CPJ alarmed about President Uribe’s comments

New York, June 30, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed at recent comments by Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez that could endanger journalists in his country.

In a June 27 interview with radio station W Radio, Uribe suggested that leftist guerrillas told a foreign news organization in advance about an impending attack in southern Putumayo Department. “I’m sad because these terrorists keep summoning journalists to cover their actions … One is sad to be in a plane with 22 coffins from 22 compatriots and to know that one television camera arrived … three days before in Putumayo,” Uribe said. He would not identify the news organization.

Later, in an interview with radio station Caracol Radio, Uribe repeated his allegations. Asked by Caracol Radio journalist Darío Arismendi if he was talking about Colombian journalist Hollman Morris, who’s working on a BBC documentary, Uribe said: “There was a camera, Darío, and one is worried about that. [Putumayo police commander] General Castro told me, ‘I talked to them. They had been three days here.'”

Uribe’s comments came after leftist guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) launched deadly attacks against army bases in southern Putumayo Department.

Morris, who received death threats in May for his work, traveled this June to the United States to receive a 2005 Hellman-Hammett Award from Human Rights Watch. He had recently returned to Colombia. Contacted by CPJ, Morris said that he and BBC producer Guillermo Galdós had arrived in Putumayo on June 26, the same day Uribe arrived in the area. Morris said he told Castro, the police commander, that he had been in Colombia three or four days.

Government officials apparently misunderstood that time reference. Later on June 27, Uribe’s office issued a press release that acknowledged: “The allegations that the president of the republic made this morning about the presence of international journalists in Putumayo Department were based on incorrect information regarding the date when the journalists arrived in the area.”

Still, Morris said that Uribe’s statements put him in danger and that he had to cut his visit to Putumayo short for fear of retaliation. He said that Uribe’s press release worried him because the president apologized for making a mistake regarding the dates, without addressing the core of the allegations.

“The government of President Uribe should be doing everything it can to ensure the safety of journalists such as Hollman Morris, not further jeopardizing their security by issuing these kinds of reckless comments,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said.

Colombian journalists have been threatened, attacked, and murdered for their perceived ties with government security forces, paramilitary groups, or leftist guerrillas. Reporting on drugs, the activities of armed groups, and local corruption has placed reporters at great risk. Morris, who is recognized for his investigative reporting on Colombia’s civil war, received a burial wreath in May with a card expressing “sincere condolences.”