Protests in Catatumbo add to risk in Colombia

Reporting from Catatumbo, a region in northern Colombia dominated by guerrillas and drug traffickers, has always been challenging.  But working conditions for journalists have seriously deteriorated amid nearly two months of anti-government protests pitting thousands of angry peasant farmers against soldiers and riot police.

The farmers are upset about a government campaign to eradicate coca leaves, the raw material for cocaine that many of them grow. Their initial protests drew other farmers and peasant organizations angry about the lack of government assistance to the region, which is home to some of Colombia’s poorest municipalities. For the past six weeks, they have blocked roads, burned buildings and vehicles, and clashed with government forces.

“The violence is coming from all sides and the journalists are in the middle of it,” Wilfredo Cañizales, director of Fundación Progresar, a human rights group based in the nearby city of Cúcuta, told CPJ.

On July 16, Richard Gálvez, a camera operator for Bogotá’s RCN TV station who was covering protests in the town of Tibú, suffered wounds to the crotch when a shell from a homemade bazooka fired by protesters exploded near him, according to the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom, or FLIP. He was released from the hospital the next day.

As the conflict has become more violent, the Colombian government has moved from conciliatory statements to painting the demonstrations as illegal and as being infiltrated by Marxist guerrillas. On July 19, the Colombian Attorney General’s office charged 10 of the protesters with acts of terrorism and illegal possession of explosives.

Meanwhile, journalists for several outlets widely viewed as sympathetic to the protesters have complained of police harassment. On June 20, a reporter for Venezuela’s left-leaning Telesur TV station was roughed up by anti-riot police who tried to stop him from filming, FLIP reported.

People documenting the protests for political groups have also been targeted. The same day the Telesur journalist was assaulted, a team of reporters for Marcha Patriótica, a left-wing political organization, was briefly detained and photographed by police, according to FLIP. In another case, Olguer Pérez, a camera operator for the communications department of the Peasant Association of Catatumbo, a group that is taking part in the protests, told CPJ that police shot at him while he was filming a June 25 march in the town of Ocaña.

Pérez claims that the police are deliberately targeting journalists to keep them from reporting on the protests, which are turning into a major political liability for President Juan Manuel Santos. The blocked roads have cut off towns, like Tibú, where food and other supplies are now being airlifted in and where prices for many basic goods have tripled or quadrupled. At least four people have been killed and dozens wounded, according to news reports.

In a June 24 communiqué, FLIP called on the police to punish officers involved in harassing journalists. The foundation is planning to send a fact-finding mission to Catatumbo.

In a telephone interview with CPJ, Gen. Yesid Vásquez, chief of police for the region which includes Catatumbo, insisted that his units had not harassed or shot at any journalists. He claimed that many reporters in the alternative media support the protesters and said they were spreading false information.

“There are so many cameras around that if we really were harassing reporters, it would be caught on tape and there would be a huge scandal,” Vásquez said.

On July 10 the United Nations publicly criticized the Colombian police for its “excessive use of force” in Catatumbo. 

[Reporting from Bogotá]