Attacks on the Press 2007: Colombia


The national press played a crucial role in exposing illegal paramilitary activities and links between paramilitary leaders and leading politicians. Provincial journalists, working in areas where paramilitaries and other illegal armed groups were prevalent, faced many challenges in trying to report this and other sensitive stories. Paramilitary fighters were behind the majority of documented press freedom violations, CPJ research showed.

The administration of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez was shaken by the so-called “para-politics” scandal, which exposed potential links between far-right paramilitary groups and officials close to the president. The scandal broke in late 2006, after the weekly newsmagazine Semana published a series of investigative pieces that forced Colombian authorities to examine the alleged associations. By September 2007, the attorney general and the Supreme Court had investigated 113 government officials and politicians, ordering the detention of more than 50, according to press reports. As the case gained momentum, the Colombian government came under new scrutiny from key foreign allies. With Democrats controlling the U.S. Congress, a free trade agreement with Colombia was put on hold over human rights concerns.

In May, after Semana revealed that intercepted telephone conversations showed right-wing paramilitary leaders engaged in criminal activity while in maximum-security prisons, the Colombian government confirmed that members of the police intelligence service had illegally taped the calls and leaked their contents. The government also explained that police had recorded the telephone conversations of people not under investigation, “including government officials, members of the opposition, and journalists,” for at least two years. Julio Sánchez Cristo, a veteran radio commentator in Bogotá, was among the journalists whose phones were tapped. CPJ called on authorities to fully investigate illegal electronic surveillance.

Reporters and editors from regions most affected by the para-politics scandal acknowledged that it was extremely difficult to conduct independent investigations. More than a dozen journalists told CPJ that they censored themselves because reporting fully on paramilitary activities could prompt retribution. In Montería and Sincelejo, two northwestern cities where high-ranking officials were jailed because of their paramilitary ties, reporters who investigated received death threats and were accused of being members of leftist guerrilla groups. CPJ research has found that such public claims are often followed by acts of violence. As a result, provincial reporters said they often leaked scoops to their colleagues in Bogotá. Many provincial outlets ran stories on paramilitary activities only after they had been published in the Bogotá-based national media.

Regional authorities also clamped down on the media. Judges in the port city of Barranquilla and on the island of San Andrés issued gag orders preventing local media from reporting on corruption cases. CPJ documented two cases of regional reporters who were beaten and threatened for reporting on police operations in the country’s provinces.

The few provincial journalists who dared to report on corruption were also threatened. Geovanny Álvarez, co-director and host of the daily news program “La Verdad” (The Truth) on community radio station La Nueva in the northern city of Sabanalarga, was forced to leave Colombia in late October. Álvarez, who received several anonymous death threats following his reporting on local government corruption, was warned by local police of a possible attempt on his life.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC), the most prominent leftist guerrilla movement, also harassed the press, mainly in Colombia’s interior, according to the local press freedom group Fundación Para la Libertad de Prensa. Overall in 2007, harassment by leftist guerrillas was less frequent and extensive than that committed by paramilitaries. But some cases involving leftist forces stand out.

CPJ research found that two Colombian reporters were forced to flee their homes following threats from FARC members. In May, Rodrigo Callejas, host of the daily news program “Debate 5” on the local radio station Fresno Estéreo, left his home in the province of Tolima after receiving two telephone calls from an alleged guerrilla commander who warned the journalist to “stop messing with his people” if he didn’t want to die. In March, Darío Arizmendi, the Bogotá-based news director for the morning program “6 a.m. Hoy por Hoy” on national Caracol Radio, fled Colombia after hearing of an alleged FARC plot to kill him. FARC members also sent threatening pamphlets to radio stations in Arauca province, warning each that they would become a “military target” if they reported on issues involving public order, local press reports said.

Although journalists in large urban centers were able to work more freely than their colleagues in the provinces, they also faced pressure and intimidation. Three well-known journalists in Bogotá were threatened and forced to flee. Just days after Arizmendi was forced to leave the city, an anonymous e-mail message was sent to the offices of the Miami-based daily El Nuevo Herald warning that there was an order to kill Gonzalo Guillén, the paper’s correspondent in Bogotá, as part of a plan organized by a paramilitary group and members of the local police. After President Uribe, during an October interview on Caracol Radio, accused Guillén of “being a person who has persisted in trying to harm me,” the journalist received a second round of death threats that caused him to flee the country.

Hollman Morris, producer of the weekly investigative program “Contravía” for the television network Canal Uno, left Colombia for a month in the fall. Morris, well known for his investigative reporting on the country’s civil conflict, had received an e-mail message from a group calling itself the Frente Patriótico Colombiano (Colombian Patriotic Front) stating that he had won a raffle for a coffin.

