial of Panama dictator Manuel Noriega in the United States. In the trial, convicted Medellin drug-cartel leader Carlos Lehder accused former Colombian President Alfonso Lopez Michelson of taking hundreds of thousands of dollars from the drug cartel for use in his 1982 bid for a second term.

Although international wire services picked up the story, it was ignored in Colombia. "Noticiero de Las Siete," a nightly news program owned by former President Lopez, made no mention of the accusation, though it had been covering the Noriega trial for weeks.

Such obvious interference in the news is just part of the problem, according to journalists. "There is a great deal of self-censorship," says Amparo Ponton, a former reporter for "Noticiero de Las Siete," who now produces a weekly televised magazine. "You learn to know instinctively when you are touching the country's power structure and to avoid it."

Manipulative bosses and self-censorship seem like minor annoyances compared to the darker problems addressed in "The Scorpion's Alternative." Scriptwriter Miranda says he chose the title after reading about how scorpions placed in a closing ring of fire will commit suicide by stinging themselves. Indeed, death figures just as prominently in "The Scorpion's Alternative" as it does in the country's real media. In one episode, one of the program's reporters, Alejandro Garcia, uncovers evidence linking Foneg ra to a massacre of peasants similar to those occurring almost weekly in Colombia. Garcia is subsequently killed by sicarios or professional hitmen like those who have shot dead 68 real Colombian journalists since 1977.

ONE of those journalists, Diana Turbay, was killed in 1991, when police moved in on the Medellin drug traffickers holding her hostage. In an example of the innovative mix of fiction and reality characterizing "The Scorpion's Alternative," an OKTV reporter investigating Garcia's death interviews Turbay's real-life mother about such violence against journalists.

In another, less tragic, blend of the real and imaginary, the actress playing OKTV's television announcer is set to become a real journalist.

Paola Charry, a former beauty queen, was picked to be "Noticiero de Las Siete's" new announcer after producers saw her performance on "The Scorpion's Alternative."

Although she has no journalism training, Charry says she has learned a lot about the trade in her fictional role. Asked if she is better prepared to deal with possible manipulation by owners and managers of the real news show, she answers, "Oh that's not a problem at `Noticiero de Las Siete.' The people who work there are very neutral. In that respect there is no comparison with OKTV."

Television analysts say programs like "The Scorpion's Alternative" are essential if Colombian TV is to survive the increased competition from privatization and satellite signals invading the country from abroad. Executives at Cinevision, the company that produces the show, agree that the program is a risky but necessary development.

"The ratings were poor at first because it took people time to adapt to the new themes and format," says Nelly Ordonez, the program's producer. She adds that ratings have since risen to a respectable 36 percent and that Cinevision is considering a sequel to reflect the changes in Colombian television, including the possibility of privatization.

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