An Open Letter to Alejandro Santos, Director of Semana Magazine of Bogotá, Colombia

Semana is the Recipient of COHA’s Inaugural Charles A. Perlik, Jr. Award Certificate for Excellence in Print Journalism, in Honor of its Courageous and Distinguished Professionalism

May 1, 2009

Revista Semana
Mr. Alejandro Santos
Calle 93 N. 13-47
Bogotá, Colombia

Dear Mr. Santos,

My cordial greetings to you. In striving to provide an open forum throughout the hemisphere in which even controversial political discussions may flourish with dignity and respect, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) has often praised the Colombian publication Semana for its commitment to courageous professionalism, a respect for flawless quality, and high-minded investigative journalism.

During his years as COHA’s chairman during the 1980s, Charles A. Perlik, Jr., who also served as the president of the 40,000- member U.S. and Canadian Newspaper Guild, worked to advance the roster of press freedoms and a sense of solidarity in efforts to protect the physical safety and personal freedoms of journalists throughout Latin America. In honor of his memory and the noble deeds he achieved in his profession during his lifetime, COHA has just established the first Charles A. Perlik, Jr. Award Certificate for Excellence in the Field of Print Journalism. As the first recipient of this award, COHA’s board of trustees and staff have decided to confer the Perlik Award to the management, editors and staff of Colombia’s preeminent news weekly, Revista Semana.

Conferring the Perlik Award on Revista Semana

Lesser media organizations around the world repeatedly have yielded to the demands and exigencies of corrupt and brutal regimes that routinely prohibit the truth from being shared with the public. In the tradition of the late Charles A. Perlik, Jr., along with the strongly held tenets of our organization and its staff, we recognize and praise the commitment made by courageous media organizations around the world who have chosen to promote democratic rule, meaningful patriotism, social justice and constructive engagement. These, we believe, are the qualities that distinguish the journalists and principles of Semana.

As an example, COHA commends your publication for its recent exposure of the fraudulent acts carried out by the Administrative Department of Security of Colombia (DAS) in cooperation with an array of flawed public and private figures. Through this brilliant example of investigative journalism (one of many), Semana has managed to expose the increasing vulnerability of democracy in Colombia by revealing the harassment to which journalists, members of the opposition, and some members of the Criminal Justice System are exposed. This worthy and eminent publication was equally resolute when, after the truth about DAS’ telephone wire-tapping malfeasance had been exposed, it insisted on revealing the full import of the scandal. Semana’s resilience in the face of attacks launched by senior officials of the current Colombian government, and your adherence to the revered canon of withholding the names of sources that provided you with the valuable information that you then distributed to the public should be commended.

A Tribute to Semana

From our location in Washington, D.C., COHA has monitored U.S.-Latin American relations for more than three and-a-half decades. COHA was founded in 1975, soon after the organization’s present director, Larry Birns, returned from Chile, where he had been serving as a Public Affairs Officer (Senior Grade) with Cepal, the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. At the time of COHA’s founding, through the efforts of Birns (at that time a professor), the late Kalman Silvert (perhaps the most distinguished Latin Americanist of his day) and Covey Oliver (former Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs and U.S. ambassador to Colombia), the era of democratization was coming to an end, and one of the darkest epochs in the region’s human rights saga had begun.

Personally, the director of COHA long had been interested in Colombia, having been exposed to its culture by Germán Arciniegas, who was one his professors at Columbia University in New York City. The story that was circulating at the time was that Professor Arciniegas was in the United States as a result of his having been exiled from his country. Colombia was then, in theory, one of the relatively few hemispheric nations that had not fallen under authoritarian rule. Nevertheless, the actual picture was less optimistic. Colombian military forces exercised de facto authority throughout the nation over security issues. In effect, Colombia was living under a form of martial law rule where those perceived as opponents of the security forces were apprehended without due process, with some of them never being seen again. The fact was that during this period Colombia was less the land of Betancourt than that of Gen. Rojas Piñilla.

Semana Enters the Struggle

Over the years, COHA’s staff closely read Semana, particularly because we would regularly have four or five Colombian interns here in our office. The publication became increasingly essential after Colombia descended into a brutal civil conflict over the past two decades, and Semana became a “must” read for all of our resident scholars.

Today, Semana is at the top of its form and it must be hugely commended because on big issues, where courage and public rectitude is required, its reportage has become the state of the art throughout Latin America. This is particularly the case when it comes to performing first-class journalism. The publication, under the present management, has developed an unblemished record where it single-mindedly refuses to be compromised or willingly turn its back on ethical expectations, as evidenced by the consistent integrity of its investigative journalism and the personal courage of its management.

Semana has not wavered, even in the midst of the turbulence of a conflict-wracked habitat, which, at times, has witnessed horrendous acts of violence. This comes on top of having to deal with a society increasingly afflicted by the scourge of drug trafficking and the multiple and often deadly challenges coming from numerous societal ills. These include rampant venality, a warped playing field, widespread poverty, despairing internal refugees, a soaring crime wave, and a government that seemingly has registered a record of unprecedented dereliction in office and which has not been particularly interested in establishing a high bar for itself when it comes to standards of civic rectitude. Colombia also has suffered from multiple drug syndicates, a renegade military, police and other security operations, in which the ruling party seemed to be as much a friend as a foe of the vicious right-wing vigilante force, the AUC. Nor was Semana on the sidelines when the leftist guerrilla forces, the FARC and ELN, proceeded to specialize in varying genera of intimidation, extortion, kidnapping for political motives and ransoming to raise funds, issuing tax charges for “protection” and demanding payoffs for trafficking in order to guarantee their share of the drug business. In a society defrauded by Ponzi schemes, illicit wiretaps, blackmail and extortion, as well as debased legal and judicial systems, almost every aspect of law and order has been challenged, if not debauched. It is in this environment that Semana heroically has held up its torch to the darkness in order for it to exemplify what has become the most admired publication of its kind to be found in modern Latin American journalism.

With the objective of strengthening hemispheric democracies, and the independence and professionalism of the media institutions which serve them, COHA encourages and recognizes the work of regional publications that provide analysis and critical information so that the public can decide which candidate, what legislation, who to favor, and who to condemn. COHA recognizes the importance of creating a strong public opinion through the responsible work of principled media outlets and their managers, editors and staff, especially in contexts where they are hectored by self-promoting and often venal government and opposition officials. We want to take public notice that Semana comprehends the fundamental notion that a free and vibrant press is of unremitting importance to the functioning of a robust democracy.

In gratitude for your honorable efforts,

Larry Birns, Director
For the trustees, editors and staff of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Washington, D.C.

The research for bestowing this award was conducted by Carolina Farias, Externado of Colombia University

The following announcement was published in Semana:
El prestigioso Council on Hemispheric Affaires, (Coha) un think tank con sede en Washington, que promueve y monitorea desde 1975 las relaciones de los países de América, acaba de anunciar que ha otorgado a SEMANA el premio Charles Perlik Jr. a la excelencia en el periodismo impreso. El galardón, que se entrega por primera vez y fue establecido en honor de su difunto presidente, fue otorgado a SEMANA por “la consistente integridad de su periodismo investigativo y por el coraje de sus periodistas” y su decisión de “ exponer la creciente vulnerabilidad de la democracia en Colombia al revelar el acoso al que han sido sometidos periodistas, miembros de la oposición y del poder judicial”. Según Larry Birns, director de Coha, esta publicación fue escogida luego de una encuesta entre más de 50 importantes analistas y líderes de opinión de la capital norteamericana.