Attacks on the Press 2003: Colombia

Colombian journalists continued paying an extremely heavy price for practicing their profession amid a 40-year-old civil war pitting two major leftist guerrilla groups against the Colombian army and right-wing paramilitary forces. At least four journalists were killed in reprisal for their work in 2003, and CPJ continues to investigate the deaths of three others.

Sixteen months into a four-year term, President Álvaro Uribe–a close U.S. ally–experienced a major political setback when voters rejected a referendum that the notoriously thin-skinned president claimed would have expanded his powers to fight terrorism and corruption and bolster a faltering economy. Even though Uribe attempted to strengthen the army and took steps to weaken the rebels and disarm death squads, the absence of state control in certain regions of the country left the media open to attacks. In 2003, Colombia was again featured on CPJ’s list of the “World’s Worst Places to Be a Journalist.”

The northeastern department of Arauca, which has been a hotbed of civil unrest, is the clearest example of how the government’s lack of control over vast areas of the country has affected the media. Following the March 18 murder of Luis Eduardo Alfonso Parada, an on-air host with Radio Meridiano 70, fourteen other Arauca journalists fled to the capital, Bogotá, after receiving death threats from both rebels and paramilitaries. The journalists returned three months later, but the intimidating environment has encouraged self-censorship.

During campaigning for state and municipal elections, which were held on October 26, paramilitary groups and guerrillas murdered dozens of political candidates. This wave of violence posed an additional threat for journalists covering political corruption. Guillermo Bravo Vega, an investigative journalist with the regional Alpevisión Radio who had frequently accused municipal and departmental government officials of mishandling public funds, was shot dead on April 28 in the southern town of Neiva in Huila Department. The next day, unidentified gunmen murdered Jaime Rengifo Revero, host of a weekly program on Radio Olímpica, in the northern town of Maicao in La Guajira Department. Rengifo frequently criticized state security forces and accused local politicians of corruption.

The government’s failure to prosecute these crimes led many journalists to leave the country. More than 40 journalists received death threats in 2003. Six of them fled the country, including Fabio Castillo, head of the investigative unit for the weekly El Espectador. Castillo, a well-respected Colombian journalist, left in July after being fired on June 6. Though the paper claimed that it fired him for budgetary reasons, Castillo, as well as other Colombian and international journalists, said it was an effort to silence him following his report on alleged illegal business dealings involving Interior and Justice Minister Fernando Londoño Hoyos.

Many journalists who remain in Colombia feel that the pressure of working in a hostile environment, as well as the concentration of media ownership among businessmen with ties to the government, has kept them from reporting openly on the grave problems facing Colombia and has forced them to restrain criticism of the government and Uribe’s policy initiatives.

According to some Colombian journalists, the consolidation of media ownership by a handful of large groups is eroding media diversity and limiting political debate. Three powerful corporations with close ties to the political establishment own broadcasters that claim more than 80 percent of the country’s radio and television audience. Organización Carlos Ardila Lulle controls RCN, while the Spanish company Prisa has purchased most of the shares of Caracol Radio from Grupo Empresarial Bavaria. Grupo Empresarial Bavaria, which is controlled by the Santodomingo family, still holds a portion of Caracol Radio and owns Caracol Televisión.

The country’s most influential daily and the only paper with national circulation, El Tiempo, and the company that controls it, Casa Editorial El Tiempo, have become a powerful business entity. Casa Editorial El Tiempo owns the daily business paper Portafolio, the tabloid Hoy, regional outlets in five regions of the country, a large magazine publishing company, and the television station CityTv.

Foreign correspondents have generally not been subjected to the kind of violence that regularly imperils Colombian journalists, but that changed in January, when rebel fighters kidnapped two Los Angeles Times journalists. They were freed within days. Even though the abductions have not prevented correspondents from traveling to the country’s most dangerous areas, some said they are taking greater precautions and talking to authorities before entering those regions.

On November 6, Colombia’s House of Representatives passed an antiterrorism bill that would allow the army to conduct searches, tap telephones, and intercept private correspondence without a warrant in cases involving individuals suspected of terrorist links. A controversial clause that would have banned the media from revealing the names of detainees during the first 72 hours of arrest was eliminated during the debate in the lower house of Congress. On December 11, the Senate passed the bill, which at year’s end was awaiting approval by the nation’s Constitutional Court.

The difficulties journalists face while covering the civil war encouraged the local press freedom organization Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) to publish a security manual aimed at keeping journalists safe from attacks by the armed factions involved in the conflict. The manual includes a map showing areas where each armed group holds sway and details of the different subgroups of the armed organizations: the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), and the right-wing paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).

To promote the release of the manual, FLIP and its umbrella group, the press freedom organization Proyecto Antonio Nariño, which is funded by Nobel Prizewinning author Gabriel García Márquez, organized a three-day workshop on security issues for Colombian journalists. During the seminar, sponsored by International Media Support and the International News Safety Institute with support from CPJ, journalists received training from experts from Centurion Risk Assessment Services, a U.K.-based hostile-environment training firm. Frank Smyth, CPJ’s Washington, D.C., representative and security expert, also led a panel on journalism and trauma.