Colombian police officers stop a car at the Arauca City border. (Reuters)
Colombian police officers stop a car at the Arauca City border. (Reuters)

Colombian journalists in Arauca pressured from all sides

Although a long-running army offensive has improved security in much of Colombia, the oil-rich eastern province of Arauca remains a hot zone–for both combatants and journalists. This week, for example, the National Liberation Army (ELN), the smaller of the country’s two guerrilla groups, called a transportation strike, effectively shutting down traffic and commerce throughout the province and making any vehicles on the highways fair game–no small event.

But when Sarare FM Stereo, in the town of Saravena, reported on the strike, the local army commander accused the station’s reporters of being guerrilla apologists. According to Sarare FM reporter Emiro Goyeneche, the officer then suggested to Saravena’s mayor that he shut down the radio station.

Sarare FM continues to broadcast, but reporters say they are walking a tightrope. If they broadcast news about the army, they receive threatening phone calls from the guerrillas. “It’s extremely complicated,” Goyeneche said. “You have to handle the news with a lot of prudence to not get either side angry.”

Journalists have long been targeted in Arauca, CPJ research shows. Two army soldiers were convicted for the 1991 killing of Henry Rojas Monje, the Arauca correspondent for El Tiempo, Colombia’s leading daily, a 2005 CPJ special report said. Efraín Varela, Arauca’s most respected journalist who worked for the Meridiano 70 radio station, was gunned down in 2002. His replacement, Luis Eduardo Alfonso Parada, was murdered the next year. Eleven days after Alfonso’s murder, a mysterious list appeared, naming 16 local journalists as assassination targets of the guerrillas or paramilitaries, according to CPJ research.

Since then, overt violence against reporters has diminished–but not much else. “The only thing that’s changed is that they haven’t killed any more journalists,” Goyeneche said. But this may be due, in part, to the fact that journalists have become more cautious. Carmen Rosa Pabón, a reporter for La Voz del Cinaruco radio station, says that because of the threat of kidnappings and attacks along the highways, she rarely travels over land from the capital of Arauca City to towns just 40 or 50 miles away.

Reporters have given up trying to interview the guerrillas because they fear being branded as traitors by the army or targeted by right-wing death squads or rogue army troops. Meanwhile, serious investigative reporting is on the decline. Nearly all of the reporters for local radio stations–the dominant media in Arauca–sell advertisements for their programs, which are mostly purchased by local and state government agencies. “If there is bad news about the public hospital, I have to go easy on them and minimize the criticism because they are an advertiser,” said Eduardo Cedeño, a reporter for Meridiano 70.

Muckraking journalism can also be dangerous. An imprisoned leader of a paramilitary death squad testified last year that Arauca’s former governor, Julio Acosta Bernal, ordered the killing of Varela, the Meridiano 70 reporter who often investigated government corruption. Bernal is in prison on charges of collaborating with paramilitary groups. Goyeneche, in turn, said that huge sums have been wasted on the construction of a hospital in Saravena, but he hasn’t touched the story based on the advice of his boss and colleagues. In another case, he said, he came upon what appeared to be doctored government figures inflating how much had been spent on public works projects and he was approached by a man who offered him a bribe to pull back from the story.

This is a particularly bad moment for journalists to stop looking under rocks. Local and state elections are scheduled for October 30, and there are serious questions swirling around many of the candidates. According to an investigation by the Nuevo Arco Iris, a Bogotá think tank, one of the gubernatorial candidates has ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia guerrilla group, while a second is closely linked to Bernal, who continues to pull strings in Arauca politics even from behind bars.

That said, there’s apparently so much graft to uncover in Arauca that reporters can’t help stumbling upon acts of wrongdoing. Last week, Meridiano 70’s Cedeño reported that a mayoral candidate in Arauca city had reprinted–almost verbatim–the governing program of the mayor from a nearby city and presented the material as his own campaign platform. Cedeño figured this out through a simple Google search.