In Colombia, disguises heighten press risk

A couple of weeks ago, the Colombian government admitted that during a daring hostage rescue mission–code-named Operation Check–one of its soldiers had disguised himself as a member of the Red Cross. Then last week, Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia’s defense minister, divulged that two of the soldiers had taken on the mantle of journalists. One posed as a cameraman, the other as a reporter. Both purported to be from an actual Caracas-based regional network called Telesur. They had gone so far as to take acting lessons in preparation.

Santos told a July 23 press conference in Washington that the use of the Telesur logo in the July 2 rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages was “an insignificant detail given the magnitude” of the operation. CPJ disagrees. While we recognize that such missions require stealth and perhaps unconventional tactics, posing as a journalist in this kind of situation is far from insignificant. As outlined in a letter to Santos yesterday, here’s why:

The impersonation of journalists increases the risks for all journalists, particularly for provincial reporters who cover the five-decade-old civil conflict in regions controlled by illegal armed groups. In rural areas, journalists are frequently threatened by guerrillas and paramilitaries and pressured by military and civilian authorities, CPJ research shows.

It affects the media’s position as an independent body, especially those journalists working in conflict zones who rely on their civilian status, as established by the Geneva Conventions.

By posing as journalists, security forces undermine the role of the free press and bring mistrust to the profession, ultimately damaging the public good.

Impersonating journalists or human rights workers in Colombia endangers their colleagues on dangerous assignments around the world. “It increases the risks, especially at a time when reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan are being kidnapped and accused of being spies,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “These tactics should only be used as an absolute last resort, as they endanger all journalists, particularly those working in conflict zones who rely on status as neutral observers to keep them safe.”