Attacks on the Press 2004: Colombia


For the first time in more than a decade, CPJ documented no case in 2004 in which a journalist was killed for his or her work. While violence against Colombian journalists may have receded—31 were murdered for their work during the last decade, according to CPJ research—it does not reflect an improvement in conditions for the press. Rather, local journalists say, it reflects a culture of self-censorship, especially in Colombia’s lawless interior. Pressure from armed groups, they say, has caused many journalists to not cover the conflict, or to provide superficial, one-sided coverage.

“Self-censorship is pervasive,” says Juliana Cano, director of the local press
freedom organization Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (Foundation for Freedom of the Press). “Regional journalists are wary of the consequences of what they write or broadcast.”

The national daily El Tiempo (The Time) reported in October that violence prevents coverage of sensitive issues in departments such as César, Córdoba, Magdalena, and Arauca, where leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Colombian army, and right-wing paramilitaries of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia are fighting for control. Thorough, accurate reporting has gone by the wayside amid the climate of fear. Under threat from rebels or paramilitaries and fearing for their lives, journalists are often forced to skew their coverage to favor one side. By repressing and influencing coverage, armed groups are effectively waging war over information as well as territory and power.

An April survey of news coverage in 13 Colombian newspapers found that reporters who cover the conflict usually rely on only one official source and reproduce official press bulletins without independent investigation. The survey, conducted by the local press organization Proyecto Antonio Nariño, also concluded that more than 90 percent of coverage was brief and provided no analysis.

A delegation of press freedom organizations that included CPJ Americas Program Research Associate Sauro González Rodríguez traveled to Barrancabermeja, in the northeastern department of Santander, in April to evaluate press conditions there. The delegation found a climate of intimidation in Barrancabermeja—Colombia’s oil capital—and in the surrounding rural areas, home to right-wing paramilitary forces and left-wing guerrillas. State institutions, the delegation found, have a weak presence. In its report, “Barrancabermeja, la voz que se resiste a callar” (Barrancabermeja, the voice that refuses to be silenced), the delegation urged Colombian authorities and armed groups to respect press freedom and society’s right to be informed and called on police and prosecutors to investigate threats against journalists and bring those responsible to justice.

According to El Tiempo, regional journalists covering corruption and organized crime have become increasingly cautious, doing little independent reporting or analysis, particularly when paramilitary groups are involved. While no journalists were killed for their work in 2004, assaults continued to occur whenever corrupt public officials, drug traffickers, and other criminals wanted to prevent the media from exposing their activities. On April 22, for example, Cúcuta radio commentator Jorge Elías Corredor Quintero narrowly escaped an assassination attempt after two men who visited him, purportedly to discuss a real estate deal, shot at him and killed his stepdaughter. Corredor, host of “El Pregón del Norte” (The Cry of the North) on the radio station La Voz del Norte (The Voice of the North), is known for his sharp criticism of local authorities.

Neither local nor international reporters need government permission to enter war zones, but journalists complain about restricted access. In September 2002, the Colombian government 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 forces and leftist guerrillas. Journalists traveling in war zones say they have been searched without warrants and have had their communications intercepted by armed groups. Some reporters believe this is another reason why the conflict gets only modest coverage in the Colombian and international press.

While journalists in the interior face the greatest risks, those in the capital, Bogotá, also receive threats and intimidation. In late September, journalists at Semana (Week) were threatened and had their phones tapped after the newsweekly published segments of a private conversation between paramilitary leaders and High Commissioner for Peace Luis Carlos Restrepo. Semana‘s report exposed secret negotiations between the Colombian government and paramilitary leaders to prevent the extradition of paramilitary leaders to the United States and their prosecution by the International Criminal Court. The article also described how drug traffickers had infiltrated the paramilitaries.

Semana did not identify the threatened journalists because of safety concerns but urged authorities to investigate. In an October 2 editorial, the magazine said it did not know whether the threats came from the paramilitaries, drug traffickers, or organized crime. “The debate on crucial issues is necessary and should be carried out openly and with dignity. This is one of the roles of the press in a democracy: to contribute to the debate on issues of public interest,” the editorial said.

On August 30, Colombia’s Constitutional Court rejected President Álvaro Uribe’s controversial antiterrorism bill, citing procedural errors. The bill would have allowed the army to conduct searches, tap telephones, and intercept private correspondence without a warrant in cases involving individuals suspected of terrorist links. If such provisions applied to journalists, analysts said, they would have threatened the confidentiality of sources and opened the way for government abuse. The Colombian government has the option of reintroducing the bill in Congress, where it must go again through the approval process.

CPJ continues to investigate the February murder of a journalist in the town of Cartago, Valle del Cauca Department, but it is not clear whether the slaying was related to his reporting.