FARC rebels harass journalists

Bogotá, October 5, 2001—Leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) harassed seven journalists on September 28 while the reporters were on their way to cover a protest march sponsored by Liberal Party presidential candidate Horacio Serpa.

Eight FARC fighters erected a roadblock and stopped the journalists around noon outside the southern village of Balsillas, 125 miles south of the capital, Bogotá.

The journalists included Reuters cameraman Víctor Tobar; Tobar’s assistant, Hélver Viarraga; Caracol television correspondent Angel González; González’s cameraman, Norvei Poloche; RCN television correspondent César Velandia; Velandia’s assistant, Edinson Bautista; and TV Hoy correspondent Erica Manchola.

The rebels told the journalists that filming was forbidden in the area, and that FARC commanders had ordered their detention for their own safety. Fighting between rebel and government forces had killed at least two guerrillas in recent days. The fighters also told the journalists that the road ahead was mined.

When Tobar tried to drive away, a FARC fighter pointed a gun to his head while rebels deflated the tires of the journalists’ cars, Tobar told CPJ.

“CPJ deplores the FARC’s actions against these journalists,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We call on rebel forces and the Colombian government to ensure that the media can carry out their professional duties without fear of violence.”

Protest march
The journalists had travelled to the region after hearing of demonstrations related to Serpa’s peaceful march into rebel-controlled territory, located less than a mile from Balsillas. Riding in more than 50 buses, Serpa and some 3,000 supporters had left Bogotá on September 28 and were expected to pass through the area by the following day.

The caravan arrived in the area late Saturday morning but was turned back by the rebels along the same mountainous, dirt road outside Balsillas where the journalists had been harassed. Serpa never reached San Vicente del Caguán, the main town inside the enclave where he had planned to give a speech denouncing human rights abuses in rebel territory.

The journalists spent Friday night near the checkpoint. They were allowed to film the Serpa caravan on Saturday. At around 4 p.m. Saturday afternoon, after finding an air pump, the journalists headed back to nearby Neiva, the capital of Huila Department, where most of them live and work.

“[The FARC] never mistreated us, but it caught us by surprise,” said Velandia, who has worked for RCN for three years.

Critics accuse the 16,000-strong FARC—the nation’s largest rebel group—of using its Switzerland-sized territory to hide kidnapping victims, process drugs, and recruit fighters.