July 29, 2008
Juan Manuel Santos
Minister of Defense
Carrera 54 No. 26-25 CAN
Dear Mr. Santos:
Following the successful July 2 hostage rescue operation that ended with the release of 15 captives held by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), we are writing to express our concern about the fact that security forces impersonated journalists during the mission. We fear that such impersonations could endanger the work of the already beleaguered Colombian media.
During the rescue, two Colombian soldiers posed as journalists working for the state-owned regional network Telesur while others pretended to be humanitarian aid workers, as your government later acknowledged. The commander of Colombia's armed forces, General Freddy Padilla De León, also said that the soldiers who participated in the operation had taken acting classes to learn how to impersonate guerrillas, aid workers, and journalists.
On July 23, during a press conference in Washington, you said that the use of the Telesur logo was "an insignificant detail given the magnitude" of the operation. We understand what was at stake and recognize that 15 people were rescued in the operation, but there are dangerous and significant risks posed by such a display:
- The impersonation of journalists increases the risks for all journalists, particularly for provincial reporters who cover the five-decade-old civil conflict in regions controlled by illegal armed groups. In rural areas, journalists are frequently threatened by guerrillas and paramilitaries and pressured by military and civilian authorities, CPJ research shows.
- It affects the media's position as an independent body, especially those journalists working in conflict zones who rely on their civilian status, as established by the Geneva Conventions.
- By posing as journalists, security forces undermine the role of the free press and bring mistrust to the profession, ultimately damaging the public good.
Colombia remains one of the most murderous countries for the press worldwide, and has the highest rate of unsolved journalist murders at the percentage of the population of any nation in Latin America, according to CPJ's Impunity Index. Moreover, the murders and other acts of violence by all parties in the conflict have led many journalists to practice self-censorship when covering sensitive issues, as documented in a 2005 CPJ report.
We believe that the impersonation of journalists is a troubling development, especially at a time when reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan are being kidnapped and accused of being spies.
We call on the Colombian government to carefully consider the implications of this practice and not to minimize the potential consequences to the press.
Thank you for your attention to these urgent matters. We look forward to your response.