Colombian journalist forced to flee following Uribe’s accusations

New York, October 9, 2007—Colombian reporter Gonzalo Guillén has been forced to flee his home in Bogotá after receiving more than 20 death threats following comments made by President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the journalist said today. The Committee to Protect Journalists called on Uribe today to personally ensure that Colombian authorities conduct a prompt investigation into these threats and provide adequate security that will allow Guillén to work safely in Colombia.

“The fact that a well-known journalist was forced to leave the country after Uribe’s accusations seriously damages freedom of expression in Colombia,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Authorities must immediately investigate these threats, bring those responsible to justice, and ensure that Guillén can return to Colombia safely.” 

On October 2, Uribe called two national radio stations to deny allegations that he had close to ties to the deceased drug lord Pablo Escobar. The accusations were made by Escobar’s lover, Virginia Vallejo, in her new book Amando a Pablo, odiando a Escobar (Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar). Uribe said he believed Guillén, correspondent for the Miami-based daily El Nuevo Herald, collaborated with Vallejo in the writing of the book, which was published in September.

Uribe also accused Guillén of “being a person who has persisted in trying to harm me, and when he can’t do it in this country, he does it abroad.” Guillén told CPJ that he did not have anything to do with the book.

Following Uribe’s accusations, Guillén received 24 death threats. The threats, made by telephone and e-mail, called on Guillén to leave the country or he would be killed, the journalist told CPJ. Guillén had already received several recent threats; his recent reporting involved paramilitary activities and the purported links between illegal armed groups and members of the Uribe administration. The government’s journalist protection program had provided him with a security detail and armored car as a result.

The same day Uribe made his public comments, Guillén said part of his security detail was withdrawn for undisclosed reasons. A spokeswoman for the attorney general told CPJ she was not aware of the current status of the detail, but said the office has restated to police its desire that Guillén receive protection. Fearing for his life, the journalist left Colombia, he told CPJ from an undisclosed location.

Guillén told CPJ that he believed Uribe’s comments could incite further acts of intimidation. The journalist sent a letter to the president’s office asking for a public withdrawal of the allegations made against him.

Humberto Castelló, El Nuevo Herald’s director, called Uribe’s comments irresponsible. In a statement published last week, Castelló said: “I regret the indiscretion, injustice, and irresponsibility of the comments made by the person with the highest standing in a country where we have seen the president’s armed defenders—on the fringes of legality—correct journalists not with letters but with bullets.”

In a meeting with a CPJ delegation in March 2006, Uribe had 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.”
“These reckless accusations by President Uribe undermine his earlier pledge to CPJ and contribute to the climate of fear confronting the Colombian news media,” added Simon.