New York, October 29, 1999— Leftist guerrillas who kidnapped a Colombian journalist on October 26 say they will only release him if a rebel communiqué is made public. But local journalists have rejected the demand, saying they only broadcast the rebel’s message once the kidnapped journalist is set free.
Henry Romero, a freelance photographer who works regularly for Reuters, was detained Tuesday by members of the José Maria Becerra unit of the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest rebel group. Romero had been summoned along with other journalists to cover a new conference in the mountains near Cali about the May 30 ELN kidnapping of worshippers during a Roman Catholic mass.
A group of armed rebels led Romero away, saying he would be put on “trial” for photographing a rebel commander without his trademark red-and-black face mask. Romero took that photo, as well as other exclusive images, when he was given access in June to a camp where the hostages of the May 30 kidnapping were being held.
On Thursday, a rebel commander who identified himself as “Carlos” phoned a Colombian television station and read a statement in which he accused Romero of betraying the ELN. The commander pledged not to kill Romero, but said he “had to pay for his mistake.” He promised to release him once the rebel statement was broadcast.
Several Cali media outlets put out a joint press release rejecting these conditions. Journalists also marched through the city, calling for Romero’s immediate and unconditional release.
CPJ is hopeful that Romero will be released shortly, but remains extremely concerned for his safety and well-being. Journalists covering Colombia’s civil war have been targeted by all parties in the conflict; CPJ believes that press freedom must be included in the agenda of the current peace negotiations.