Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez appears at a press conference with military leaders to announce the end of unlawful spying. (AP/Fernando Vergara)
Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez appears at a press conference with military leaders to announce the end of unlawful spying. (AP/Fernando Vergara)

In the Americas, Big Brother is watching reporters

By Carlos Lauría

The topic being investigated by two Colombian reporters was explosive enough that it required unusual security. Fearful that the subjects would learn prematurely of the story, the reporters took separate notes, which they did not share and which they later destroyed. They didn’t communicate by telephone or e-mail, and they met only in public locations. They relayed only the barest information to their own sources.


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It was not enough. Before Canal Uno television and the newsmagazine Semana were ready in April to break their joint story, which would address influence-peddling allegations against the two sons of Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, the administration knew all about it. A government spokesman told Canal Uno that it was well aware of the inquiry.

Daniel Coronell, the Canal Uno news director and Semana columnist who led the investigation with reporter Ignacio Gómez, is convinced that his team had been victimized by illegal government espionage. It’s possible, he concedes, that word could have leaked to the administration through other avenues.

But in some very important ways, it does not matter.

When news erupted in February that national intelligence agents had subjected journalists, politicians, judges, and human rights defenders to illegal phone tapping, e-mail interception, and surveillance for much of the decade, it created a well-founded perception that the Colombian government was closely and constantly watching the press and other critics.

The unlawful spying carried out by the national intelligence agency—which operates under Uribe’s authority—was one of two such scandals to play out in the region in 2009, both of which targeted journalists, among others, and caused a significant chilling effect on press freedom. In Argentina, a federal investigation was examining whether national intelligence agents tapped the phones and hacked the e-mail of critical journalists, politicians, judges, and artists as part of a campaign intended to discredit and deter their work.

As a result, journalists in both countries told CPJ, sources are becoming more reluctant to talk to the press. Coronell calls the espionage “the most serious threat against freedom of the press in Colombia” today because it endangers confidential sources. Journalists reporting on official corruption are looking over their shoulders and taking extraordinary steps to ensure their private conversations are not intercepted or their e-mails hacked. Their work has been harmed, and their already tense relations with government officials have become more contentious. 

Spying has an unfortunate history in the region. One of the most extreme examples occurred in Peru in the early 1990s, when the intelligence service under President Alberto Fujimori engaged in assassination plots, death threats, wiretapping, surveillance, and smear tactics to intimidate the press.

In recent years, government espionage against journalists has been reported in Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia. In Cuba, spying is standard procedure: Cuban state security agents have kept journalists and dissidents under constant surveillance for decades, intercepting and recording their phone conversations. In Mexico, opposition Sen. Manilo Beltrones has made allegations of political espionage, fueling perceptions in the press corps that it, too, has been targeted. The United States is not immune to such practices. In 2008, the FBI issued an apology after agents violated procedures in obtaining the telephone records of several journalists covering Islamic terrorism in Southeast Asia. The FBI would not disclose the nature of the underlying investigation that led to the 2004 record collection.



In Colombia, it was Semana that exposed the extensive spy scheme devised by top officials in the Administrative Department of Security, the intelligence service also known as DAS. Coronell led the list of reporters being monitored by the DAS, but the roll call read like a who’s who of Colombian journalism: Semana Director Alejandro Santos; Julio Sánchez Cristo, director of national W Radio; Darío Arizmendi, director of national Caracol Radio; Ramiro Bejarano, a columnist for the daily El Espectador; Hollman Morris, journalist and producer of the weekly news show “Contravía” on Canal Uno; and Félix de Bedout of W Radio.

The Attorney General’s office launched an inquiry that resulted in the arrests of several top intelligence officials, including former DAS Deputy Director José Miguel Narváez, in August and September. Four other DAS directors were under investigation in late year. Uribe denied involvement, put the blame on rogue DAS officials who acted as a “mafia,” and said his government would implement reforms.

