Attacks on the Press 2009: Colombia

Top Developments
• Provincial journalists face threats from all sides in civil conflict.
• Convictions gained in one journalist murder; progress reported in other cases.

Key Statistic
2003: Year that national intelligence agents began spying on journalists and other critics.

The strained relationship between the government and the Bogotá-based independent press worsened after news media revealed that the national intelligence agency had been spying on leading critics, including journalists. The press continued to be caught in the middle of the ongoing civil conflict as officials made loaded accusations and far-right paramilitary and leftist guerrilla groups terrorized provincial reporters. In an important step in the fight against impunity, a court convicted the masterminds in a 2003 journalist killing. While CPJ research has shown a gradual decline in journalist murders over the last five years, one reporter was slain in reprisal for his work in 2009.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In the Americas,
Big Brother is watching reporters

Country Summaries
United States
Other developments

The leading Colombian newsweekly Semana—known for investigations that have shaken the administration of President Álvaro Uribe Vélez—published a story in February ona spying scheme orchestrated by agents of the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), the national intelligence service. The magazine reported that officials spied on critical journalists, members of the opposition, Supreme Court justices, government officialsand international human rights groups. Thousands of e-mails and telephone conversations were intercepted, and the information was alleged to have been passed on to criminal groups, Semana reported. The country’s most prominent journalists were among those monitored.

Uribe denied involvement, blaming rogue elements in the intelligence service for the spying. The Attorney General’s office ordered an immediate search of DAS headquarters and an investigation into the charges. Investigators later determined that the scheme stretched from 2003 well into 2009, according to news reports. The Miami-based daily El Nuevo Herald reported in June that, among other things, the DAS monitored e-mails and telephone conversations between Colombian journalists and international human rights groups, including CPJ.

In September, after the arrest of 10 high-ranking DAS officials, the Uribe administration introduced a bill before Congress to create a smaller intelligence organization with more limited functions. The DAS, which reported directly to the president, had been plagued by scandal throughout Uribe’s two terms.

Among those in custody in the spying scandal was former DAS Deputy Director José Miguel Narváez, according to local news reports. Semana reported that the former DAS official also had links to paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño and was being investigated in connection with the murder of journalist Jaime Garzón. A news host on Caracol and a columnist for the newsweekly Cambio, Garzón was shot four blocks from his office in 1999. The following year, authorities charged and convicted the paramilitary leader Castaño in absentia. (Castaño, who disappeared in the early part of the decade, is believed to be dead.) In 2009, under the Law of Justice and Peace, a demobilized paramilitary fighter said Narváez had plotted the killing and had urged Castaño to execute it, according to Semana. Under the Law of Justice and Peace, members of illegal armed groups are granted leniency in exchange for demobilization and full confession to crimes. Narváez was not immediately charged in the Garzón case; the Law of Justice and Peace has been criticized for eliciting false allegations.

Hollman Morris, a reporter known for his critical coverage of the country’s civil conflict, came under fire from the government after he traveled to southwestern Colombia to interview guerrilla fighters for a documentary on kidnappings. On February 1, Morris said, members of the leftist guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) urged him to interview three police officers and a soldier who were being held hostage. The journalist told CPJ that once he realized the hostages’ answers had been coerced, he simply asked for their names and their time in captivity. The same day, FARC released the four hostages to a humanitarian mission led by the International Red Cross.

As news of Morris’ meeting with the hostages was reported, the government reacted in forceful, rapid-fire fashion. Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón said Morris had acted without “objectivity and impartiality.” Then-Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos called him “close to the guerrillas.” And Uribe accused the journalist of being an “accomplice to terror.”

Morris told CPJ that the accusations triggered a string of e-mail threats. On February 5, CPJ and Human Rights Watch sent Uribe a letter objecting to the loaded assertions and urging the president to put an end to comments tying journalists to any side in Colombia’s armed conflict. CPJ research has shown that such public assertions have endangered journalists. The government has often resorted to such politicized accusations, the New York-based group Human Rights First said at a March hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Colombian prosecutors, the group said, have brought dozens of unfounded and “specious” criminal investigations against Colombians, including journalists and human rights activists.

Journalists working in the provinces faced harassment from all sides of Colombia’s five-decade-long civil conflict. In February, the four hostages released by FARC to the humanitarian mission said the guerrillas had declared local journalists “military targets.” In March, two alleged members of the paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) shot Gustavo Adolfo Valencia Ayala inside his home in the eastern city of Popayán. Valencia, director of national radio station Todelar, suffered a leg wound. In April, six unidentified assailants held Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal, host of the political program “La Luciérnaga” on national Caracol Radio, at gunpoint in his home in the western city of Tuluá. The attackers ransacked the journalist’s house but did not harm him. A security camera recorded the assailants as they fled, and investigators identified the truck they were driving as a military vehicle. The army denied involvement, and Uribe offered 20 million pesos (US$10,000) for information on the case.

One journalist was killed in connection to his work. José Everardo Aguilar, 72, a correspondent for Radio Súper in the southern city of Patía and host of a news program on the community radio station Bolívar Estéreo, was gunned down inside his home in April. Colleagues told CPJ that Aguilar had decried links between local politicians and paramilitaries. One man was charged in the slaying, which the Colombian National Police said was in reprisal for Aguilar’s reporting, but a local court acquitted the defendant in November.

Two journalists were killed in unclear circumstances. The bullet-ridden body of Diego de Jesús Rojas Velásquez, a reporter and cameraman for Supía TV, was found in September on a highway in the central city of Supía. In December, Hárold Humberto Rivas Quevedo, host of a political commentary show on CNC Bugavisión, was shot shortly after leaving the television station’s studios in the western city of Buga. CPJ was examining whether the killings were work-related.

Authorities reported progress in an eight-year-old murder case. Two former paramilitary fighters confessed under the Law of Justice and Peace to the 2001 killing of Flavio Iván Bedoya, a regional correspondent for the Bogotá-based Communist Party daily Voz. Bedoya, shot as he stepped off a bus in the southwestern port city of Tumaco, had published critical reports on ties between local security forces and paramilitary groups in Nariño province. According to an April report by the Bogotá-based press freedom group Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, paramilitary fighters have confessed under the law to participation in seven other journalist murders.

In a landmark case in the fight against impunity, a court in northern Santander province convicted three former public officials on charges of plotting the 2003 murder of radio commentator José Emeterio Rivas. The prosecution’s key witness was demobilized paramilitary fighter Pablo Emilio Quintero Dodino, who confessed to the shooting during a Law of Justice and Peace hearing. Former Barrancabermeja Mayor Julio César Ardila Torres was sentenced to 28 years in prison, while former public works officials Abelardo Rueda Tobón and Fabio Pajón Lizcano each received sentences of 26 years and eight months. Rivas, 44, a commentator for the local Radio Calor Estéreo, was killed in retaliation for his reports on official corruption and links between Ardila’s administration and paramilitary groups, the Attorney General’s office said.