Court overturns sections of decree mandating foreign press restrictions

New York, December 3, 2002—Colombia’s Constitutional Court has overturned sections of a government decree requiring foreign journalists to obtain authorization from the Interior Ministry before entering state-run security zones.

On November 25, the country’s nine-member Constitutional Court ruled unanimously that the earlier decree requiring that foreigners traveling to the zones get permission first from the government could not be applied to journalists who are already accredited, according to a copy of the ruling obtained by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The court also ruled that key elements in the decree, such as searches without warrants, arrests, and communications intercepts, violate the Colombian Constitution.

In September, President Àlvaro Uribe Vélez designated 27 townships in three separate departments in northern and northwestern Colombia as security zones, giving state authorities greater leverage in their battle against paramilitary soldiers and leftist guerrillas.

The press restrictions, which many foreign journalists viewed as an unnecessary hindrance, required reporters to fax a request to the Interior Ministry listing their employer, where they planned to visit, and the length of their stay. Foreigners found in the zones without permission could have been deported. Colombian journalists were exempt.

Government spokesman Ricardo Galán told CPJ in October that the authorities were worried that foreigners could come to Colombia to train armed groups. “We want to have the certainty that those who say they’re journalists are really journalists,” Galán said.

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

Colombia is embroiled in a 38-year-old civil conflict that pits leftist rebels against the government and a right-wing paramilitary group.