Colombian journalists flee homes after receiving threats

Bogotá, February 1, 2013–Authorities in Colombia should ensure the safety of two journalists who have fled the northern city of Montería after being threatened for their reporting on criminal groups, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

Amilkar Alvear, a reporter for the daily El Heraldo and its sister newspaper, Al Día, and Jairo Cassiani, a photographer for the same outlets, fled Montería on Monday after receiving a note at the El Heraldo offices that threatened them with death if they did not leave the city within 48 hours, according to news reports. The note was signed by individuals claiming to be members of the Urabeños, one of Colombia’s largest criminal organizations, the reports said. The Urabeños includes former paramilitaries who once fought Marxist guerrillas but are now dedicated to drug trafficking and other crimes.

The note, which included a picture of an automatic rifle at the top, said the two journalists were being threatened for their coverage of the Urabeños, according to CPJ’s review of the note. It arrived the day after a January 27 story in Al Día that announced the arrest of two alleged bodyguards for one of the top Urabeños leaders. Although Alvear and Cassiani did not work on that specific story, they covered police, crime, and the courts for the newspapers and often wrote about the arrests and trials of members of the Urabeños.

On Wednesday, two men claiming to be representatives of the Urabeños arrived at the offices of El Heraldo and denied that the Urabeños had sent the note. The men demanded that the outlets retract the allegations and threatened unspecified measures against them, according to the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom, or FLIP.

FLIP representative Jorge Roa told CPJ that Colombia’s Interior Ministry was investigating the threats to determine whether or not to provide protection for Alvear and Cassiani, who have relocated to another city.

“Fear and self-censorship are a constant among provincial journalists in Colombia, and because attacks are rarely investigated, journalists take these kinds of threats very seriously,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Colombian authorities must guarantee the safety of Alvear and Cassiani but also take action to ensure that those who use threats and violence to stifle information face the legal consequences.”

The rise of the Urabeños and other criminal groups has been extremely difficult for journalists to cover. The groups are extremely sensitive about being identified in local newspapers because they fear that publication of their photos and other information could allow them to be identified and targeted by members of rival groups, according to CPJ research.

At least three Colombian journalists were forced to flee their homes in 2012 after receiving threats related to their reporting, CPJ research shows. Since 2007, nine Colombian journalists have been forced to flee their homes, according to CPJ’s analysis. Only one has returned.

  • For more data and analysis on Colombia, visit CPJ’s Colombia page here.