Written by Nicole Andrea Duarte Amaya

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  • Area: 1.14 square kilometres
  • Population: 49,8 mio.
  • Capital: Bogotá
  • State form: presidential democracy
  • Official language: Spanish, indigenous languages (as Arawak and Witoto)
  • Religion: Catholic (92 per cent)

  • Flag of Colombia

    In Colombia there are rules which allow media freedom, since the freedom of press and expression are guaranteed by the political constitution of 1991. However, these laws are only written on the paper like in other clientelist and cartel-type countries. A main example is the impunity for the murder of journalists in Colombia, which shows a lack of state efficiency. In addition, the introduction of media laws depends on current interests of the government, which are constantly changing every four years. The Colombian media are in a few hands and there is therefore a high media concentration. Additionally, media owners have very close relationships with politicians what leads to corruption in the media system. That’s why those practices prevent a high level of pluralism in the Colombian mass media. Because of the structure of commercial media journalists have developed a large advertising dependency, where the state is regarded as one of the most important advertisers. Moreover, journalists are poorly paid what reinforces the dependency on governments advertising. The precarious working conditions of Colombian journalists, as in Venezuela and Bolivia, favor the influence of the state. For these reasons Colombia, like Venezuela and Bolivia, is assigned to the Clientelism type.
    Communication policy and regulations

    Colombian media system is known as a hybrid system that combines authoritarian and democratic elements (Hetzer, 2017, p. 541). “In Colombia there is not a dictatorship as in Cuba or in Venezuela, but there is not full democracy and freedom”, said the Latin-American correspondent T. Käufer. The Political Constitution of 1991 in its Article 20 guarantees every citizen freedom of expression but also the right to “receive impartial information and to establish mass media. The mass media are also free and have a social responsibility”. In addition, the constitution emphasizes that there is no place for censorship (Corte Constitucional, 2017, p. 57). Furthermore, the article 73 protects the journalistic activity “to ensure the media freedom and the independence of journalists” (ibid., p.85). The Constitution of 1991 was a big step towards the democratization of Colombia. It was a shift from an intervening state to a democratic constitutional state (Garzón & Neira, 2018, p. 47). H. Calle, explains the meaning of the 1991 constitution:
    “what it did is to be guarantor within a legal system for the human rights of the people who live in this country. [.] it is important to have these political guarantors, because freedom of expression is a right that helps journalists do their work, but also helps people be free, think and speak freely. And this […] gave us a state of absolute freedom.”

    In addition to Articles 20 and 73, freedom of expression and press are supported by other national constitutional rules: Article 74 describes the right of access to public documents, Article 75 refers to equal opportunity in accessing the use of electromagnetic spectrum which guarantees pluralism (Garzón & Neira, 2018, p. 47). Moreover, there are important rules of international organizations about freedom of expression and press, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) (FLIP ], 2013, 12ff.).

    Although Colombia has these legal rules in terms of freedom of expression and press, there is still a remarkable lack of effectiveness of the state regulation. B. Pinto, Colombian political scientist, explains:
    „Colombia has laws that guarantee everything you need in freedom of expression and press. […] we could be a perfect democracy. But it is a different story when it comes to the possibilities of exercising those rights.” Because of the lack of state institutions in rural areas, only people in bigger cities are able to rely on their rights properly. Although peace agreement between the FARC and the government of ex-President Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018) was signed in 2016, the state has still not fully reached out to the rural regions where the FARC groups were located (ROG, 2019). As a result, other illegal groups known as BACRIMs have taken power in those regions forcing differents informal rules, violating the law of freedom of press and expression (T. Käufer, Interview). According to Gómez and Hernandéz (2009) the freedom of press is still overshadowed by censorship and threats, not only by illegal armed groups, but also by politicians who join illegal groups, especially in those rural areas (p. 13).

