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    Journalists in hot spots:
    Manuel Teodoro
    By Bettina Teodoro

    Currently the anchor of one of Colombia’s national evening newscasts, Teodoro, 40, also runs an independent production company that produces shows for local television networks. Throughout his 17-year career, he has worked for CBS News in Miami, Univision in Miami and Manila, and CNN Spanish in Bogotá and New York. Teodoro and the interviewer are first cousins.

    Q. How would you describe the public attitude towards the press in Colombia?

    A. In Colombia some people think that there is a free press; others sense that articles are influenced by individual interests. You don’t see a lot of investigative journalism in Colombia — I am a victim of that personally. And in Colombia, like in many other third world countries where there are monopolies — our local media is owned by large economic consortia. These are titans, huge magnates who can control public information the way they want — and they do. And then again there’s also the other side. Freedom of the press here can also be impeded and blocked by threats, by fear. Many things that many journalists know about right-wing death squads and Communist insurgents — although they’re basically drug traffickers at this point — they can’t say because they’re afraid and they fear for their lives. So that is sort of more of an issue here.

    Q. How about the relationship between the government and the press?

    A. It’s a love-hate relationship. Journalists shouldn’t be out there to satisfy the government’s needs, because otherwise they might as well be PR persons for the government. They’re to question the government, to authenticate the government claims, to verify the truth behind what the government wants the people to know. I’d say in that sense there is much more balance here among many, many local media. Like in any country you have your pro-government media and your anti-government media.

    Q. Has what’s happening in Colombia affected the way you work?

    A. Certainly. There are places I can’t go. It’s sort of a surreal scenario, because if you could see where I am now you wouldn’t believe there’s a war. Nice neighbourhood, not far from where I am there are cafés and people drinking cappuccinos. It’s a big country and there are pockets where you don’t feel anything. And that’s part of the problem and that creates the indifference. I was with these BBC radio guys the other day and we’re sitting in this really nice area where there are all these nice cafés and people drinking martinis, and he said, "Manuel, this is wild! Here’s your country at war, and here you guys are sitting around" — and what he said really hit home — "and I’ve been to a lot of countries in the world — Africa, Far East Asia — and corruption is not uncommon, death squads are not uncommon, insurgency is not uncommon — but what I’ve never seen is such an indifference!" I guess we’re just so calloused at this point.

    Q. Have you ever received threats against your work?

    A. Yes. We did an undercover shoot on funeral scams and how crying ladies get to the funeral homes and they’re at a very vulnerable position and they [funeral home owners] make them sign these release forms in which they don’t know it but they’re being charged thousands of dollars for funeral services that are very inadequate. And when we confronted the people — because we always confront people after they’ve been shot undercover and ask them what they want to say — I got a wreath with my name on it, with my birthday on it, with my death date on it. And the death date was August 17, 1998, which was the Sunday that the show was to appear.

    I sat down and discussed it and talked to the company lawyer and I said, "Well, I’m not going to be intimidated by this." So we went to the local police and they said, "We can’t guarantee the survival of a presidential candidate, how the hell are we going to guarantee the survival of a journalist?" So they gave me some tips on what to do. You have to take them [threats] seriously. Intimidation is very common in Colombia, and if every journalist was intimidated about every story he’s written, there would be no press. So you’ve got to be very brave and you’ve got to be a little crazy to work in this country, I think.

    Q. How does your family feel about what you do?

    A. They’re a little bit scared. My mom and my grandma and [my wife] Ani are always saying, "Why do you have to go there?" I’m like, "That’s where the battle was." Ani is scared about the kids — if anybody identifies one of our kids as the child of Manuel Teodoro. But in the news magazine that I did, I didn’t do a lot of paramilitary and guerrilla stories. There’s enough crime and corruption going on on the civilian level that I didn’t have to deal with those guys.

    Q. What do you consider your best work so far?

    A. Probably the most exciting was when we recreated the trail of a Colombian immigrant who decides he wants to enter the United States illegally through the Mexican-US border. We left Colombia on a bus to the coast. From the coast we took a boat just like the boat people do — we almost died on that! We got to San Andreas Island, and then we took another boat loaded with immigrants to Nicaragua. We tried as much as we could to live the way the Colombian immigrant would — eating and drinking with bottles of water, we didn’t shave, we stunk after a few days. From Nicaragua we took buses up to Mexico, and then we crossed the border through the river like wetbacks, with hidden cameras. And we made it to the United States and we showed how easy it was to get in. Well, it’s not that easy but it’s not that hard. We made it across the United States and into New York, which is where most Colombians go. The whole thing took a month. But it was a good shoot — there were scares, it was tough, and people remember it.

    Yvonne Chua

    Margot Dudkevitch


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