Sharjah: Juan Manuel Santos, former President of Colombia and recipient of the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, spoke at the 9th International Government Communication Forum (IGCF) on Wednesday and recalled his time as a journalist, saying governments must effectively communicate with the people through mass media.
“I was an old-fashioned journalist,” said Santos, 68, whose family owned and operated one of the best newspapers in Colombia, ‘El Tiempo’.
Santos said being a journalist gave him influence to mold public opinion. He added the role of journalists is to serve as watchdogs.
“When things are okay, they are quiet; but when things are not correct, they bark or bite. Journalists are not there to applaud; they are there to criticise and make calls for reforms,” Santos explained.
But having influence, Santos said, was not enough to effect radical change in Colombia, which was bogged down by years of internecine armed conflict, political violence and destructive drug war.
In 1991, Santos gave up his pen to enter politics. He served as Minister of Foreign Trade during the administration of then President César Gaviria Trujillo.
Santos worked on attracting foreign investors but Colombia suffered from bad reputation because of its long history of human rights violations and volatile political situation.
This was the time when Santos went back to his roots as a journalist. He said he devised a strategic communication plan that involved getting the support of journalists for every public policy that has to be understood by the people.
He said improving his government’s reputation involved a proactive communication work that involved the mass media.
“We changed the public perception by working with the media. Journalism and people in general, however, have short memory so you have to repeat your message many times before the public can totally absorb your messages,” Santos explained.
He also noted that the worst thing a government official can do is try to stop the information from going out because censoring the media will eventually have a negative backlash.
“Governments must accept the reality must welcome criticisms. This is good. For me, it’s like a shower of cold water that woke me up to the reality that I needed to implement change,” Santos underscored.
Telling the audience at the government forum, Santos reiterated: “Have personal interaction with journalists; with people who control the media and see the change in public opinion.”
He also recalled an instance when Colombia faced an epidemic disease. There was chikungunya virus outbreak in Colombia that spread like the present-day novel coronavirus (COVID-19). There was no vaccine to prevent nor medicine to treat chikungunya virus infection.
Santos said his government’s legitimacy depended on how he worked with the media and how his message was communicated to the people.
“I needed to tell the truth because if people did not understand the realty that would have made me responsible for losing their lives,” Santos shared.
“Tell the truth and be emphatic. Show concern with your heart and not just the mind,” he added.