Attacks on the Press 2010: Colombia

Top Developments
• Progress slow in probe of illegal espionage that targeted journalists.
• One journalist murdered. Deadly violence slows, but danger remains.

Key Statistic
4: Provincial reporters forced into exile due to threats.

President Álvaro Uribe Vélez ended his two terms in office with a decidedly mixed press freedom record. CPJ research charted a drop in lethal violence during his administration: Eight reporters were killed in direct relation to their work in his first two years in office, while six died over the remaining six years of his tenure. The government has cited a journalist protection program and an improved overall security climate as reasons.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In Latin America,
A Return of Censorship

Country Summaries
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Yet the press continued to operate under extreme duress as Uribe left office in mid-year. Journalists still worked under threat from all sides in the civil conflict, and many said they survived primarily because they practiced self-censorship. Uribe himself maintained a hostile relationship with the media, occasionally making unfounded accusations that critical journalists had ties to guerrilla groups. The administration was also swept up in a major espionage scandal in which national intelligence officials under Uribe’s supervision engaged in unlawful phone tapping, e-mail interception, and surveillance of journalists and political opponents. Despite the president’s public pledges to root out those responsible for the espionage, government investigations ground away with little tangible results. Only two convictions had been obtained by late year.

Juan Manuel Santos, a 58-year-old former journalist and defense minister, assumed the presidency after winning a decisive majority in a June 20 runoff election against former Bogotá Mayor Antanas Mockus. During his inaugural speech, he promised to continue the Uribe administration security policies that he helped direct as defense minister from 2006 until 2009. Santos’ career as a journalist–during which he served as deputy director of his family’s daily newspaper El Tiempo–led local journalists to believe that tensions may ease between the government and news media.

Right-wing paramilitary groups, left-wing guerrillas, and drug traffickers continued to target provincial journalists as a low-level conflict churned away. Threats forced at least four provincial reporters into exile, according to the Bogotá-based Foundation for Freedom of the Press, or FLIP. Guerrillas and paramilitaries each sent fliers to newsrooms and reporters’ homes identifying journalists as targets, according to news reports and CPJ interviews. In August, a motorcycle-riding gunman fired at least five shots at journalist Marco Tulio Valencia in the town of Mariquita, Tolima province. Valencia, who escaped injury, said he had received numerous prior death threats related to his reporting on the drug trade in Tolima. Risky topics also included government corruption, civil conflicts, land disputes, and other criminal activities, local journalists said. Edgar Astudillo, a veteran radio reporter who covered crime, told CPJ that two vans with about 20 men arrived at his home in Montería, Córdoba, in May. One of the men demanded that the reporter stop airing news about Los Paisas, a gang seen as a successor to the right-wing paramilitary group United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Astudillo relocated to the capital.

Uribe’s government said that about 30,000 AUC fighters were demobilized between 2003 and 2006 in exchange for prison terms of five to eight years under the Justice and Peace Law, a measure that granted leniency to members of illegal groups in exchange for laying down arms and confessing to their crimes. The extent of the demobilization, however, had been contested by local rights groups, which claimed that around 10,000 AUC members remained active under different names, such as Los Paisas.

Clodomiro Castilla Ospino, editor and publisher of the newsmagazine El Pulso del Tiempo, was killed on March 19 as he was reading a book outside his home in Montería. Castilla, who also contributed to the local radio station La Voz de Montería, had received threats for at least four years in relation to his coverage of links between local politicians, landowners, and right-wing paramilitaries, local journalists told CPJ. In July 2008, the journalist testified before the Colombian Supreme Court about links between members of the National Congress and paramilitary groups. Shortly before his death, he covered allegations that state funds were illegally used in the 2006 congressional political campaign.

Uribe condemned Castilla’s murder and offered a reward of 50 million Colombian pesos (US$26,000). The investigation was quickly transferred from the local prosecutor’s office to the attorney general’s office in Bogotá, but no subsequent developments were reported. Tania Castilla Florez, the reporter’s daughter and a witness in the case, was forced to resettle to Bogotá after she and her family had been followed several times by unidentified individuals.

