Three Colombian journalists flee homes in recent months

New York, April 23, 2012–Three provincial Colombian radio journalists have been forced to flee their homes in the past few months after receiving death threats from illegal armed groups. The Committee to Protect Journalists today called on authorities to ensure their safety.

Jesús Antonio Pareja, who worked at a community radio station in Roncesvalles in central Tolima department, received death threats from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest left-wing rebel group, according to the Bogotá-based press freedom group Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP).

Pareja worked part-time for La Voz de la Tierra in Roncesvalles, located in a mountainous region that has long been a FARC stronghold. On April 9, Pareja received a phone call from someone identifying himself as Commander Donald of the FARC’s 21st Front. The caller told Pareja he had three days to leave the town or he would be killed, Pareja told CPJ. Pareja said the caller accused the station of broadcasting army propaganda, promoting a hydroelectric dam that the FARC considers a military target, and encouraging farmers uprooted by the country’s guerrilla war to apply for benefits under a new land law. Pareja said the station never aired army propaganda but did broadcast public service announcements related to the land law as well as ads sponsored by the company building the dam.

Pareja fled Roncesvalles on April 10 and is now in Ibague, the capital of Tolima department. Now jobless, he has applied for benefits as a displaced person. “All I wanted to do was help the community,” said Pareja, who worked for the station for 13 years. “But now I am a refugee.”

In the town of Briceño in northern Antioquia department, Edilberto Agudelo, director of community radio station Briceño Estéreo, denounced links between Briceño police officers and the large criminal organization Los Urabeños at a public meeting last year with local activists and subsequently received death threats, according to FLIP.

Agudelo was forced to leave Briceño on December 14 after he received a pamphlet threatening him with death. Agudelo told CPJ that he took the threat seriously because 30 minutes before receiving the pamphlet, the administrator of the local hospital — who had also denounced police ties to criminal groups at the meeting — was shot dead.

Agudelo’s case wasn’t publicized at the time. However, on April 13, his wife Dionisia Morales, a radio host with Briceño, received death threats via text messages and telephone calls, she told CPJ. The caller identified himself as a member of the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia, one of a handful of drug-trafficking gangs operating in the country. This group is believed to be part of Los Urabeños, according to press reports.

The caller “said I had until 8 a.m. the next day to leave town or I would be killed and the radio station would be destroyed,” Morales told CPJ. She immediately fled to Medellín, the departmental capital, under police escort. Morales told CPJ she believes she was targeted because she Agudelo’s is wife, and that since her husband had fled, the radio station has not reported on sensitive issues.

Morales, Agudelo and their two children are now living temporarily in Medellín and continue to administer the radio station by telephone. A government official told reporters  the journalists would receive protection, but the couple said the Interior Ministry has yet to provide security escorts. “I don’t know how long we will have to stay away, but without security we can’t return,” Agudelo told CPJ.

“Colombian authorities must investigate these threats and take all measures to protect Edilberto Agudelo, Dionisia Morales, and Jesús Antonio Pareja,” said CPJ’s Americas senior program coordinator, Carlos Lauría. “These cases illustrate the severe pressures that provincial journalists continue to endure in Colombia, and they reinforce the government’s duty to ensure that free expression does not become a casualty.”

CPJ’s annual survey, Attacks on the Press, found that threats against journalists in Colombia rose in 2011, forcing some journalists to relocate. In February this year, Colombian freelance journalist and activist Bladimir Sánchez Espitia fled his home state for the capital city after receiving death threats related to a video he posted on YouTube.