Thursday, September 25, 2014

What El Tiempo Forgot to Mention

'Successful debut for Aval on the New York Stock Exchange.' Aval's owner, it just so happens, also owns El Tiempo.
If you read yesterday's El Tiempo you learned that Grupo Aval, the huge Colombian banking group, made a successful initial offering on Wall Street - altho it didn't make quite as big a splash as did Alibaba.

'Wall Street welcomes
Grupo Aval's Shares
But Colombia's leading newspaper neglected to mention that Aval and El Tiempo share the same owner, billionaire Luis Carlos Sarmiento. The news wasn't necessarily distorted - Reuters and Fox business news also described the offering as successful. But you could question the huge spread Sarmiento's newspaper gave his bank. Other Colombian media also reported the offering, but made it their second or third story. 
The website La Silla Vacia also pointed out that El Tiempo has given much less coverage to other stock offerings, including even that of EcoPetrol, Colombia's national oil company, in 2008. La Silla Vacia also observed that El Tiempo gave flattering attention to a highway project in which Sarmientos has interests.

El Tiempo has the right to splash whatever it wants across its pages, and readers have the right to judge the paper's credibility. But in the United States and other nations it's basic journalistic ethics to mention possible conflicts of interest in reporting. Take, for example, the Washington Post's coverage of Amazon Corp. and its owner Jeff Bezos, who bought the newspaper last year.

When Sarmiento, Colombia's richest man with a fortune of $17 billion, purchased El Tiempo in 2012 he probably saw it mostly as a trophy. But when he did so, he promised that the paper's coverage would not be biased by his business interests. Now, the more that he uses it to blow his own horn, the less respect it'll bring him. 

For its part, El Tiempo's smaller but older rival El Espectador has belonged since 1997 to Colombia's second-richest family, the Santo Domingos. A glance at El Espectador's coverage of one of the family's other prominent properties, La Cerveceria Bavaria, finds a lot of flattering coverage, including the information that Colombia's beer consumption is still relatively low. 

I'll wait with bated breath for El Tiempo to do an exposé on Grupo Aval or one of its banks, or for El Espectador to uncover corruption inside Bavaria.

Latin American journalism, unfortunately, is known for corruption and favoring special interests. The ownership of Colombia's two most important newspapers by its two richest families is a test for whether journalistic ethics can stand up to economic interests, and the results don't look so encouraging.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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