In the way Americans have watched the O. J. Simpson trials unfold on television, Colombians have tuned in to keep up with a narco-political scandal that has jailed 14 members of Congress and raised questions about President Ernesto Samper's possible links to drug lords.
But Congress this week gave 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.
"Politicians have taken revenge for the independence of the news media during the political crisis," said Javier Dario Restrepo, director of the Colombian chapter of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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 rent time on two state-owned channels.
That time-renting arrangement is what many critics predict will be used to punish newscasters. Currently, 10 television news shows--all owned by different investor groups--rent time on government channels.
They are the result of an effort to make television news more independent under the 1991 constitution. Before 1991, the government channels rented time through four-year licenses that coincided with the presidential term.
Licenses went to the president's friends and relatives, analysts said. "These were newscasts pulled from a briefcase--instant newscasts" made cheaply, said Maria Isabel Rueda, news director at the newscast "QAP," letters that mean "standing by" to Spanish-speaking radio buffs.
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 idea was to turn television news into a real business, where you could make money and invest it," Rueda said.
She and her partners, who include Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and newspaper publisher Enrique Santos Calderon, invested $1 million in a building designed as a news broadcasting studio. They bought microwave transmitters to make themselves more independent of the government.
Three other journalists, all under 30, sold their apartments and cars and rented space in a shopping mall, where they began broadcasting the newscast "NTC." As the program prospered, they borrowed money to buy better equipment. They are $800,000 in debt.
"Our purpose was never to make a lot of money," said Daniel Coronell, news director for "NTC." "We thought we would recover our investment by 2000 and maybe make money from 2000 to 2003," when the renewals were to have ended.
The new law eliminates the possibility of the renewals, although current newscasts may participate in the next round of bidding for licenses.
"People were told repeatedly that renewals would not be automatic," said Monica de Greiff, director of the National Television Commission, which regulates TV.
Sen. Jaime Vargas Suarez, who sponsored the bill, argues that with the private channels opening up, there will be more opportunities, not fewer.
"If they have good ratings, they will have no problems" getting a new concession, he predicted.
However, many journalists believe that the government will use the new round of bidding on licenses to take aggressive shows off the air.
"Some media will continue to be objective, but others . . . will try to ingratiate themselves with the government," Coronell predicted.
"I am not sure what I will do," he added, "but I know what I will not do: I will never try to get the government to forgive me. What hurts is that they have taken away our dreams. In the end, corruption has won."