Investigative reporting and in-depth coverage of the civil conflict again fell victim to fear in the country’s most troubled areas, where threats and intimidation forced at least seven provincial journalists to flee their homes. The climate of intimidation is the legacy of years of murderous attacks on journalists. With 39 journalists killed since 1992, Colombia ranks as the fourth deadliest country in the world for the press, according to the CPJ analysis “Deadly News,” published in September.
Two provincial reporters were murdered in retaliation for their work in 2006, and CPJ is investigating the circumstances surrounding a third slaying. The number of journalist murders has declined in the past three years, sparking a debate over whether government actions have slowed the killings or, as press organizations affirm, widespread self-censorship has taken hold instead.
Colombian reporters said self-censorship continued to be pervasive in vast areas of the country where state protection was minimal and the presence of illegal armed groups high. Recent reports by local and international organizations, including CPJ’s 2005 account “Untold Stories,” found that threats and attacks from all sides in the ongoing civil war had caused the press to seriously restrict coverage of armed conflict, human rights abuses, organized crime, drug trafficking, and corruption.
With coverage of important issues often limited, a CPJ delegation traveled to Colombia before the May 28 presidential election to meet with President Álvaro Uribe Vélez and outline its concerns. The delegation, led by CPJ’s Joel Simon and Carlos Lauría, urged the president to make a statement about threats against the press.
Uribe, who was later re-elected in a landslide, told the delegation that he supported the work of provincial journalists and that any government official who impedes their reporting “is committing a crime against democracy.” The Colombian president said that while his administration dislikes media outlets interviewing guerrilla and paramilitary fighters, it respects their right to do so. Provincial officials and military commanders have long denounced journalists who use non-official sources, often linking the reporters to the illegal armed groups. CPJ research shows that these “links” are sometimes followed by violent attacks.
Twice in 2006, shadowy organizations tried to connect prominent journalists to one side in Colombia’s civil war. In March, a group issued a video that sought to tie independent television reporter Hollman Morris to the leftist guerrilla group FARC. In June, a separate group sent e-mails accusing the press freedom group Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa and other civil-society groups of having ties to guerrillas. The accusations were made by two previously unknown organizations, Frente Social por la Paz and Frente Democrático Colombia Libre.
In his meeting with CPJ, Uribe also expressed support for journalists who report on corruption, and said that violence against journalists remains a major concern of his administration. “What concerns me is that they keep killing journalists. This hurts me personally, and it hurts Colombia.”
Colombian journalists considered Uribe’s statement an important acknowledgment of the need to cover all sides of the conflict and said it could set the tone for a long and difficult battle against intimidation and self-censorship. “A statement by a president who has accumulated so much power like Uribe could serve as an umbrella to protect provincial journalists who work under threat, but the government has to do much more to ensure safety for the press,” said Jineth Bedoya, a reporter who covers security issues for the national daily El Tiempo.
For its part, the government has touted the effectiveness of its press protection program. Over the past three years, more than 300 journalists have taken part in the program, which offers training in self-defense and provides armored cars, bulletproof vests, cellular phones, and bodyguards to threatened journalists. History shows that the protective measures are needed.
In “Deadly News,” CPJ reported that murder goes virtually unpunished in conflict-ridden countries, where police and judicial systems are typically dysfunctional. Impunity reigns in Colombia, where none of the 39 journalist slayings since 1992 have been fully solved, CPJ found. In the few cases where some convictions were obtained, masterminds were not brought to justice.
Despite his statement in support of the press, Uribe reacted strongly to press criticism of his administration. In April, when the Bogotá newsweekly Semana reported allegations of paramilitary infiltration of the country’s intelligence service, Uribe accused Director Alejandro Santos of being “dishonest” and said the magazine was “harming” Colombian democratic institutions.
But it is provincial journalists who face the gravest risk: At least seven local reporters left their homes in 2006 after being threatened with death. The case of Jenny Manrique, a reporter for the Bucaramanga-based daily Vanguardia Liberal, was particularly alarming. Manrique fled Bucaramanga after receiving anonymous telephone death threats stemming from her reports on abuses by right-wing paramilitary forces. In March, when the phone threats followed her to her parents’ home in Bogotá, she fled the country.