Colombian law tightens grip on TV licenses Measure follows coverage of politicians' drug links


BOGOTA, Colombia -- In the way Americans have watched trials unfold on television, Colombians have tuned in to keep up with a drug scandal that has jailed 14 members of Congress and raised questions about President Ernesto Samper's possible links to drug lords.

But Colombia's Congress passed a new law last week that gives the government a powerful weapon to end the televised saga. Legislators voted to let the government take away the air time of the current owners of newscasts at the end of next year.

Measures affecting newscasters are part of a broad, new law that changes the face of Colombian television. Two completely private national channels will be permitted for the first time. The government will continue to broadcast over one channel and to rent space on two state-owned channels.

That rented space is what many critics predict will be used to punish newscasters. Currently, 10 TV news shows -- all owned by different investor groups -- rent space on government channels.

They are the result of an effort to make TV news more independent under the 1991 constitution. Before 1991, the government channels rented space through four-year licenses that coincided with the presidential term.

Licenses went to the president's friends and relatives. To encourage better quality and more independence, the 1991 law lengthened the licenses to six years, with the possibility of a renewal for another six.

The new law eliminates the possibility of the renewals, although current newscasts may participate in the next round of bidding for licenses.

Sen. Jaime Vargas Suarez, who sponsored the bill, argues that with the new private channels opening up, there will be more opportunities, not fewer. However, many journalists believe that the government will use the new round of bidding on licenses to take aggressive shows off the air.

Pub Date: 12/15/96

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