Four journalists arrested while covering protests

New York, May 18, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists called on authorities today to release four journalists who were arrested yesterday in the southwestern province of Cauca while covering protests by indigenous Colombians against a free trade pact with the United States.

Farmers and indigenous organizations have been demonstrating since Tuesday in the town of Piendamó against both the trade agreement and President Álvaro Uribe, who is running for re-election this month. The four reporters are being held at a local police station, local and international media reported. Police told CPJ that they could confirm the arrest of only two journalists.

Richard Calpa, director of the radio station La Libertad in the city of Totoró, Marcelo Forero, a reporter with the Bogotá-based news Web site El Turbión, and Carmen Eugenia León and Jesús López, reporters for the indigenous radio network Asociación de Cabildos Indígenas, were detained by security forces while covering the protests, sources told CPJ. A local police colonel told CPJ that León and López had been charged with incitement to disorder and disturbing public order.

Local reporter Mauricio Dorado told CPJ that security forces stormed an improvised media center and beat the four journalists. They confiscated cameras, tape recorders, and a computer. Forero, León, and López were taken into custody. Calpa fled on a motorcycle but was arrested later that day. His motorcycle and a radio transmitter were found burnt, Dorado said. A spokesperson for local press freedom group, Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, said the four journalists had proper press credentials. Twenty-eight demonstrators were also detained during the protests, said the local police.

The Colombian press reported that protesters had complained of police brutality. Authorities linked protesters with guerrilla groups, and said that the demonstration was an attempt to disrupt the May 28 presidential elections, the local press reported. Protesters denied the accusations. One farmer died and around 30 people were injured during the clashes, The Associated Press said.

“We condemn the arrest of our four colleagues and call for their immediate and unconditional release,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “Given President Uribe’s condemnation of local officials who impede the work of the press we call on him to take a personal interest in this matter and ensure that the rights of these four journalists to report the news are respected.”

After a meeting with CPJ in Bogota in March, Uribe released a statement voicing support for the work of provincial journalists who report under threat of violence, and said that any official who impedes their work “is committing a crime against democracy.”