The race for mayor of Medellín has taken an unexpected turn. Daniel Quintero resigned this Sunday from his position as mayor of the city, three months before the end of his constitutional term. The two main candidates to succeed him have found in the media a new enemy. Former mayor Federico Gutiérrez, who scores in all the polls, has decided not to attend the debates organized by Telemedellín because, according to him, the main public channel of the city is "an extension of the social networks of those who today misgovern." Juan Carlos Upegui, candidate of former mayor Daniel Quintero and second in the polls, has said that the newspaper El Colombiano, the main one in Medellín, "is a cesspool of disinformation." The Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) says that those most affected by these fights are citizens, who are losing their right to truthful information at a key moment for the future of Medellín.
For Jonathan Bock, director of FLIP, the dispute has a long history that makes a serious situation for democracy seem normal. "In the four years of Daniel Quintero's mayorship, the relationship that should exist between a president and the media has been weakened," Bock told EL PAÍS. "Quintero maintained an aggressive and stigmatizing communications strategy against El Colombiano, which became more acute every time the newspaper published something negative for his government."
That line of confrontation has been inherited by Upegui, Quintero's former secretary of nonviolence and who on several occasions has said that the newspaper has a persecution against his candidacy. In an interview with EL PAÍS, the candidate of the Independientes movement affirms that El Colombiano wants to turn the voters against him: "They do it with lies and defamation. We don't see information balance. You can see that they are doing everything possible to damage our image and to take care of Federico Gutierrez's." Luz María Sierra, director of the newspaper, told EL PAÍS: "It is not our role to enter into debates with a candidate. We do journalism. And our investigations are what speak for us."
The most recent chapter of this fight has to do with the denunciations made by El Colombiano about the contracts of Upegui's girlfriend with the current Administration. In an article entitled "Where does Juan Carlos Upegui get so much money for his campaign?", journalist Daniel Valero, general editor of the newspaper, affirms that Andrea Vahos, partner of the candidate, "works in the Communications Office of the Undersecretariat of Educational Planning of the Ministry of Education." Upegui and Vahaos have claimed that this information is false. "They said my girlfriend works in administration and that was proven to be a lie. She worked at the end of last year to be able to participate in the candidacy without conflict of interest," Upegui told EL PAÍS. The newspaper claims that the candidate has not asked for an official request for rectification.
Jonathan Bock insists that if there is a disagreement between a citizen or a politician and a media, because the former believes that some of the information published is not truthful, he must resort to rectification and not to coordinated attacks on social networks. "That is the mechanism that the Constitutional Court has advised. But in this specific case there has been no official request, they are just rumors on social networks, "he explains.
According to a statement from FLIP, after Upegui and Vahos published stigmatizing messages against El Colombiano, "journalist Daniel Rivera reported receiving more than a hundred daily comments on his social networks, in which they insult him and discredit his work and the medium in which he works." According to FLIP, "these accusations in networks against El Colombiano are an articulated strategy to generate doubts in the citizenship and misinform about relevant issues during the electoral season, such as the sources of financing of political campaigns." Bock affirms that the media must strengthen their verification mechanisms and when there is false information they must correct it publicly and assume the consequences.
On the other hand, the dispute between Federico Gutiérrez's campaign and Telemedellín also reached serious levels of aggressiveness. The first clash occurred on August 20, when the channel — which depends on the mayor on duty — organized a debate of mayoral candidates to which Gutiérrez decided not to go. In a statement, he thanked the invitation, and explained his determination. "Telemedellín has been used repeatedly as a campaign platform for one of the mayoral candidates and there are no guarantees for my participation in this dialogue scenario." The candidate accused the channel of having electoral purposes: "We cannot talk about guarantees when Telemedellín became an extension of the social networks of an administration that destroyed trust in our city."
The fight intensified on September 10 when, again, Gutierrez was absent from a debate organized by the channel. This time he said he had not been invited and that he learned about the event from an advertisement on social networks. "Telemedellín organized a debate to benefit the candidates of those who are stealing from the city... I didn't attend for obvious reasons. Those who watched the debate realized it was nothing more than a trap." Given his recurring refusal to attend, the channel's audience is left without knowing what the one who, according to all the polls, is the favorite to be the next mayor of Medellín thinks.
Jonathan Bock believes that Gutierrez's decision is serious because it violates the right of access to information that citizens have, and more so in electoral circumstances. "Telemedellín is the public channel with an important audience in the city; It is the natural space to hold those debates. Federico Gutiérrez's argument is very insufficient. It suggests that there may be other underlying strategies such as not wanting to participate in debates because it has the advantage in the polls."
According to Bock, Gutiérrez not only does not attend the debates, but also takes the opportunity to stigmatize and question the media and Mayor Quintero. But he forgets that when he was mayor he used the media and public resources to promote himself and his administration. "It's the same thing that criticizes Quintero," summarizes the director of the NGO.
Although in Medellín it is especially acute, the problem does not stay in the capital of Antioquia. So far in 2023, FLIP has documented 36 cases of stigmatization of media and journalists, of which 27 are related to electoral coverage. "This strategy is repeated by some public officials or by those seeking to enter the public service. It consists of issuing stigmatizing messages against the press, instrumentalizing the media to favor their own interests and promoting a narrative of disinformation that sows distrust towards the media," concludes Bock.
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