Attacks on the Press in 2008: Colombia

Deadly violence in Colombia eased for the second consecutive year as no journalists were killed in direct relation to their work. Colombian authorities cited increased security throughout the country as the cause for the recent decline in news media deaths, but journalists said widespread self-censorship had made the press less of a target. Even so, intimidation and threats remained a serious problem. Repeated death threats against four provincial journalists forced them to flee their homes. Prominent journalists in the capital denounced government harassment that followed their criticism of the administration of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

A series of political scandals that shook the government and a successful hostage-rescue mission by the military received widespread press scrutiny, but also polarized the media. Colombia’s war against its most prominent leftist guerrilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC), remained at the heart of the political debate, and the mainstream media remained supportive of the administration’s policies. Still, the government showed intolerance toward criticism, the press said, as a small number of outlets and journalists were singled out by officials and threatened with legal action.

Uribe called in August for a criminal investigation of Daniel Coronell, one of the government’s harshest critics. On April 20, Coronell, news director of Canal Uno television and columnist for the weekly newsmagazine Semana, aired a 2004 videotaped interview with former Congresswoman Yidis Medina that ignited nationwide controversy. In the interview, Medina alleged that high-ranking officials had offered her bribes in exchange for her vote in favor of a constitutional amendment that allowed Uribe to seek re-election in 2006 for a second four-year term. The disclosure fueled judicial and congressional investigations of several government officials, including the president. A special congressional committee called Uribe to testify in August. During the hearing, Uribe urged an investigation of Coronell, claiming the journalist had broken the law by not immediately disclosing a crime. CPJ said Uribe was motivated by Coronell’s critical coverage of his administration and asked that authorities dismiss the request. No investigation of Coronell had been launched by late year.

Coronell spent two years in exile after death threats were made against him and his family in 2005. An inquiry by local authorities showed that intimidating messages had been sent from the computer of former Congressman Carlos Náder Simmonds, a close friend of Uribe who has yet to be charged. Coronell and his family have permanent police protection.

In Bogotá, several critical journalists were not invited to news conferences and had little access to official sources, said Gonzalo Guillén, correspondent for the Miami-based daily El Nuevo Herald. Guillén fled the country for a few weeks in 2007 after receiving death threats that followed public accusations by Uribe. Legal action was also used against Bogotá-based news media. Sociologist and journalist Alfredo Molano wrote about an influential political family in a February column for the national daily El Espectador. Molano attributed to unnamed members of the family, the Araújos, a series of actions he described as “unlawful” and “immoral,” including election tampering and smuggling. The family denied the allegations, and several family members filed a criminal defamation complaint against Molano days after the column was published. No trial date had been set by late year.

Colombian soldiers bombed and raided a FARC camp on Ecuadoran territory in March, killing several fighters, including FARC’s second-in-command, Raúl Reyes. During the raid, authorities recovered a laptop computer that they said belonged to Reyes. Attorney General Mario Iguarán announced in late May that his office had opened investigations into links between FARC members and foreigners, Colombian politicians, and two journalists. The inquiries, he explained, were prompted by a series of e-mails found in the laptop. Carlos Lozano, editor of the Colombian Communist Party’s newspaper, La Voz, and William Parra, a freelance journalist who works on special projects for Telesur, the 24-hour regional news broadcaster controlled by Venezuela, were among those investigated over supposed FARC connections. Lozano and Parra, who denied links with the guerrillas, had not been charged by late year.

Local journalists expressed concern that perceived ties to leftist guerrillas, government security forces, or paramilitary groups could put them at great risk. CPJ research shows that journalists have been threatened, attacked, and murdered for supposed links to armed actors in the Colombian civil war. At least 40 journalists were killed between 1992 and 2006, making Colombia one of the world’s deadliest nations for the press, according to CPJ research.

