New York, July 11, 2001—In a tragic week for the Colombian press, three local broadcast journalists have been murdered in the violence-plagued country since July 4. CPJ is investigating all three deaths to determine whether the journalists were killed because of their work.
“In the interests of press freedom and simple justice, CPJ will investigate possible motives behind all murders of journalists in Colombia,” said executive director Ann Cooper. “We urge all sides in the civil war to refrain from these senseless attacks on the press.”
Since the beginning of 2001, a total of seven journalists have been killed in Colombia for reasons possibly related to their work. In one of these cases, CPJ has confirmed that the murder was motivated by the victim’s journalism. On April 27, Flavio Bedoya, regional correspondent for the Communist Party newspaper Voz, was killed in the southwestern port city of Tumaco. Colleagues linked the murder to a series of highly critical reports that Bedoya had published about collusion between security forces and right-wing paramilitary gangs.
CPJ continues to investigate six other murders. The three most recent cases are detailed below:
Music radio director killed
On the evening of July 4, a gunman shot and killed Arquímedes Arias Henao, a radio journalist in Fresno Municipality, Tolima Department.
Arias was the director of the local radio station Fresno Estéreo. At around 6:30 p.m., an armed individual entered the station’s offices and shot the journalist three times. The gunman then fled with a man who was waiting for him on a motorcycle.
Arias had moved from the Tolima municipality of Palocabildo months before to run the newly launched Fresno Estéreo. Given that Fresno Estéreo mainly aired music programs, the motive for his murder remains unclear.
News radio director killed six months after predecessor’s murder
On the morning of July 6, two unidentified men on a motorcycle killed radio journalist José Vásquez with two shots as he was driving home from work in the southern Colombian city of Florencia.
Vásquez, news director of Voz de la Selva (“Voice of the Jungle”), a local affiliate of the national Caracol radio network, was rushed to a hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival. His colleague Omar Orlando García, who was with him at the time of the killing, was not hurt.
Florencia, in Caquetá Department, is a former stronghold of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist guerrilla organization. More recently, the town has become a power base for an anti-communist paramilitary group linked to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).
CPJ sources in Colombia said Vásquez’s last radio report dealt with changes in the local paramilitary leadership. The journalist was not known to have received any threats.
Vásquez had replaced Voz de la Selva news director Alfredo Abad López, who was killed on December 13, 2000. Abad’s murder, in turn, came two weeks after a colleague, Guillermo León Agudelo, was stabbed to death by two men who had forced their way into his home. Police initially believed that Agudelo was killed during a robbery attempt but later concluded that he was stabbed to death after refusing an extortion demand.
Reliable local sources concurred that paramilitary gunmen had murdered Abad because of his work as a journalist, although the suggested motives differed. One source told CPJ that Abad was probably killed for investigating the murder of his colleague Agudelo. But other sources pointed to Abad’s last broadcast, in which he had discussed the government’s decision to cede a Switzerland-sized chunk of territory to the FARC.
Radio and television journalist killed
On July 8, unidentified gunmen killed radio and television journalist Jorge Enrique Urbano Sánchez in the center of the Pacific port of Buenaventura. One of the journalist’s friends was hurt in the attack.
Urbano apparently devoted his final television broadcasts to denouncing the local criminal gang “Tumba Puertas” (“Knock Down Doors”).
In addition to his journalistic work, Urbano also managed the municipal park system in Buenaventura. The journalist was threatened two months ago, according to the Bogotá daily El Tiempo. Urbano attributed the threats to his public statements about crime in Buenaventura’s central park, where he had coordinated operations to relocate street vendors and remove drug addicts.
Death toll mounts
The four-decade Colombian civil war has escalated in recent years, as both leftist guerrillas and their right-wing paramilitary opponents have begun using drug money to finance their operations. Today, vast areas of the country function outside government control. According to the government’s own statistics, as many as 98 percent of all crimes remain unsolved.
All parties in the conflict care a great deal about how they are covered in the media, and are willing to use violence to ensure that they are portrayed favorably. Even so, Colombia maintains an active press, with two national dailies and a network of radio stations crisscrossing the country. While there have been reports of self-censorship, the Colombian press in general has worked valiantly despite facing appalling risks.
Three Colombian journalists were killed for their work in 2000, according to CPJ research, bringing the 10-year death toll to 34.