The government had provided protection to Castilla for about three years because of threats against his life, FLIP said, but the Ministry of Interior withdrew the security in 2009 based on an intelligence review that indicated he was no longer under threat. Under the state protection program, a committee of government officials and civil-society representatives meets regularly to assess security needs. In some cases, the government assigns direct protection, while in other cases it supports tactics such as relocation.

Provincial insecurity prompted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to intervene in one case in April, ordering the Colombian government to provide protection for journalist Rodrigo Callejas Bedoya and his family. Callejas told CPJ he had covered drug trafficking, government corruption, illegal mining projects, and paramilitary financing for Radio Fresno and the newspaper Región al Día. After being provided with security, Callejas carried out his work with two bodyguards and a bulletproof car.

The national media tracked the slow-paced government investigation into illegal spying that was carried out by the national intelligence agency, known as the DAS, from 2004 to 2009. Meeting with a delegation from CPJ and FLIP in May, Uribe condemned the espionage and expressed his commitment to investigating it. In August, a Bogotá judge sentenced Fernando Tavares, former intelligence director, and Jorge Alberto Lagos, former deputy director for counterintelligence, to eight years in prison apiece after they admitted to spying. Sixteen other DAS officials, including the agency’s deputy director, José Miguel Narváez, were accused by the attorney general’s office of participating in the espionage, and at least five were facing trial in late year, news reports said. In June, Narváez was also accused of masterminding the 1999 murder of journalist Jaime Garzón. That case was pending in late year.

In hearings convened by Inspector General Alejandro Ordóñez Maldonado, intelligence agents described an extensive government scheme that counted on the approval of high-ranking officials. “We were ordered to follow journalist Daniel Coronell because President Álvaro Uribe was very upset with Coronell’s reporting about him and his family,” the newsweekly Semana quoted DAS official Martha Leal as saying. Coronell, director of the national news program “Noticias Uno” and a columnist for Semana, was one of the harshest critics of the president’s administration. In October, the inspector general’s office, an independent agency that examines government activities, took disciplinary action against former Uribe chief of staff Bernardo Moreno, barring him from public office for 18 years for his role in the scheme. The same month, a House of Representatives committee opened a preliminary investigation into Uribe’s actions in the case. By November, former DAS director María del Pilar Hurtadio fled to Panama, where she was granted political asylum. Hurtado denied involvement in the spying scheme, saying she was a scapegoat.

Among the targets of the spying was Hollman Morris, another harsh government critic who had incurred the wrath of Uribe and high-ranking administration officials. The president’s characterizations of Morris as an “accomplice of terrorism” may have played a role in the U.S. government’s initial decision to deny the journalist a visa to study at Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow. The U.S. Embassy in Bogotá informed the journalist in June that he had been found ineligible for a visa under the Patriot Act, which bars those accused of terrorist activities. In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, CPJ expressed concern that the State Department had been influenced by Colombian officials with a record of making unsubstantiated accusations against Morris because of his critical reporting. After CPJ and numerous other international groups came to the journalist’s defense, the State Department granted Morris a visa in July.

Authorities questioned several people in an attempt to uncover those who plotted the 2002 murder of Orlando Sierra Hernández, deputy editor and columnist for the Manizales-based newspaper La Patria. The attorney general’s office questioned former congressman Dixon Ferney Tapasco Triviño and his father, Ferney Tapasco González, in October, but had not charged either by late year, news reports said. (Authorities did bring charges against both for alleged links to right-wing paramilitaries.) Investigators also questioned two members of the elder Tapasco’s security detail in connection with the editor’s murder. Three men were convicted earlier in the decade on charges of carrying out the assassination.

A car bomb exploded at the Bogotá offices of national broadcaster Caracol Radio in August, injuring 36 people and damaging neighboring buildings, according to local news accounts. Attorney General Guillermo Mendoza told the news agency EFE that the motive and perpetrators were unclear. Three weeks later, police deactivated an explosive device in front of local broadcaster Linda Estéreo, an affiliate of Caracol Radio in the town of Doncello, Caquetá province, FLIP reported. Local police blamed the leftist guerrilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) for the failed attack, news reports said. Luis Antonio Peralta, news director of Linda Estéreo, dismissed FARC involvement and said he believed the station’s reporting on local corruption had prompted the attack, FLIP said.