    Other attempts to restrict the freedom of press are made through legal mechanisms (Montoya, 2014, p. 72). An example of this is the so-called SLAPP (lawsuit against public participation). In Colombia, politicians or state officials use Article 13 “the right to have one’s honor respected” (Corte Constitucional, 2017, p. 54) to censor mass media and journalists through intimidation by burdening them with the cost of legal defense (FLIP, 2013, p. 22; Melo, 2012, p. 45; Montoya, 2014, p. 72). According to the annual FLIP report (2018), there was an increase of judicial harassment of 171. 4% in 2018 including 38 cases, compared to 2017 with 14 cases (p. 34). In 2019, 24 cases of judicial harassment have been registered so far (ibid.). Although these restrictive mechanisms aren’t always successful, due to the court, in most cases, pleading on the right of freedom of press, those are, nevertheless, decisions that are more influenced by judges than by the established rules and norms (Melo, 2012, p. 45).

    Regarding media regulation, Article 75 of political constitution describes the electromagnetic spectrum (radio, television, Internet) as an imprescriptible public resource subject “to the management and control of the state” (Corte Constitucional, 2017, p. 85). On this basis, government agencies with administrative autonomy and independence were created, such as the Commission for Communications Regulation (CRC) in 1992 and the Ministry of Information Technologies and Communication (MinTic) in 2009, which are currently responsible for legislation in the broadcasting sector (Garzón & Neira, 2018, 58pp.). For radio, the MinTic is responsible of giving and renewing radio licenses to private operators, overseeing information and investigating complaints from radio listeners (Reporteros Sin Fronteras [RSF] & Federación colombiana de Periodistas [FELCOPER], 2015, p. 576). For Television, the state institution „National Television Authority“ (ANTV) manages the licensing of TV-Slots and also controls advertising content and advertising slots (Hetzer, 2017, p. 545). Therefore the state operates the public channels, regulates the electromagnetic infrastructure and acts as a service provider for the leasing of frequencies (ibid.). Furthermore, Article 75 declares that the state may intervene to prevent monopolistic practices in broadcasting (Corte Constitucional, 2017). However, Hetzer (2017) says this regulation is not respected by big media groups on broadcasting (p. 544). Colombian media are characterized for their high media concentration, what shows inefficiency of the state regarding media regulation, because „[they] are more concerned about content than a concentration of ownership“ (Montoya, 2014, p. 72). Media laws are constantly modified depending on the current government, thereby increasing the inefficiency of the state (Vargas, García & Camacho, 2012, p. 234). Another reason is the exchange of broadcasting licenses for financial support of presidential elections between economic and political groups. (Montoya, 2014, p.71.). Thus, media owners tie their political power to the control over the media (Rey, 1998, p. 129). For example, entrepreneur Ardila Lülle contributed about 500 million Colombian pesos (about 134,000 euros) to Alvaro Uribe’s (2002-2010) political campaign in 2002 (La Silla Vacía, 2016) to still own the private television station Radio Cadena Nacional (RCN). That is why economic groups have a high degree of influence on editorial policies in order to avoid criticism of the government and their own companies (Montoya, 2014, p. 73). M. Villadiego, researcher at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, says: „In Uribe’s Government there was a direct influence of political power in the information because that president seemed to want to rule over what journalists had to report and how to do it“.

    Furthermore, the financial model for broadcasting has a peculiarity that is a problem for the autonomy of journalists. Public television is financed mainly through advertising and so it falls under the conception of commercial model (García, 2015, p. 40). Because of that, many mass media depend on official advertising, with the state being one of the most important advertiser (FLIP, 2018, p. 42). B.Pinto explains: “[Colombian] media are in financial crisis, so the solution is to be financed by states publicity. Because the big clients are the national state or municipality state who spent lot of money on this issue“. This issue prevents journalists to independently report and criticize those financial sources or advertisers, which affects the quality of information (M. Villadiego).

