Journalist killed during week of threats

New York, July 12, 2002—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has just learned that Mario Prada Díaz, of the weekly El Semanario Sabanero in the Santander Department in northeastern Colombia, was killed this week. His death occurred the same week in which another journalist in the region was threatened at gunpoint, one day after a paramilitary commander declared the local press a military target.

A source in Colombia told CPJ that Prada, 44, was abducted from his house in the municipality of Sabana de Torres at 11 p.m. on July 11. This morning, Prada’s body was found riddled with gunshots not far from his home. The source said that it was not clear who killed Prada, or why.

“We are saddened by the death of our colleague,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We urge Colombian authorities to do everything they can to establish who killed Mario Prada Díaz and to bring those responsible to justice.”

Threatened at gunpoint
Earlier this week, on July 9, two unidentified gunmen accosted Anyela Muñoz, owner of the weekly El Vocero, on a street in Barrancabermeja, an oil-refining town also in Santander Department. The gunmen told her that if this week’s issue of her paper was published, someone was going to die.

This threat followed a statement by a commander of the Bloque Central Bolívar unit of the rightist paramilitary army United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), directed at journalists in Barrancabermeja. “You either stop playing with the pain of the community, or it will be our sad obligation to execute someone so you know the pain of the people,” said the commander in a July 8 interview with the daily Vanguardia Liberal, which is based in Santander’s capital, Bucaramanga.

Barrancabermeja is a hotbed of violence in Colombia’s civil conflict, which began 38 years ago and pits two main leftist rebel armies against the AUC and the Colombian military. CPJ’s source said that the paramilitaries were unhappy with the Barrancabermeja media’s critical coverage of their activities.

On the same day that Muñoz was accosted and told not to publish her paper, she and journalists from other media outlets met to discuss the matter and to publish a communiqué denouncing the threats. El Vocero appeared on newsstands with the headline, “Yes to the Press.”

Following a national and international outcry, the commander who made the declaration backed down from the threats. According to the CPJ source, however, Barrancabermeja journalists are still wary of the situation.

“We remain extremely concerned about the safety of our colleagues in Barrancabermeja and the surrounding area,” said CPJ’s Cooper, “especially in light of the killing of Mario Prada Díaz.”

Journalist flees country
In a separate incident, on July 3, Astrid María Legarda Martínez, a correspondent who covers the conflict in Colombia for independent RCN Televisión, fled the country after learning that the nation’s largest rebel army was plotting to kill her.

Legarda learned of the alleged plan from a source in a high-security prison in the capital, Bogotá. She declined to identify her source but described him as reliable and said that he has connections to the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—the group that was allegedly plotting her death.