Wiretaps, illegal in Colombia without judicial order, had started in early 2003 and stretched into mid-2009—beyond even the first news reports of the scandal. During that period, DAS officials monitored and recorded thousands of e-mails and telephone conversations, and followed opponents, judges, and journalists. International human rights groups and diplomats were also spied upon, according to news reports. Semana, for example, obtained a recording of an intercepted phone call between a U.S. diplomat and a Colombian Supreme Court judge investigating links between Uribe’s supporters and right-wing paramilitary groups. The Miami-based daily El Nuevo Herald reported in June that telephone conversations and e-mails between CPJ staffers and Colombian journalists had been intercepted. In a statement, CPJ demanded the government bring an immediate end to the spying and noted the grave damage it was causing to free expression.

Reporter Morris, known for his in-depth coverage of Colombia’s five-decade civil conflict, said he believed that spies had targeted his confidential sources to neutralize them and to discredit his reporting. A harsh government critic, he has been derided by Uribe and other high-ranking officials as an ally of the leftist guerrillas—accusations that Morris said acted as “a green light for the DAS” to monitor his conversations and correspondence. The target of death threats in 2005, Morris has actually been under DAS protection. “It’s ironic: The same people tasked with protecting me are the ones who are supposedly spying,” he said. “It is like sleeping with the enemy.” 

Morris has sued the government over the surveillance. He said documents unearthed as part of his lawsuit show that e-mails sent to him by CPJ and the Organization of American States’ special rapporteur for freedom of expression, among others, had been intercepted by the DAS. 

Surveillance of journalists did not start with the Uribe administration. In 1996, during the administration of President Ernesto Samper, reports alleged that the intelligence service was spying on reporters. But that espionage was sporadic, Coronell said, compared to the systematic and persistent spying that occurred this decade. The Uribe government, according to Coronell, has deliberately sought to conflate critics with enemies. “This is clearly an abuse of power,” he said.



In Argentina, a federal investigation that continued in late year was examining whether high-ranking officials had either ordered or tacitly approved telephone and e-mail surveillance of political opponents and journalists, according to news reports and CPJ interviews. Judge Sandra Arroyo Salgado’s investigation began after hackers broke into the e-mail accounts of several reporters and media executives, read the journalists’ private exchanges with sources, and distributed the stolen messages to other parties. The activities allegedly took place in 2006, during the administration of Néstor Kirchner, husband of the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Among the victims was Daniel Santoro, a senior investigative reporter with the country’s largest daily, Clarín, whose off-the-record interview with a judge on a major drug trafficking case was stolen and relayed to a lawyer for one of the defendants. Luis Majul, host of the weekly show “La Cornisa” on América TV, said that a hacker sent a bogus e-mail from his Yahoo account to his contacts calling for a boycott of Clarín. The message revealed the e-mail user names and passwords of more than 20 Argentine reporters and media executives. Government officials have denied that the intelligence service, known as the Secretaría de Inteligencia, or SI, was involved. No arrests had been made by late year. 

“Revolting techniques from the intelligence service have never been used in such a systematic and efficient way to intimidate and discredit opposition politicians or independent journalists,” columnist Alfredo Leuco wrote in October in Perfil, a weekend paper critical of the administration. “There have never been so many complaints about serious violations of our colleagues’ privacy,” said Leuco, who believes the government is trying to undermine independent reporting.

Political opponents such as former President Eduardo Duhalde and one-time allies such as former Chief of Cabinet Alberto Fernández have asserted publicly that they had been the targets of espionage. Mariano Obarrio, a political correspondent with the Buenos Aires-based daily La Nación who has reported extensively on the topic, said that an intelligence team began conducting surveillance of political opponents, business people, journalists, and even some administration officials in 2003. The team, Obarrio reported, worked under direct orders from top SI officials, wiretapping telephone lines and intercepting e-mails without court orders, which would constitute a violation of the country’s 2001 intelligence law. The spy agency’s operations are under direct supervision of the president.

Obarrio found himself a target in 2006. Unidentified assailants broke into his house, threatened his family, and told him he was being followed. After his newspaper hired a lawyer and investigator to look into the attack, Obarrio discovered his phone line was tapped. The nerve-racking events took place shortly after Obarrio sent the SI’s deputy director a series of questions concerning espionage activities. Obarrio filed a judicial complaint about the harassment and surveillance, but the investigation produced no results. Although the journalist continued to cover government policies critically, he eventually dropped his work on espionage. “I understood it as a message intended to disrupt my work. I felt the pressure, and decided it was better for me and my family to forget about it,” he said.



