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Shutdown of Colombian magazine raises questions

By Luis Carlos Velez, CNN
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Colombia media censorship?
  • Demise of Cambio magazine raises questions
  • Owner: Decision to close financial
  • Critics: Owner closed publication under government pressure
  • Cambio had been a strong voice against the government
  • Colombia
  • FARC
  • Media

(CNN) -- Colombia lost one of its best-known independent magazines this month when the parent company of Cambio suddenly announced it was ceasing publication.

The demise of the hard-hitting publication has raised questions in journalistic circles about whether other forces were at work.

The magazine's publisher, El Tiempo Publishing Group, is owned by Spanish conglomerate Grupo Planeta, which owns a Colombian television station and is seeking a government license to operate a national network.

Cambio ostensibly came to an end because of economic problems, but skeptics claim that the real reason was that Grupo Planeta wanted to appease the government in its bid to operate a national channel.

"Although 2009 was a year of worldwide crisis, Cambio was profitable last year," Rodrigo Pardo, the magazine's former managing editor, told CNN. "Thanks to our discipline of cost management we had a small profit. There is the hypothesis that our closing is not linked to economic results but to nonconformity -- to an editorial line that denounces and criticizes the government."

Pardo continued, "I ask myself: To what extent can a media conglomerate be independent if it has so many interests with the government?"

Daniel Coronell, a respected Colombian journalist and critic of the government, told CNN he believes the government pushed for the closing of Cambio.

"There is no other explanation," he said. "The magazine was key to the opinion-making process in the country and closed 2009 with a profit. The Colombian government is the sole beneficiary of the closing. This movement has all the characteristics of censorship."

Cambio had been a strong voice against the Colombian government. Its recent investigations created several headaches for the current administration.

A group of journalists from Cambio discovered that the Colombian military allegedly killed a group of farmers and portrayed them as members of the FARC rebel group. More recently, the magazine uncovered that the department of agriculture supposedly granted millions of dollars in subsidies to wealthy families who later contributed to the presidential campaign of the former agriculture secretary, Andres Felipe Arias.

Luis Fernando Santos, El Tiempo's CEO, told CNN that closing the magazine was purely a business decision.

"Cambio has been closed because it wasn't a viable business," he said. "Since 2008 it has been in an economic downfall. It lost readers and its sales were going down."

He said the fact that the magazine had carried out some serious investigations against the government was not the reason behind the closure.

"Since most of (Cambio's) columnists are against the re-election of Alvaro Uribe as president of Colombia, (they) decided to interpret Cambio's closing as a political move," Santos said.

Uribe has denied his government was involved in Cambio's closing.

"This is a government that respects liberties. This is a government that has never called a media outlet to complain or ask for an interview or editorial," a government spokesperson told CNN.

Cambio's absence is being felt in the months leading up to May's presidential elections, as Uribe looks for ways to change the constitution to allow for a third term of his presidency.

Carlos Lauria, Americas Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told CNN, "Just the fact of not being able to have a publication like Cambio in the stands is a significant loss. Cambio was a publication that contributed extensively with the debates of public interest."

CPJ just finished a study on freedom of the press in Colombia that underlines the tacit pressure it says the Colombian government puts on its country's journalists.

"When news erupted in February that national intelligence agents had subjected journalists, politicians, judges and human rights defenders to illegal phone tapping, e-mail interception, and surveillance for much of the decade, it created a well-founded perception that the Colombian government was closely and constantly watching the press and other critics," the report said.