In May, CPJ identified Colombia as one the world’s five most murderous countries for journalists, a notoriety earned by 12 work-connected slayings in the country since 2000. Over the past decade, 28 journalists in Colombia have been killed for their work.
Still, deadly violence tapered off for the second consecutive year, with only one journalist slain in 2005. The government claimed credit for the decline, but many journalists assert that pervasive self-censorship has now replaced widespread murder. An October investigative report by CPJ found that threats, assaults, and intimidation continue from all sides in the ongoing civil war, causing the press to severely limit its coverage of armed conflict, human rights abuses, organized crime, drug trafficking, and corruption.
For CPJ’s report, “Untold Stories,” Bogotá-based journalist Chip Mitchell interviewed three dozen journalists during reporting trips to strife-ridden provinces such as Arauca, Córdoba, and Caquetá. Editors, reporters, and other media professionals said they routinely muzzle themselves because they fear physical retribution from leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, along with harassment from government troops and officials. News is sometimes censored before broadcast or publication. In other cases, probing journalists are forced to abandon stories because of intimidation. Most frequently, investigations never even get started because the threat of violence is so pervasive. Self-censorship is most extreme among regional media in provincial areas, where the government’s presence is weak and state protection minimal.
Although the government exerts little formal control over news content, Colombian authorities, including high-ranking officials in President Àlvaro Uribe’s administration, often persuade media outlets to withhold reporting. Economic factors also contribute to self-censorship. Journalists at short-staffed news outlets must often sell advertising, putting themselves in the difficult position of reporting on the very people who help them make a living. Most full-time Colombian journalists earn less than 800,000 pesos (US$350) a month.
“Untold Stories” was released on October 29 at a CPJ conference in Bogotá. CPJ Deputy Director Joel Simon moderated a panel discussion that was co-sponsored by the Colombian Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP). Carlos Cortés, FLIP’s executive director, and María Teresa Ronderos, the group’s president, participated in the panel. Four journalists quoted in the report gave detailed presentations on the dangers and implications of reporting in Colombia. One panelist, Angel María León, from the conflict-ridden province of Arauca, said death threats had forced the local press corps to travel in armed caravans simply to get to press conferences.
During CPJ’s mission to Bogotá, Simon met with Vice President Francisco Santos and other government officials to discuss how the government can better enable local journalists to work without fear. Government officials acknowledged that armed groups continued to menace the press but pointed to their efforts to provide bodyguards to journalists in conflict zones. They also said that the government’s peace and counterinsurgency efforts are creating a safer environment for all Colombians, including journalists.
But issues vital to Colombian voters, including crime and corruption, are going uncovered as the 2006 parliamentary and presidential elections approach. In a report released in September, Eduardo Bertoni, special rapporteur for freedom of expression for the Organization of American States (OAS), concluded that “many journalists have been forced to resort to self-censorship on certain topics in certain regions.” Based on interviews with journalists, human rights activists, and community leaders in April, the OAS report—titled “Impunity, Self-censorship, and Armed Internal Conflict: An Analysis of the State of Freedom of Expression in Colombia”—linked the recent drop in journalist killings to the rise of self-censorship in the local media.
Frank Smyth, CPJ’s Washington, D.C., representative and a security expert, visited the southwestern province of Valle del Cauca in June to assess press conditions. Smyth, who traveled with a delegation of press freedom organizations, found a prevailing climate of fear among provincial journalists.
At times, the administration of President Àlvaro Uribe has contributed to that climate by accusing journalists of having ties to the guerrillas. During a radio interview in June, Uribe falsely suggested that reporter Hollman Morris had advance word of a guerrilla attack on government troops in the southern province of Putumayo. Uribe later retracted the claim, but Morris, who was working on a documentary for the BBC, had to cut short his visit to Putumayo in fear of retaliation.
Impunity continues to be the norm in Colombia. An overburdened justice system has been incapable of solving the 28 cases of journalists slain over the last decade. CPJ reported in May that murder is the leading cause of job-related deaths among journalists worldwide and that murder with impunity is the most urgent threat to all journalists.
A veteran radio news host was killed in the northeastern city of Cúcuta on January 11. Julio Hernando Palacios Sánchez, whose Radio Lemas program focused heavily on local corruption, was gunned down by two unidentified men aboard a motorcycle. Palacios had survived an attack nine years earlier, when assailants hurled a grenade into his office that failed to explode, The Associated Press reported. No one has been charged in his murder.
That sort of impunity weighs heavily on the news media, especially in the country’s interior. Local reporters told CPJ that there are many topics they dare not touch.
If not for fear of reprisal, “I would be investigating the links from politicians to the paramilitaries and guerrillas, and the money laundering by certain individuals and these same groups,” said Jorge Eliécer Quintero Cuéllar, a journalist with Diario de Huila in Caquetá. Added Alfredo Martín Rodríguez of La Jota Estéreo in Valle del Cauca: “One thing you don’t want to touch is drug trafficking. Even more risky is corruption.”
Minimal state presence in vast areas of the country continues to leave journalists at the mercy of illegal armed groups. In October, a nearly monthlong armed blockade by leftist guerrillas in the northwestern province of Arauca left journalists confined to the capital city. The media were not able to report about serious events during the blockade, such as rebels torching vehicles and blowing up bridges and electricity towers.
Journalists in Bogotá and other large urban centers work more freely than their colleagues in the country’s interior, but they, too, face pressure and intimidation. Funeral wreaths were delivered in May to the offices of three nationally known journalists. The wreaths came with cards inviting the journalists to their own burials. One of the three, Daniel Coronell, also received e-mail messages threatening the life of his 6-year-old daughter.
Coronell, who directs a news show on the TV network Canal Uno and writes a column for the weekly magazine Semana, tracked the messages to a computer in the Bogotá mansion of former congressman Carlos Náder Simmonds, a close friend of Uribe. Náder later admitted sending one e-mail but claimed it was misinterpreted. An investigation by the attorney general’s office shed little light.
Fearing for the life of his daughter, Coronell accepted a one-year fellowship at Stanford University in the United States and left Colombia with his family in August. He took a leave from his TV show but continued to write his column for Semana. He told CPJ’s Mitchell: “The possibilities for investigation have deteriorated. But the safety of my daughter comes first.”