Activism on the Net
A Democratic Space
Colombian journalist Juan Carlos Rincón’s video column “La Pulla” is a big hit. He doesn’t see himself as an activist, but as a champion of digital literacy.
By Ana Luisa González
Inundated with requests from journalists and students – and fans! –, Juan Carlos Rincón decided to delete his WhatsApp account. "Of ten people who write to him, eleven want to talk to him," explains his assistant. For four years now, Rincón has been the editor of the opinion section of Colombia's oldest newspaper, El Espectador, which has been around for over 130 years.
Rincón also co-founded several digital projects, including the YouTube channel La Pulla, a political opinion show he runs together with four fellow journalists. La Pulla (Spanish for “The Taunt”) has a huge following, with over 830,000 subscribers and over 80 million views to date. And this El Espectador production has benefited the newspaper itself, too, drawing plenty of new readers. La Pulla fills a gap in the country's mediascape – to tremendous popular acclaim.
As Rincón sees it, La Pulla’s success coincides with a political reawakening of the country’s young generation. After eight years under ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez (2002–2010), who kept the opposition down and clamped down on free speech, a new collective spirit has emerged, a sense that Colombians no longer need to keep their heads and voices down. And La Pulla is blazing the way for this newfound freedom.
In 2016, the La Pulla team received the Simón Bolivar National Prize, the country’s most prestigious journalism award, for a video championing the right of same-sex couples to adopt children. But the video column's reputation extends far beyond Colombia’s borders, and its creators talk about their experiences at symposia all over the world.
Those who know him say the 28-year-old is a shy guy. Rincón himself claims to have no "social skills". But you wouldn’t know it from hearing him talk about La Pulla on stage and on camera. At El Espectador he is in charge of the opinion pieces by the newspaper’s editors and over a hundred columnists. He also teaches journalism at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá – and meets with financial backers to raise funds for the show.
"He works at a different pace from the rest of us," says his assistant. "He’s got a thousand projects on his mind at any given time." He owes his success to a knack for presenting complex issues in simple terms. "He reaches the public because they can rely on him for solid, painstaking journalism, for thorough research and checking his facts against various sources," explains his colleague Juan David Torres. "What’s more, Rincón has a keen sense of what interests the public."
Rincón learned the tools of the trade whilst studying law at the Universidad de los Andes – especially how to put complex subject-matter across in readily comprehensible terms. His role models were American (and British) comedians and satirical political commentators like Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, John Oliver, Samantha Bee and Jimmy Kimmel. So Rincón studied the techniques of stand-up comedians – as well as Barack Obama’s rhetorical style.
After his graduation he advocated for LGBTQ rights and eventually opted for a career in journalism. He doesn’t want to be an activist. "I’m an editor and journalist who has an ethical responsibility," he says. "In order to judge something, I have to keep a certain distance." Rincón seeks to accelerate the pace of "digital literacy" through La Pulla and other digital formats. But it’s not only about pedagogy, for he is striving to "restore the Internet” as a “democratic space".
Given Colombia’s stark political polarization, Rincón feels his mission is to nurture dialogue rather than to reconcile differences of opinion: the point of La Pulla is not to “bring together opposing views, but to stir up a debate about ideas". He and his team are continually asking themselves how to restore the media’s credibility. Rincon is convinced that "if the object is to rebuild shattered trust, freedom of speech must come first".
Juan Carlos Rincón was one of the speakers at the Kultursymposium Weimar in 2019, which, under the title “Recalculating the Route”, brought together guests from all over the world to discuss the great upheavals of our era.
Recalculating the Route – Kultursymposium Weimar 2019