A military rescue operation in July—ending in the release of 15 people, including former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three U.S. military contractors—immediately sparked controversy as press images showed that security forces impersonated journalists during the mission. While two Colombian soldiers posed as journalists working for Telesur, other members of Colombian security forces pretended to be aid workers for the International Committee of the Red Cross. During a July news conference in Washington, Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos said that the use of the Telesur logo was “an insignificant detail given the magnitude” of the operation. CPJ wrote a letter to Santos expressing concern over the impersonation, which it said could increase risks for all journalists, especially those covering the civil conflict. Local journalists and press groups said the episode could erode public perceptions that the news media are independent.

A report by the local press freedom group Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa said significantly fewer threats against local journalists were reported in the first six months of the year. But the group also found that journalists covering the country’s decades-long armed conflict and local government corruption continued to be targeted, especially in the country’s interior.

Carmen Rosa Pabón, director of the local news program “La Voz de Cinaruco” on national Caracol Radio in the war-ravaged northeastern Arauca province, told CPJ that local journalists who reported on the civil conflict received threatening messages from both guerrilla and right-wing paramilitary groups. Pabón added that self-censorship continued to be a problem in Arauca, as in many other regions. Violence against the press by all parties in the conflict has led many journalists to practice self-censorship when covering sensitive issues, a phenomenon first documented in the 2005 CPJ report “Untold Stories.”

Four provincial journalists were forced to flee their homes after serious threats. In January, Alexander Guerrero, a reporter for the local dailies Magangué Hoy and El Comunicador in the northern Bolívar province, left his home after photographing members of the outgoing administration packing computers, fax machines, and other equipment from the mayor’s office into a truck a day before the new mayor took office in the city of Magangué. After images appeared in the press, the outgoing mayor’s bodyguard told Guerrero to “get lost,” and that he “was going to pay for it,” the journalist told CPJ.

A month later, two journalists fled central Tolima province. José Joaquín Chávez, director of the community radio station Acción Estéreo and correspondent for the radio station La Voz del Tolima, left the city of Anzoátegui after receiving repeated death threats from alleged FARC members on his cell phone and at the radio station. Chávez said he believed the threats were retaliation for having aired paid advertisements from the Colombian army asking guerrilla fighters to put down their weapons. Days later, Rogelio Prado, a reporter for local stations Radio Tropical and Cadena Radial Súper and the daily El Nuevo Día in the state capital of Ibagué, left his home. He had received four invitations to his own funeral. Prado said the latest threats were a result of his coverage of administrative irregularities in the local government.

Leobar Ibarra, an investigative reporter for the regional daily Diario del Sur in Samaniego, a town in western Nariño province, where guerrilla and paramilitary groups were fighting for control, fled in July after receiving threats. Individuals who identified themselves as paramilitary fighters threatened Ibarra after he reported on the seizure of 880 pounds (400 kilograms) of cocaine by the Colombian army. Ibarra said assailants called his cell phone and showed up at his home. They told him they would kill him because of his reporting.

Colombia has the highest rate of unsolved murders of journalists per capita in Latin America, according to CPJ’s Impunity Index, a ranking of countries where governments have consistently failed to solve slayings of members of the media. In an encouraging development in August, the attorney general’s office ordered the arrest of Augusto Rojas Ortiz, president of the local assembly in the southern Huila province, after authorities said they had found evidence linking him to the 1998 murder of reporter Nelson Carvajal. The attorney general also ordered the arrest of two FARC fighters in connection with the killing.

An unidentified gunman shot Carvajal, a well-known radio journalist in the town of Pitalito, on April 14, 1998, outside the elementary school where he taught. Carvajal was the producer of five community programs on Radio Sur, a local affiliate of Radio Cadena Nacional. He had recently reported on allegations that the former mayor of Pitalito, Ramiro Falla Cuenca, had misappropriated public funds. Police arrested Falla and another Pitalito official in January 1999. Both men were acquitted by a local court in December 2001. In September, Attorney General Iguarán requested that the Supreme Court of Justice review the 2001 decision.

AMERICAS: Regional Analysis
Drug trade, violent gangs pose grave danger

AMERICAS: Country Summaries

Argentina Ecuador
Bolivia Guatemala
Brazil Mexico
Colombia United States
Cuba Venezuela

Other Attacks and Developments in the Region

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