Colombian journalist flees home after threats

New York, May 17, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed that Colombian journalist Pedro Antonio Cárdenas Cáceres was forced to flee his hometown after getting death threats in the wake of his reports on government corruption in central Tolima province.

Cárdenas, director of the biweekly La Verdad in the city of Honda, left for Bogotá with his family on Saturday after finding funeral flowers in front of his house on May 7 and 8, the journalist told CPJ. Cárdenas believes the threats are linked to investigative stories on local government corruption, which were published in La Verdad on April 15 and April 30.

Cárdenas has been targeted before. He once left the country for more than a year after being kidnapped by a right-wing paramilitary group. He returned to Colombia in August 2004, spending 16 months in Bogotá before going back to Honda in January. Cárdenas has had police protection since his return.

Threats began almost immediately, he said, but their nature intensified after the corruption stories were published. On January 30, Cárdenas said, a man believed to be a paramilitary fighter warned the journalist’s wife that Cárdenas’ should not work in Honda. A month later, a man claiming to represent a local paramilitary group approached Cárdenas in the street and told him that he was not welcome in Tolima.

On April 25, soon after the first corruption report ran, Cárdenas received a call on his cell phone from a man claiming to be a former member of a paramilitary group known as Autodefensas Unidas Campesinas del Magdalena Medio. The caller said that two men had been hired to kill the journalist but did not specify the reason.

Cárdenas believes these threats and acts of intimidations are related to his work as a journalist. Cárdenas said he has reported the threats to local and national police, and to the attorney general’s office in Bogotá.

President Alvaro Uribe met with a CPJ delegation on March 15 and expressed his support for the work of provincial journalists who report under threat of violence. Uribe also conveyed his backing for journalists who report on corruption, saying that any government official who impedes the work of provincial journalists “is committing a crime against democracy.” (See CPJ’s March 15 alert:

“We condemn these acts of intimidation against Cárdenas,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We urge President Uribe to personally ensure that Colombian authorities conduct a prompt investigation and provide Cárdenas adequate protection that will allow him to work without fear of reprisal.”

The meeting with Uribe followed a CPJ investigative report released in October titled “Untold Stories.” The report, written by Bogotá journalist Chip Mitchell, was based on interviews with more than 30 reporters in several strife-ridden provinces, including Arauca, Córdoba, and Caquetá. Journalists 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.

Cárdenas is very familiar with the risks. On March 12, 2003, he was abducted from his home and taken to a nearby motel by several armed men who identified themselves as members of the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia. Cárdenas, then host of a local news program in the national RCN radio network, was freed when local police intercepted and arrested the kidnappers a few hours later. Cárdenas had received threats directly linked to his critical reporting on local government corruption days prior to his kidnapping.