    Colombia in the media freedom rankings
    According to the rankings of Reporters Without Borders (2019), Colombia ranks 129 out of 180 countries surveyed in terms of freedom of the press. Although freedom of the media is protected and opposition groups can speak their opinions freely, Colombia remains one of the most dangerous countries for journalists (Freedom House, 2019; Freedom of the press, 2016). In 2018, Colombia ranked 130 (ROG, 2019) and, according to FLIP (2018), that is a setback in terms of security guarantees for journalists in the country (p. 17). This can be explained firstly by the change of government and secondly „because 2018 was a very violent year where all social groups suffered including journalists because they take a role in society“ explains H. Calle. The attacks, kidnappings and intimidations are still as common as before the peace agreement (ROG, 2019). An example of this is the murder of three Ecuadorian journalists in March 2018, who were kidnapped by a group of FARC dissidents while researching drug cartels at the Colombian border (FLIP, 2018, p. 27). In 2019 a journalist was murdered in Cúcuta (ROG, 2019). However, T. Käufer says : „I believe that the peace process is also beginning to change the media landscape, making it more open and broader”. That is why in 2019 Freedom House recieved Colombia media 2 out of 4 points (0= bad and 4= good) for press freedom and in 2017 Colombia recieved 57 out of 100 points for press freedom, that is why the media system is described as partially free (Freedom House, 2019; Freedom of the press, 2016).
    Media offers
    Although colombian media landscape has a commercial orientation, media companies have not consolidated as competitive, which affects parallelism (Montoya, 2014, p. 67). Furthermore, a report about colombian mass media by Reporters Without Borders and the Federación colombiana de Periodistas [FELCOPER] (2015) describes that media are not pluralistic for a country with over 48 million citizens (p. 6).

    Television is the most widespread medium in Colombia, used by the population for information and entertainment (Montoya, 2014, p. 67; RSF & FELCOPER, 2015). Daily use averages four hours and 15 minutes (IBOPE MEDIA, 2018). In 2017 95,9% of all Colombian households owned a television (DANE, 2017, p. 7). Television was established in 1954 under the dictatorship of Rojas Pinilla not only as a propagandistic but also as an educational tool (Carillo & Montaña, 2006, p. 139). This pedagogical task is still present today because of state’s responsability for cultural and educational programmes through the public operator RTVC (National Television Radio of Colombia) (Hetzer, 2017, p. 545). Currently RTVC operates three public channels: Canal Uno, Canal Institucional and Señal Colombia (RSF & FELCOPER, 2015). In 1986, the first regional channel TeleAntioquia was founded „to give each region the opportunity to develop its own culture and regional quality” (Kusche, 1997, p. 608). At the beginning, public channels were financed by public institutions and sponsorships, but it was not profitable and led to advertising being allowed as a form of financing (García, 2015, 36ff.). There are currently eight public regional channels that are constituted as industrial and commercial enterprises of the state (Autoridad Nacional de Televisión [ANTV], 2018, p. 12). They have to manage parts of the resources necessary for their operation and are hardly dependent on public funds (García, 2015, p. 36). Since the national broadcasters RCN TV and Caracol TV were the sole commercial broadcasters to be licensed in 1997, the public broadcasters were hit by a financial crisis because they had to compete with private channels for advertising(García, 2015, p. 39). As a result, a rapid market concentration of the two private broadcasters began, as they were able to produce more attractive programmes (Hetzer, 2017, p. 546). Currently, Caracol and RCN hold the majority of television audiences in the country. According to RSF and FELCOPER (2015), these two private channels account for more than 80% of viewers (p. 11). Daniel Coronell, investigative journalist, explains this situation as follows:

    “They have the largest participation on television advertising packages. […] they can invest more than other media outlets because they come from big economic groups that are also big advertisers. [.] it is a cycle that brings together the announcer and the medium [.] that makes them have a dominant position in the television market.”

    Radio is the second most widespread medium and was established in Colombia in 1930. First, private radio stations were consolidated locally but from the 1960s onwards they were operated by economic groups on a national level (Montoya, 2014, p. 68). Licensing in the 1990s also allowed economic groups to make new investments in the main radio stations (Caracol Radio, RCN Radio and Todelar). According to the list of the MinTic (2016) there are currently about 1578 radio stations in Colombia on the frequency bands AM and FM, which are classified into three types: public, commercial and communal. Radio market is known as an oligopoly, since the ten most important radio stations belong to three station chains: Organización Radial Olympica, RCN Radio and Caracol Radio (RSF & FELCOPER, 2015). These radio chains concentrate about three quarters of all radio listeners on their programmes and are the only radio companies (Hetzer, 2017, p. 544). Despite that, radio plays an important role in the decentralization of media consumption and helps integrate the geographically fragmented territory, as most of important national media come from the capital city (p. 543). About this subject T. Käufer explains: „There are […] informative programmes that have a major impact on people, which are a good complement to television channels”.

