CPJ, HRW object to Uribe accusations

February 5, 2009

Álvaro Uribe Vélez
President of the Republic of Colombia
Casa de Nariño
Bogotá D.C., Colombia

Via facsimile: 011-571-337-5890
Dear Mr. President:

We write to object to the accusations that you and other high-ranking members of your government made this week linking Colombian journalist Hollman Morris to the leftist guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC). These serious allegations endanger the life of the journalist and jeopardize press freedom in your country.

After the FARC released four hostages to a humanitarian mission led by the International Red Cross on Sunday, reports in the Colombian and international press said that Morris, producer of the weekly investigative program “Contravía” for the television network Canal Uno and correspondent for the Paris-based Radio France Internationale, had been detained by the Colombian army following his coverage of the rescue operation.

Morris told the Committee to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Watch that he had not planned to be present at the rescue operation. Rather, he said, he had traveled to southeastern Colombia 10 days before the operation to interview senior FARC leaders as part of a documentary on kidnappings in Colombia. Morris said the meeting with the commanders had been scheduled weeks prior to his trip. On Sunday, while in Caquetá province, where the rescue mission later took place, Morris, his cameraman Leonardo Acevedo, and Camilo Raigozo, a reporter for the Bogotá-based weekly La Voz, were contacted by FARC fighters and were offered an interview with the hostages.

Morris said that he met the three police officers and the soldier before they were released. However, according to Morris, once he realized that their answers had been coerced, he decided to only ask their names and their time in captivity. Morris told CPJ that he has not aired the footage, and that he would not publish hostage testimonies scripted by the FARC.

On Tuesday, the four hostages sent letters to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and to RFI saying that the FARC had coerced the statements they gave to Morris by threatening to kill them or keep them in captivity, according to Colombian news reports.

After the hostages were handed over to the humanitarian mission, Morris and the other two journalists were stopped at a military checkpoint near the town of Unión Peneya, Caquetá. Morris said that a soldier asked them for their footage but he refused. Ediberto Ramón Endo, a spokesman for the Caquetá government, told the national daily El Tiempo that the army had only stopped Morris because it was not safe for journalists to travel to the area. Fearing for his safety, Morris contacted human rights organizations in Bogotá, and was escorted out of town by local police and the regional ombudsman.

Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón issued a statement saying that the hostages had been forced to give Morris interviews. Santos declared that the journalist’s actions lacked “objectivity and impartiality,” and suggested that they constituted an “apology to violence.” The statement highlighted that Morris has been granted protection by the Colombian government at the behest of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. Morris has fled Colombia several times after receiving repeated death threats. Santos said that the journalist exposed himself to “extreme danger without informing the state, which is in charge of protecting him.”

Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos also stated on national radio that Morris was “close to the guerrillas.”

On Tuesday, Attorney General Mario Iguarán announced that at the request of your government and the National Police, his office would open a criminal investigation of Morris for alleged ties to terrorism, according to local press reports. We are aware of no evidence linking Morris to the FARC, and call on your government to publicly explain the foundations for this inquiry, or dismiss it all together.

At a press conference the same day, you accused Morris of “[hiding] behind his journalism to become a permissive accomplice of terrorism.” Morris said his reporting was completely independent of the FARC and your government.

You have publicly stated that while your administration does not like media outlets interviewing guerilla and paramilitary fighters, the government respects their right to do so. During a March 2006 meeting with a CPJ delegation, you emphasized that any official who interferes with the work of the press, “is committing a crime, and this is extremely grave.” Colombian journalists have the right to report freely on the decades-long internal armed conflict in your country.

The recent barrage of accusations that you and senior members of your administration have launched against Morris undermines your commitment to freedom of expression. Official comments linking journalists to any actor in Colombia’s internal armed conflict have resulted in serious threats and have led reporters to flee the country or to engage in self-censorship. We call on you as president to publicly retract your recent comments, to respect dissent and to abstain from accusing members of the media of having links to armed actors without any evidence. We urge you to call on other high-level members of your administration, including Vice President Santos and Minister of Defense Santos, to also abstain from making baseless and dangerous accusations against the Colombian and international press.

We thank you for your attention on this urgent matter. We await for your response.

Sincerely yours, 

Joel Simon, CPJ Executive Director
José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director, Americas Division, Human Rights Watch