In June, journalist Daniel Coronell returned to Colombia after two years in exile. Coronell, who directs a news program on Canal Uno and writes a column for Semana, had left Colombia in 2005 after receiving two funeral wreaths with cards inviting him to his burial. Coronell had also received e-mail messages threatening the life of his young daughter that were sent from the computer of former Congressman Carlos Náder Simmonds, a close friend of Uribe. Náder later admitted sending one e-mail but claimed it was misinterpreted. The former congressman was not charged, and an investigation by the attorney general’s office appeared to be stalled.

On October 9, following publication of a column by Coronell on the Guillén case, the president confronted the journalist on national radio station La FM. Uribe and Coronell engaged in an hour-long discussion on the air, during which the president called Coronell a coward, liar, swine, and professional slanderer. Just hours after the confrontation, Canal Uno received an anonymous threat by e-mail. “We warned you that the next time that you mess with the boss you would dig your own grave,” the message read. “All those who attack our president will sign their death sentence.” CPJ sent a letter to Uribe on October 11 urging him to publicly retract his comments, to respect dissent in the media, and to abstain from publicly attacking journalists who present critical views.

One journalist was slain in 2007, although the circumstances were unclear. Javier Darío Arroyave, news director for radio station Ondas del Valle, was fatally stabbed in September in Cartago, a city in Valle del Cauca province. Colombia is the world’s fourth-deadliest country for the press over the past 15 years, CPJ research shows, although the number of murders has tapered off in the last four years. The government said its press protection program—which offers armored cars, bulletproof vests, and bodyguards to threatened journalists—led to the decline. But CPJ research shows the decline is also related to widespread self-censorship in the news media. Many journalists, especially in the provinces, do not undertake in-depth reporting on drug trafficking, paramilitary activities, or corruption.

While impunity in attacks against the press continued to be the norm, progress was made in the cases of three murdered journalists. In February, a court in the northwestern city of Arauca convicted Andrés Darío Cervantes Montoya, also known as “El Chichi,” in the 2002 murder of Efraín Varela Noriega, owner of local Radio Meridiano-70. Cervantes, a former member of the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, had confessed to Varela’s murder in 2006.

Two other former AUC fighters confessed under the controversial Law of Justice and Peace to the murders of provincial journalists. Promulgated by Uribe in 2005 as part of the peace process with paramilitary groups, the legislation granted generous judicial concessions, such as reduced prison sentences, to members of illegal armed groups in exchange for demobilization and full confessions to their crimes.

In May, Juan Francisco Prada Márquez, aka “Juancho Prada,” confessed to the 2004 killing of Martín La Rotta Duarte, founder of the San Alberto-based radio station La Palma Estéreo. Pablo Emilio Quintero Dodino, known as “Bedoya,” confessed in June to shooting José Emeterio Rivas, the controversial host of the morning program “Las Fuerzas Vivas” (“The Active Forces”) on local Radio Calor Estéreo. The journalist was found murdered on a dirt road outside Barrancabermeja in 2003. Two former government officials were detained in September as a result of Quintero’s confession.

Hundreds of other demobilized paramilitary fighters confessed to human rights violations in Justice and Peace hearings held in Bogotá, Medellín, and Barranquilla courthouses. But reporting on these statements was severely hindered, CPJ found in an October special report, “Justice, Peace, and Secrecy.”

The statements were declared “restricted” by Resolution 3998 of the general prosecutor’s office and Decree 315 of the Ministry of Interior and Justice. In practice, the Justice and Peace hearings were open only to the fighter, his lawyer, a special prosecutor, a judge, and a ministry representative. The crime victims, their families, and their lawyers viewed the proceedings via closed-circuit television elsewhere in the courthouse.

Because of the restrictions, reporters had to camp outside the courthouses and rely on secondhand sources. Sometimes, reporters said, they could persuade prosecutors to give short on-the-record briefings. And sometimes, former paramilitaries disseminated informal statements that claimed to describe the courtroom testimony. In most instances, journalists attempted to interview the victims or their representatives following the hearing.

While trying to conduct interviews outside the courthouses, reporters were harassed by paramilitary supporters, who occasionally used intimidation to dissuade victims’ families from talking to the press. Journalists in Medellín said demobilized paramilitaries had taken photographs of them as they were reporting. And in at least one case, a television reporter claimed a paramilitary fighter came to her office and threatened her directly.

In early August, the Colombian media were shaken by the announcement that a Spanish media group, Planeta, had acquired a majority stake in the country’s most influential newspaper, the daily El Tiempo. The paper had been one of the few national media outlets not yet owned by foreign investors. According to the agreement, Planeta purchased a 55 percent stake in the company Casa Editorial El Tiempo, a media conglomerate that, in addition to the newspaper, includes a publishing house, a television station, and online media. Planeta’s president, José Manuel Lara Bosch, said that the paper would maintain its independence, and that the editorial line would be directed by Colombian staff. While Planeta didn’t disclose the cost of the acquisition, press reports said that the group paid close to US$180 million. El Tiempo had been the property of the politically influential Santos family since its founding in 1911. Francisco Santos Calderón, Colombian vice president, was once editor of the daily.