CPJ alarmed by gag order against daily

New York, January 30, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is concerned by a court order preventing Colombia’s El Heraldo newspaper from publishing follow-up articles to its report alleging links between a company in Barranquilla and paramilitary forces.

On January 21, the paper published a joint investigative report with the nongovernmental organization, Fundación Protransparencia, alleging links between the private company, Métodos y Sistemas, and paramilitaries. The company, which had been hired by the Barranquilla government to oversee tax collection, immediately filed an injunction claiming the report had damaged its reputation and violated its constitutional right to “impartial and truthful” information, reported the Bogotá-based daily El Tiempo.

On Thursday, Judge Hernando Estrada Peña of the Second Criminal Circuit of Baranquilla ordered El Heraldo as a “provisional measure” to stop further reports on the allegation until he makes a ruling.

“We deplore the court’s decision to censor El Heraldo and prevent it from publishing further information that it deems crucial to the understanding of the influence illegal paramilitary forces exert on Colombian life,” said CPJ’s Executive Director Joel Simon. “We hope the court will revoke this order as censorship has no place in a democratic country.”

Commenting on Judge Estrada’s order today, President Alvaro Uribe Vélez told national RCN Radio that he did not think anything should disturb press freedom. “I think that any attempt against press freedom is very grave,” said Uribe. “With all respect to the judge, without knowing his reasons or the basis for his ruling, I think that nothing should disturb press freedom.”

Colombia’s far-right paramilitaries are said to be responsible for some of the most savage massacres in Colombia’s civil conflict, according to The Associated Press. They have also played a leading role in turning narcotics into Colombia’s largest export sector. Since Uribe’s government began negotiating with them in 2002, the paramilitaries have ostensibly demobilized more than 30,000 fighters, reported the AP. At the same time, however, they have expanded and entrenched illicit operations ranging from extortion to drug running to gasoline smuggling.

In recent months, Uribe’s government has found itself trapped in a scandal as local media outlets, human rights groups and government critics have documented extensive links between the armed forces and the paramilitaries as they jointly carried out a dirty war against the left-wing guerrillas. The scandal, which has been widely documented by the Colombian press, directly ties dozens of politicians and high-ranking government officials to these illegal groups.

Uribe met with a CPJ delegation on March 15, 2006, and expressed his support for the work of provincial journalists. The president 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.”