Colombia: Leftist rebels kidnap seven journalists

New York, November 1, 1999 — Leftist guerrillas abducted seven journalists whom they had invited to cover alleged atrocities committed by paramilitary forces against local farmers. The seven journalists were intercepted on October 29 by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

This is the second Colombian media kidnapping in less than a week. Reuters photographer Henry Romero currently faces a “trial” by another rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), because he photographed an ELN commander who wished to remain anonymous.

The seven reporters and cameramen kidnapped October 29 had left the oil-refining town of Barrancabermeja by boat at 6:30 a.m. They were heading for southern Bolívar Department, where FARC had invited them to cover the displacement of local farmers by paramilitary forces. Members of FARC’s Unit 24 reportedly intercepted the journalists on the way.

A rebel leader who identified himself as Commander Leonardo called the Bucaramanga daily Vanguardia Liberal, where one of the hostages works, to report the kidnapping. He said the journalists would be released when they reported the “truth” about atrocities committed against local farmers by paramilitary forces.

The media concerned — Caracol and RCN networks; Noticiero de las 7 and CM& news programs; and Vanguardia Liberal— put out a press release saying, “All the undersigned media have constantly denounced the outrages of both the paramilitary and the guerrillas and will continue to do so, exercising their professional rights and duties. However, it is totally unacceptable that the armed actors should attempt to manipulate journalistic content by any means — much less by violence and kidnapping.”

The kidnapping is especially worrisome because there is reportedly heavy fighting in the region where the journalists were kidnapped.

CPJ condemns the kidnapping of journalists by any party to a civil conflict as a clear violation of international humanitarian law. Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which applies to internal conflicts, prohibits the taking of civilian hostages or the trial and sentencing of anyone “in the absence of a previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court.”

“The FARC and ELN must release all kidnapped journalists unconditionally and respect the press’ right to cover all parties to the Colombian conflict in an impartial and objective manner,” notes Marylene Smeets, coordinator of CPJ’s Americas program. “We are outraged and saddened that Colombian journalists are being held hostage to serve short-term political ends.”