Venezuelan authorities make little effort to conceal espionage against reporters. Conversations involving political opponents of President Hugo Chávez Frías and critics in the media are often monitored and recorded by the secret service, according to CPJ research and press reports. State-owned media have reproduced segments of those conversations to damage the reputations of government critics. Alberto Federico Ravell, general director of Globovisión, a television station known for its strong opposition views, found his October 2008 phone conversation with Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the weekly Tal Cual, aired on the pro-government station Venezolana de Televisión. Ravell filed a complaint, but it generated no results. 

In Bolivia, the Senate examined a case in which Juan José Espada, a reporter with the critical television station Unitel, was apparently under surveillance by intelligence agents in the national police. Police commander Gen. Miguel Vásquez said the surveillance had happened without his knowledge. A Senate committee formed to study the case recommended that it be investigated further by the Attorney General’s office, Espada said, but no prosecutor was assigned.

Peru’s Fujimori set a notorious precedent in Latin America. By employing a well-oiled and massive spy network, Fujimori consolidated his hold on power after taking office in 1990. During his tenure, independent journalists were under intense scrutiny: Their phones were tapped, and their movements watched. Reporters were detained and questioned on trumped-up terrorism and tax charges; some were kidnapped and threatened by members of Peru’s shadowy National Intelligence Service. The Fujimori government fed information gathered in its espionage to tabloids sympathetic to the administration (and loaded with state advertising). They, in turn, launched smear campaigns against leading critics in the media, some of whom were forced into exile by the negative attention. 

In April 2009, Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in jail after being convicted of crimes against humanity for directing military death squads. He was sentenced again, in September, to six years in prison for secretly wiretapping politicians, journalists, and businessmen during his decade in power, along with bribing congressmen and buying off a television station and a newspaper editorial board to back his 2000 re-election campaign.

“Espionage during the Fujimori era has been well-studied: It was systemic, extremely organized, and centralized,” said Ricardo Uceda, executive director of the regional press group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, and a top Peruvian investigative reporter. “Fujimori needed such a system to exercise power. He was well aware of journalists’ affairs and their flaws, and knew perfectly how to neutralize the media.”

Although espionage campaigns in Peru in the 1990s and Colombia in this decade were both pervasive and intrusive, there was a significant power imbalance during the Fujimori regime that made the spying more pernicious, Uceda pointed out. The Fujimori government, Uceda said, had such tight control over the judiciary that it could ensure government espionage would go unchecked. That’s different from contemporary Colombia, where the scandal has prompted an in-depth probe and arrests.

Still, major reforms are far from certain in either Colombia or Argentina. Argentine officials appear to be brushing off legitimate threats to the country’s democracy. The 2001 intelligence law sets prison penalties of up to four years for illegal espionage, but the congressional committee tasked with overseeing intelligence activities has yet to take substantive steps to enforce the law and control illegal spying.

In Colombia, where the scandal hit just as Uribe was flirting with a bid for a third term, some possible reform is in its early stages. In October, Congress began considering a bill aimed at creating a smaller intelligence agency with more limited functions, news reports said. External pressure may do some good. The Inter-American Commission, the autonomous human rights body of the Organization of American States, expressed concern about the scandal and urged the Colombian government to conduct a thorough review to prevent violations of international human rights standards.

Vice President Francisco Santos CalderÓn has publicly acknowledged that the situation is serious, and said the institutions of democracy are acting. DAS Director Felipe Muñoz said the agency will cut its workforce and focus on counterintelligence and border control, according to press reports. But who is really in charge? A November report by Semana said that investigators examining the illegal espionage have themselves been threatened and followed in an attempt to disrupt the probe.

The solution rests in the message sent from the top of the civilian government. Journalists and free press advocates say that real reform can be achieved only through strong political will exercised by leaders at the highest levels of government. They must send a strong message that the intelligence service cannot be used against members of the judiciary, the political opposition, and the independent press as a means to preserve power.


Carlos Lauría is CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas.