Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez on his 87th birthday last year. The Nobel laureate played a vital role in protecting journalists but more needs to be done. (AFP/Yuri Cortez)
Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez on his 87th birthday last year. The Nobel laureate played a vital role in protecting journalists but more needs to be done. (AFP/Yuri Cortez)

Why García Márquez’s work to improve press protection in Colombia is still vital

To coincide with Colombia’s national day for journalists the Colombian organization Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) has published its annual report on press freedom conditions. The review of challenges faced by the media in 2014 comes as we remember the loss last year of one of the great defenders and promoters of Colombian journalism: author and journalist Gabriel García Márquez. Two moments from the Nobel laureate’s life are still significant when looking at the state of press freedom in Colombia today.

Demanding guarantees for protection of the press

On March 18, 1995 García Márquez brought together 24 journalists from the U.S., Peru and Colombia, as well as members of the Committee to Protect Journalists, to search for answers to the violence directed at Colombia’s journalists. The meeting, held in Cartagena, led to the creation of FLIP in 1996, which pushed the government to create a program in 2000 to protect journalists.

Since then things have changed. Violence against journalists has decreased–although outside of the big cities, in regions and municipalities where the presence of the state is weak, it still persists. In these outer regions, illegal armed groups and mafias that have permeated the institutional framework continue to intimidate journalists.

In 2014, FLIP recorded 164 cases of attacks and harassment of journalists in relation to their work. These cases were made up of 71 threats, 19 cases related to coverage of election issues, 36 physical attacks, and 43 obstructions to journalistic work.

The country’s National Protection Unit for journalists also suffered one of its biggest crises since it was founded, mainly because planning failures by the government led to budget deficits that have put all existing protection systems in Colombia at risk. Impunity is also still the norm. The justice system–whether because of laziness, disinterest or an excess of work–appears to have given up on being the actor for change the press freedom community has been demanding for so many years. From the judicial branch, there were advances in only two cases in 2014: the conviction of the mastermind in the 2005 murder of journalist Rafael Enrique Prins Velásquez and the convictions of state intelligence agents on charges of psychologically torturing journalist Claudia Julieta Duque during the Uribe administration.

Journalists under surveillance

In March 1981, a week after he left Colombia, García Márquez wrote in the Spanish daily El País of the reason for his self-imposed exile. “I knew the trap had been set and that my position of being a writer wouldn’t serve me at all because the forces of repression in Colombia have demonstrated that there are no untouchable values,” he wrote. García Márquez had been warned by sources that the Colombian intelligence services of that era, protected in the security statute of President Julio César Turbay, were watching him.

Surveillance of writers by state intelligence forces still exists today, even if the technology has changed.

Since taking office, President Juan Manuel Santos has sent messages of support to the press and began a process of collective reparation for journalists who were victims of Colombia’s long armed conflict, as part of the country’s ongoing peace negotiations with guerrilla groups. These positive gestures have occasionally ended in contradiction due to lamentable occurrences such as the wiretaps of journalists by the army in the 2014 operation known as “Andromeda.”

From a global perspective, Andromeda is part of the wider debate on government surveillance of Internet communications. Advances in technology have facilitated the dissemination of information but have also made those who generate it more vulnerable. Acts of espionage are now almost invisible to their victims, which means more oversight and control of state intelligence forces should be required.

The Andromeda case has echoes of the 2009 scandal in which news magazine Semana revealed that the Administrative Department of Security (DAS)–Colombia’s national intelligence service–was spying on critics of then-President Álvaro Uribe, including judges, politicians, human rights activists, and reporters. The Andromeda case shows that even though President Santos disbanded the DAS in 2011, the controls are still inadequate. So inadequate, in fact, that the president and senior government officials were also subject to illegal wiretapping.

At this time of increasing challenges for journalists in combating surveillance, impunity, and violence, Colombia should build on García Márquez’s legacy for protecting the press.