    Print media
    The newspaper was established at the end of the 18th century (1791), making it the oldest medium in Colombia. Due to restrictions on media freedom in the 19th and 20th centuries, the press developed very slowly, although there was a little boom in new publications between 1911 and 1915 (Vallejo-Mejía, 2006, p.337ff). The development of an autonomous press industry was prevented not only by censorship, but also by the low readership due low literacy rate of colombian population (ibid.). Therefore, they were established as family businesses and aimed to defend party political ideologies, as they were supported by political allies. This guaranteed their economic survival (ibid.). According to Melo (2012), this characteristic of newspapers has hardly changed and he speaks about the transparency of today’s newspapers. He notes that some current newspapers present themselves as neutral media with objective information and opinion columns and hide their prejudices and preferences (p. 52ff.). Currently, El Espectador and El Tiempo are the most important traditional newspapers, which are national distributed. In addition, Portafolio and La República are considered national newspapers with a focus on economic issues (RSF & FELCOPER, 2015). All these newspapers come from Bogotá. Furthermore, there are about 90 different regional newspapers (Hetzer, 2017, p. 542). Some of these regional newspapers belong to the largest publishing house in Colombia: La casa editorial El Tiempo (LEET).
    Moreover, T. Käufer, makes an interesting remark: “[El Tiempo Publishing House] is positioned […] as the European […] media aspire. You have daily newspaper, news magazine, television station. You already have everything under one roof. Therefore, they are somewhat better prepared for the changes in the media landscape caused by the Internet […]. However, the introduction of free newspapers since 2009 such as ADN and media digitalization have affected the press market (Hetzer, 2017, p. 542).

    The Internet was inaugurated in Colombia in 1994. In the first ten years, this area did not show much progress in relation to online media (Hetzer, 2017, p. 547). Only from 2006 to 2008 the Internet developed strongly, with websites and the number of Colombian users growing significantly (RSF & FELCOPER, 2015, p. 20).
    According to Freedom of the Press (2016), 56% of Colombian population has access to the Internet. In 2017, a DANE survey on cultural consumption (Rey, 2019) showed that most Internet users read on online platforms. Currently Google and YouTube are the most visited websites in Colombia according to the ranking of Alexa (Alexa. com). If this list is limited to national informative websites, then the websites of El Tiempo and El Espectador will appear in the first place, strengthening the power of these media (RSF & FELCOPER, 2015, p. 20). According to T. Käufer, social media have become more important in Colombian society. Furthermore, he explains that they will play a “much bigger role in the future because they also have the opportunity to increase the pressure on the government. On the other hand, D. Coronell stresses that it is precisely that these help spread propaganda. M. Villadiego says that people rely more and more on the informative role of social networks. „That is a really big problem […] because there are fake news which many people are engaged with and certain political parties have taken advantage of that phenomenon “, she adds.
    Also, the interviews pointed out that the Internet has helped to establish alternative media such as La silla Vacía (2009). However, they do not reach the same number of online visitors as the web versions of traditional media (RSF & FELCOPER, 2015, p. 20). In addition, B. Pinto explains: “social media and the internet have made possible new voices to emerge independently of their economic capital”. He also stresses: “these alternative media offer us a much deeper analysis, more precise and detailed that some traditional big media does not make. That is their strength”.

    Media ownerships
    All interviews indicated that the Colombian mass media are organized in conglomerates, which are in few hands. D. Coronell mentions:

    “the most important colombian media belong to the most powerful economic elites in the country […] that makes them not have much critical sense in front of the actions of those corporate groups. […] and it is not a secret that those conglomerates are intimately linked to the government. They depend on licenses, concessions, tax exemptions and that is a government issue.”

