Government restricts foreign press

New York, October 25, 2002—The Colombian government announced yesterday that it will require foreign journalists to obtain authorization from the Interior Ministry before entering two state-run security zones.

Yesterday’s announcement clarified an earlier decree, released on September 9, requiring all foreigners traveling to the zones to get permission from the government first. It was unclear until yesterday how the new regulations applied to foreign journalists.

President Álvaro Uribe Veléz designated the security zones—encompassing 27 townships in three separate departments in northern and northwestern Colombia—in September to give state security forces greater leverage in their battle against paramilitary soldiers and leftist guerrillas. Colombia’s civil conflict has been going on for nearly four decades and in recent years has killed some 3,500 people annually.

“There was worry within the government that some foreigners could come here to train the armed groups,” government spokesman Ricardo Galán told CPJ. “We want to have the certainty that those who say they’re journalists are really journalists.”

Under the new restrictions, foreign journalists are required to fax a request to the Interior Ministry listing their employer, where they plan to visit, and the length of their stay, according to a statement signed by Galán. Foreigners found in the zone without permission could be deported. Colombian journalists are exempt.

Galán added that journalists are not be required to reveal what they plan on reporting inside the security zones.

Last year, Colombian authorities captured three foreign men in Colombia linked to the Irish Republican Army and subsequently accused them of training members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the nation’s largest rebel army. Galán said foreigners have also entered Colombia to train rival paramilitary fighters.

Some foreign journalists expressed concern that the new requirement could hinder their ability to respond quickly to news events in the security zones and could interfere with their reporting once there.

“This will prevent us from moving as stealthily as we would like and ensure that the government will know where we’re going, when we’re arriving, and possibly who we’re meeting with,” said Kirk Semple, an American free-lance journalist who has worked in Colombia for five years.

Galán countered that, “There will be no limitations placed on journalists. They’re all welcome and can report on whatever they want while there.” He noted that 17 foreign journalists have already applied and received authorization to enter the zones. Galán said that Interior Ministry officials will be on hand 24 hours a day, seven days a week to process requests in under an hour if needed.

“It is essential that all journalists have access to these security zones to cover this crucial story,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “We will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that foreign journalists in Colombia are not impeded in their work.”