Álvaro Uribe speaks at a 2011 congressional hearing about his alleged responsibility in the wiretapping of political opponents and journalists. (AP/William Fernando Martinez)
Álvaro Uribe speaks at a 2011 congressional hearing about his alleged responsibility in the wiretapping of political opponents and journalists. (AP/William Fernando Martinez)

Uribe’s angry tweets do more than antagonize

More than a year after he left office, Álvaro Uribe Vélez confessed that “it was not in him” to live as a former president. And in fact, having dominated Colombian politics for eight years, it has been impossible for Uribe to fade from the public eye since leaving office in August 2010. Instead of retiring to his ranch in Antioquia, he has lived in a heavily protected compound in the capital, Bogotá, with his wife and two sons. He spends his time traveling abroad for speaking engagements, has been a scholar at Georgetown University, and more recently announced the creation of a new political platform to oppose current President Juan Manuel Santos.  

One of the ex-president’s favorite hobbies is to aggressively defend his legacy, engaging in verbal tirades against his political adversaries and critics in the media. He has channeled his fighting spirit largely through Twitter. Each week, Uribe devotes hours to belligerent tweets, mostly aimed at the government of Santos, his former ally and ex-Minister of Defense, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and critical journalists.

According to one news account, Uribe, who has defined himself as a “street fighter,” is a compulsive Twitter user who sends an average 400 tweets a month.  The former president opened his Twitter account (@AlvaroUribeVel) on May 6, 2010, a week after Chávez inaugurated his own (@ChavezCandaga). With more than 1 million followers, Uribe trails his Venezuelan nemesis by more than 1.5 million followers on the popular social networking site.    

Uribe’s antagonistic Twitter blasts to discredit press reports have become common practice. In August 2011, after the publication of two stories in the Washington Post that alleged Uribe may have been involved in illegal actions using Colombia’s national intelligence service with the help of the U.S., the ex-president accused Juan Forero, the paper’s Andean region correspondent, and Colombian reporter Claudia Julieta Duque of being terrorist sympathizers and accomplices of leftist guerrillas. CPJ expressed concern, saying Uribe must abstain from making unfounded comments because in the context of Colombia, it could endanger both journalists.  

More recently, Uribe’s target was French correspondent Roméo Langlois. After being held hostage by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) for more than a month, Langlois was released on May 30. Rather than cheer his release, the ex-president questioned the nature of Langlois’ relationship with the FARC, according to press reports, and even accused Langlois of being a promoter of the guerrilla group. Langlois dismissed the former president’s comments as being “a farce” and “in bad taste,” the news reports said.     

Uribe had an extremely contentious relationship with his critics in the press during his two consecutive terms as Colombia’s president, from 2002 to 2010. The thin-skinned Uribe used an array of verbal attacks against journalists who criticized his government’s policies, CPJ research shows. His accusations endangered the lives of local reporters, including prominent journalists Daniel Coronell, Gonzalo Guillén, and Hollman Morris. In October 2007, CPJ sent Uribe a letter urging him to retract comments made about Coronell and Guillén.  

I am familiar with Uribe’s temper, having met him twice on CPJ missions to Colombia. Before his re-election in 2006, myself and CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon met him and Vice-President Francisco Santos at his campaign headquarters in Bogotá. Uribe seemed disappointed that CPJ board member Andrés Oppenheimer had canceled at the last minute, but it wasn’t a particularly contentious meeting. We were able to emphasize our concern about the high level of self-censorship among journalists working in areas with a heavy presence of illegal armed actors.      

In early 2010,  I was part of a joint delegation with Bogotá-based press freedom group Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), including CPJ board member María Teresa Ronderos, former CPJ awardee Ignacio Gomez, president of FLIP, and FLIP Executive Director Andres Morales. Our purpose was to discuss the unlawful spying on journalists carried out by the national intelligence agency–which operated under Uribe’s supervision. This was, at times, a tense meeting. With his administration under pressure to pursue those responsible for the scandal, Uribe was on the defensive and responded sometimes irately when confronted with sharp questions. At the urging of our delegation, Uribe finally stated that “those who restrict the freedom of a journalist and illegally spy on the press are enemies of my government.” The inquiry into the scandal has showed slow progress, with cases pending against more than a dozen defendants, CPJ research shows.  

A former Uribe adviser recently said the ex-president’s hyperactivity in Twitter is due to his desire to keep in touch with people, according to news accounts. As any citizen, the former president has the right to express himself freely. But Uribe is still a public figure with high popularity among Colombians. As such, he should recognize that making speculative and unjustified accusations against journalists who criticize him is absolutely inappropriate. By doing so, Uribe contributes to perpetuate a climate of fear and intimidation in a country where journalists are still under serious threat of violence.