Wearing auto-regulating spectacles

Marcela Guerrero Casas
6 min readMay 8, 2019

Over the weekend, I attended a fascinating talk about self-regulation in the media. It was part of the Bogota International Book Fair, an annual event that attracts thousands of people to look at books and other things. The talk was about the internal tools Colombian media channels use to maintain integrity and high standards. The panellists, a couple of well seasoned male journalists, and a younger woman representing a relatively nascent newspaper, were all clearly very passionate about their trade though it was clear the generational gap marked their difference in opinion.

Unsurprisingly, part of the debate was about the difference between self-regulation and censorship. They disagreed on how fine the dividing line is between the two, but each case was made with interesting examples. In a country where news are mostly sensationalist, largely with a conservative slant, and very often protecting those in power, I was expecting a great deal of defensive postures, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear the honest reflections of the panellists.

The bottom line, from what I gathered, is that we still live in a country where telling the truth is a dangerous endeavour and journalists must be pragmatic if they are to continue to tell the news, which starts by staying alive. One of the examples came from a province in the north of the country where armed groups, despite the official end of the conflict, are still active and where denouncing them by name can get journalists killed. In that case, one of the panellists said, there is responsibility for self-survival which is sometimes more pressing than telling the full story.

In another example, the woman from the smaller newspaper spoke about the introspective process her team underwent in regards to the Venezuelan crisis. She spoke about a workshop they underwent with the support of UNHCR in which they realised, her team was framing the news in a way that promoted xenophobia by placing emphasis on the nationality when telling the story of certain crimes, and making thatthe story. And while people like me, who read the papers and see how hatred is instigated by media channels, nodded immediately at how evident such malpractice was, after listening to her, I could also understand the dilemma inside a news room when giving guidance to writers about what the information that could be used without imposing one’s own views.

As I left the talk, it dawned on me that this tension between self-regulation and self-censorship is also playing out in my daily life. Since I arrived, I told myself I would try hard to keep an open mind so that I could appreciate the idiosyncrasies of my own people without judging. It helps that my partner is not Colombian so I genuinely hear a different perspective on a reality I learnt to criticise from an early age. Nevertheless, as time passes I am finding it more and more difficult to keep this lens of open-mindedness on.

For starters, it is trying to be an adult woman in a society that continues to be heavily male-dominated and where interactions range between constant cat-calling on the street to not being taken seriously in the simplest of situations. Last week, I tried to maintain a semblance of tolerance while making a failed attempt to give constructive feedback. We were visiting what we thought was a national park, but ended up being a set of private farms, in the coffee region — a completely stunning part of the country. As we started the hike we were told there was a fee to enter. We asked where to pay it and if there were other fees involved. We were shown where to pay on the map and assured there were no other fees involved, and off we went our jolly walk. As we entered the place, the first surprise was that the fee was 50% higher than we were told. I was a little annoyed but the beauty that surrounded us made up for the slight irritation. Once we reached the summit, however, after 3 hours of arduous walking as some of the signs were missing and we ended up going up the wrong hill, we were told that unless we paid 8,000 pesos (four times what we had been told the fee was for the whole hike) we wouldn’t be allowed through and would have to walk back the 3 hours we had just completed.

At that point I started to argue with the person who was blocking our way. It was not fair they would trick us that way, but the walk had been tough and we just wanted to get down so we paid the fee and were told that we should bring our complaint to the people at the bottom. An hour later, I had calmed down and reflected on how magical the place was, I thought “surely some constructive feedback would be appreciated to improve the visitors’ experience”. And so as soon as we reached the bottom I approached the person in charge and said, “This place is beautiful, I would like to make a suggestion” and proceeded to say that it would be helpful to learn from the beginning how much one would pay to avoid such surprises. I said I didn’t think the overall price was unreasonable and given how amazing the park was it was a pleasure to pay for it but that more information would be helpful. The guy responded aggressively and reprimanded me for not informing myself better. He said, they were all separate farms and that it was not their responsibility to provide that information but for the visitor to find it. I was astounded, I was convinced I was being helpful and instead I was making this man angry to the point he was shouting at me.

As I walked off in a huff, I couldn’t help but to think, “this damn culture of never accepting responsibilityand simply bouncing it off to someone else is what drives me crazy about this country”. The feeling lingered and it continued to build over the days. I have started to wonder if there is any point in trying to change anything when the traditions and customs are so deeply entrenched that wanting to have any different interaction will just create more stress and frustration on my end.

And so I am currently asking myself whether I should be self-regulating as a way of not only maintaining a positive and healthy disposition to living here again but also to self-protect and to maintain some level of harmony when interacting with others. When is it appropriate to quietly accept that things work differently here and at what point, does it become self-censure to allow myself to be mistreated or misunderstood? When is tolerance the right choice and when is acceptance another form of self-loathing or inability to speak one’s mind? This is a particular tension I struggle to hold. Partly because I naturally avoid conflict and partly because I still feel that I must still find a place for myself here –and fighting each step of the way is clearly not the best way to do it.

The process continues, and it seems that every day brings a new opportunity to make that choice. Whatever self-regulation structure is forming in my brain, the daily exercise has become about “re-setting” or simply cleaning the “spectacles”in order to open my eyes, my mind and my heart to living in the place which I learnt to love but also to criticise many decades ago; the place which gave me an identity and now helps me re-shape it, not always kindly but always with a certain level of irony and humour –in a typical Colombian fashion.

Valle de Cocora, Natural Reserve

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Marcela Guerrero Casas

I am passionate about cities, public space & community engagement. Born in Colombia, I have spent my adult life in the US & South Africa. Cape Town is home.