    There are three large economic groups that own important TV and radio enterprises as well as publishing houses (Padilla & Rivera, 2013, p. 169). Among the most influential conglomerates is Grupo Aval, whose founder (Luis Carlos Sarmiento Angulo) counts to the richest men of Colombia, and encloses enterprise in the area of Finances, agroindustry, mining, civil engineering and media (RSF & FELCOPER, 2015). Ardila Lülle organisation (Organización Ardila Lülle S. A) is the second economic group which dispose of 60% of the television market and 20% of the radiomarket (Hetzer, 2017, p. 550). They own 50 mass media, like RCN and La Republica (RSF & FELCOPER, 2015), but also huge enterprises in the area of food, drinks, sport and civil engineering (ibid.). The third most influential group is Santo Domingo’s family group which has the enterprise Valorem S. A and dispose 72% of TV audiences. (Hetzer, 2017, p. 553). Because of this phenomenon, there is a high media concentration in the colombian media market and their consequences are explained by H. Calle: „what they decide to do with the newspaper in practical or legal matters, it will be done. They are the major shareholders and that is the problem […] that is the case with all colombian media“. In terms of information, Coronell explain: „if all media are in the hands of conglomerates and they have their own interests and also depend on the treatment they receive from the government, the citizen will never be the priority at the time of reporting“. This phenomenon has a negative impact on media independence, since these groups have political and economic interests (Montoya, 2014, p. 67). Because of that, it will be talked about the “oligarchization of the Colombian media market” since a high degree of horizontal concentration can be observed (Hetzer, 2017, p. 554).
    Journalists' autonomy
    Through the interviews it was found out that colombian journalists percieve a high degree of autonomy in their work. The economic journalist tells: “I really feel we are autonomous because I can choose the topics I want to report and I choose what to ask in an interview“. Nevertheless, it was made clear that political groups, advertisers, illegal groups and state institutions influence journalistic autonomy in Colombia. Arroyave and Garcés report in Worlds of Journalism (2017) that Colombian journalists are also restricted at the organisational level by editors, editorial guidelines, media ownership and time.

    Security risks and self-censorship
    Colombian armed conflict has been one of the big factors that has restricted freedom of expression for many years, which is reinforced by the lack of security guarantees by the state (FLIP, 2018, p. 14; Montoya, 2014, p. 74). „Colombian journalists are unprotected […] although journalists murders have been reduced, […] when a journalist is threatened he has no protection and the proof is that they are assassinated“ (M. Villadiego). Further M Villadiego emphazises: „there are some topics that become untouchable for journalists because if they touch them, they will be ending up threatened, killed or disappeared“. Particularly dangerous topics are corruption, country conflicts or drug crime (ROG, 2019). Another important factor for journlists autonomy is releated to socio-demographic aspects. „It is not the same to do journalism in a capital city as to do journalism in a region [because] there are regions where the state is not recognized as legitimate“(the economic journalist). H. Calle talks about her experience and says: „I have seen how journalists in the regions must bite their tongues because they live near those people who can harm them”.
    On the other hand, the reporter points out that journalists of commercial media tend to self-censor because their payment depends on the advertising of their media company. Furthermore, „there are media that have a political defined editorial line that for everyone is clear, so journalists feel handcuffed by that” explains the reporter. This can be explained by the development of newspapers in the hands of economic elites who have very close relations with politicians (Montoya, 2014, p. 73).

    Working conditions of journalists
    Journalist’s working conditions are described as precarious, especially in rural areas (Garcés & Arroyave, 2017; Legatis, 2010; Montoya, 2014). A survey of Antonio Nariño-Projects of 2015 revealed that 73% of the journalists earn less than 2,900,000 Colombian pesos (about 780 euros) (FLIP, 2015). Although these conditions have improved (ibid.), all interviews denote the profession as poorly paid. The economic journalist explains: „A good social communicator in a standard company can be earning four or five million pesos and, in a multinational, can earn up to seven. A normal journalist earns a minimum salary [220.30 euros]” . The Report of World of Journalism shows that 46.8% of Colombian journalists have permanent contracts. Most journalists work full-time or part-time, but there are also freelance journalists, which in Colombia is characterized as “contribution of services” (Legatis, 2010, p. 9). Nevertheless, this working form is unstable for journalists, because they get, for example, no social security paid-up (Arroyave & Garcés, 2017, p. 1). Because of the bad payment journalists tend to corruption, for example, by getting money for publishing information or even by having informal contracts with third parties (Hetzer, 2017, p.554). Because of the constantly increasing working hours, but the decreasing time for research, time has become a problem factor for Colombian journalists. The reporter describes: „sometimes I work 3 or 8 hours more than I should and that is not economically remunerated “. This includes the time pressure in editorial offices: „sometimes I have to write seven articles in one day “, says the economic journalist.

