Local press under siege amid escalating violence, CPJ finds

Bogotá, April 26, 2002
—On April 22 and 23, unidentified men threatened to kill television journalist Daniel Coronell and his 3-year-old daughter.

Coronell, news director of “Noticias Uno,” a current affairs program on the Bogotá TV station Canal Uno, received threatening calls on his cellular phone and at his home and office after he aired an investigative report examining possible links between the country’s leading presidential candidate and drug traffickers. The journalist reported the threats to police and on Wednesday sent his daughter out of the country with relatives.

Coronell, 36, is the latest target in a series of attacks against Colombia’s press. Since January, five journalists have been killed, according to CPJ research. Earlier this month, one reporter died, along with a driver, in a firefight between government troops and leftist rebels. CPJ continues to investigate the murders of the other four journalists. During the same period, leftist rebels dismantled a radio station and allegedly tried to fire a rocket into a television station.

At least 12 journalists have been threatened. Four of them, including the country’s top television news anchorwoman, have fled the country.

None of these crimes have been solved.

Coronell is staying put for now, but he takes the threats very seriously. They began on Monday, April 22, after Canal Uno aired a program suggesting that presidential frontrunner Álvaro Uribe Vélez had connections among Colombian drug traffickers.

Uribe responded by asserting that Coronell was the person who needed to explain alleged links to the drug trade. On April 24, Colombia’s leading newspaper, El Tiempo, quoted Uribe as saying that while he supported press freedom, “…a free press is one thing, and a press at the service of straw men and shady deals is another thing.”

Meanwhile, Uribe, who has denied alleged links to Colombia’s right-wing paramilitary movement, claims that leftist guerrillas have stifled his own freedom of speech. Last Friday, the Uribe campaign announced that 33 radio stations throughout Colombia have refused to run the candidate’s political advertisements ahead of next month’s elections. The stations cited fear of rebel reprisals.

Uribe has antagonized the rebels by vowing to rein them in if elected. Despite reports that rebel factions have threatened media organizations that ran Uribe’s ads, a spokeswoman for the Uribe campaign told CPJ that some of the stations might have rejected the ads for political reasons.

The campaign has asked Colombian authorities to investigate the alleged threats and force the stations to broadcast the paid ads if they fail to find any evidence supporting the claims, said Myrna Mayer, foreign press coordinator for the campaign.

Press and civil war
The violence plaguing Colombia’s press comes amid a worsening 38-year civil conflict that sets two main leftist rebel armies against a rival right-wing paramilitary group and the U.S.-backed Colombian military.

The growth of both rebel and paramilitary forces in recent years has made covering the conflict increasingly hazardous. The paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is estimated to have some 8,000 fighters, while the country’s largest rebel army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, is thought to have 16,000 combatants. Both sides finance themselves by skimming millions in profits from Colombia’s illegal narcotics industry.

As the armed groups have grown more powerful, they have become even more sensitive to criticism. The rebels, who claim they are fighting to redress years of endemic poverty and government corruption, frequently accuse the mainstream press of serving the interests of the Colombian elite. At the same time, the AUC often accuses critical journalists of being rebel sympathizers.

“It’s evident that both the paramilitaries and the guerrillas believe that winning the war depends on the public’s perception,” Rodrigo Pardo, editor of El Tiempo, told CPJ. “As a result, they’re working harder than ever to intimidate journalists and manipulate information.”

Fighting spiked in February when the government of President Andrés Pastrana Arango ended a three-year peace process with the FARC after a series of rebel attacks and ordered the military to retake a huge safe haven he had granted to the rebels as an incentive to launch negotiations.

The rebels responded with an offensive of their own, bombing bridges and electrical towers and kidnapping politicians. Authorities also blame them for a series of explosions in crowded urban centers, including two blasts earlier this month that killed 12 people.

Popular candidate faces questions
Uribe has successfully exploited popular resentment against the rebels to grab the lead in polls ahead of the presidential election. The first round of voting is scheduled for May 26.

In recent weeks, however, the candidate has faced tough questions about his alleged ties to the AUC and to the family of Fabio Ochoa, whose sons, along with the late drug lord Pablo Escobar, once ran the world’s biggest cocaine smuggling operation. Uribe insists that his relationship with the Ochoas had nothing to do with drugs.

The report that Coronell aired Sunday on Canal Uno revealed that a helicopter seized during a notorious 1984 cocaine bust was registered to an aerial photography business co-owned by Uribe’s father.

The segment also reported that in 1981, Colombia’s civil aviation department granted an operating license for the helicopter in just one day, although the normal waiting time was up to 20 working days. Álvaro Uribe headed the department when the license was approved.

Less than two weeks before the report aired, Ignacio Gómez, director of investigations at “Noticias Uno,” received some 15 threats—many of them death threats—by telephone at his home in Bogotá.

The day after the report was broadcast, a man called Coronell’s office three times and told his secretary that he would be killed. At 11 p.m. that night, a man called Coronell from an unregistered home telephone number and said, “We’re going to kill you, son-of-a-bitch.”

At 9:30 a.m. the following morning, another man called Coronell on his cellular phone and threatened to kill his daughter. Coronell told CPJ that he does not know who is responsible for the threats.

“This country is so polarized right now that any person who isn’t supporting Uribe is considered a guerrilla,” Coronell said.