    Education and professionalism of Journalists
    In Colombia is usually five-year university study required to be journalist. M. Villadiego sees the education of journalists as essential: „academic training is very important for journalists, because it is a profession where everything you do will have a social repercussion”. Additionally, he explains that “it is important that those who practice the profession can handle themselves within ethical or political limits and that is what the university gives you” (ebd.). Currently there are approximately 40 Colombian universities which have journalistic programs but most of them are private and require tuition fees (Legatis, 2010, p. 11). All interviewed journalists had a Degree in social communication and journalism. However, there are some structural problems on it like a „lack of specialization in Colombian Journalists” explains the reporter. Further explains B. Pinto:

    “The colombian journalists have to be better formed in many subjects. […] there are journalists who address issues in a very easy way or in a wrong way […] if you want to address a topic as a journalist, the most important thing is that you approach that topic as an expert […] Faculties of journalism have the obligation to encourage the formation of a cultural, political, economic and healthy journalism. Colombia needs specialized journalists.”

    Another structural problem is the „lack of experience in academic education” emphasizes Calle. However, there is a high professionalization of colombian journalism (Legatis, 2010, p. 12).

    Social and self-perception of journalists
    Colombian journalists play an important role in society (Gutiérrez, 2010). For example, all people interviewed find journalists fundamental for the democracy in Colombia. It is noted that speaking the truth is an important factor in the publication of news (Arroyave & Garcés, 2017), one of the things that many have learned in training. „You cannot invent any detail because if you do, it will be fiction but no journalism” says H. Calle. If the truth is restricted, there are journalistic unions like La Liga del Silencio, which publish investigative articles anonymously (T. Käufer). In addition, journalists see that their role is important to inform society. „Journalism has been one of the great allies of many social sectors in Colombia that do not have the privilege of accessing many of these power scenarios” explains B. Pinto. The watchdog’s role plays an important control function in Colombian society. Therefore, explains D. Coronell:

    “Journalism is meant for monitoring, as a counterpower; it is meant for monitoring where taxes money goes and how people with authority exercise their power. And it must be a counterpower for all types of powers: the president, the senator, the priest, the district policeman and the media.”

    This has led to the fact that journalist are generally well looked: „You will notice it, because the people are willing to talk to you“ (T. Käufer). Additionally, explains H. Calle that especially people in rural regions appreciate the presence of journalists. At last, B. Pinto mentions „without journalism, without the work of journalists, without media, regardless their editorial line, the democracy will be very lame”.

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    • Vargas, L. M., García, D. A., & Camacho, J. A. (2012). Massenmedien in Kolumbien. Einige Anregungen zur Gestaltung popularer Kommunikation. In H. Bruchmann, A. Dobelmann, A. Hartman, A. Kruse, M. Schulz & H. Sott (Ed.), Medien und Demokratie in Lateinamerika (Bd. 95, p. 231–246). Berlin: Karl Dietz.
    • Zuluaga, J., & Martínez, M. P. (2012). Country Report. Mapping Digital Media: Colombia. Open society foundations. [ April 5, 2019].

    • Related Links
    • Freedom House 2019. Colombia.
    • Freedom of the press 2017: Colombia.
    • Reporters Without Borders: Colombia.
    • Reporter Without Borders & Federación colombiana de Periodistas (FELCOPER): Media Ownership Monitor Colombia 2015.
    • Fundación para la libertad de prensa (FLIP).

    • Interviewed experts
      (Skype- interview and telephone, April – May 2019)
    • Brian Pinto, Political scientist, specialist in public opinion and political marketing- worked on alternative media.
    • Daniel Coronell, Investigative journalist and columnist at Semana magazine.
    • Hellena Calle, Journalist at the newspaper El Espectador – (for two years).
    • Mirla Villadiego, Journalist and lecturer in Communication studies at Pontificia Universidad Javeriana- PUJ (25 years of experience)
    • An Economic journalist- Journalist at the national economic newspaper La República.
    • A Reporter, Journalist at a big mass media.
    Recommended citation form
    Nicole Andrea Duarte Amaya: Colombia. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2019. (access date).

    Colombian Newspaper. Photo: Nicole Duarte