Fabricated attacks by Colombian journalists mask real dangers

Although Colombian journalists are frequently threatened by Marxist guerrillas, criminal gangs, and corrupt politicians trying to silence them, two recent cases that created widespread concern–including alerts from CPJ–were fabricated by the very reporters who claimed to have been targeted.

Such rare fabrications are unfortunate because they can distract from the very real threats facing journalists in a dangerous country like Colombia. At least 46 journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work in the country since 1992, according to CPJ research, and many more have been killed in less clear circumstances. While the violence has subsided somewhat in recent years, impunity in the murders of journalists is entrenched, and threats and violence to Colombian journalists persist.

On September 30, 2014, CPJ issued an alert that the drug trafficking group Los Urabeños had threatened via an e-mail pamphlet to kill eight journalists covering criminal justice issues unless they fled the cities of Buenaventura and Cali in southwestern Valle del Cauca state. The alert was based on interviews with reporters who received the threats, information provided by the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), as well as reports published in the Colombian news media. The threat prompted several reporters to leave the two cities.

But last month one of those reporters, Yesid Toro Meléndez, admitted that he was the author of the pamphlet. In a letter published April 25 in the Colombian media, Toro wrote that he was “deeply ashamed” and apologized to the seven colleagues he had threatened as well as to his former employers, the Cali-based newspapers Q´Hubo and El País, and to the city of Cali.

The second fabrication involved Colombian news photographer Johanny Vargas Yandapiz, who claimed to have been kidnapped for about 36 hours in the southern city of Popayán before escaping from his captors. CPJ and other press freedom groups denounced the kidnapping. The CPJ alert was published after interviewing Vargas, other reporters, and the Popayán police chief. But soon afterwards Vargas admitted that he had invented the whole story.

“These are deplorable acts,” FLIP director Pedro Vaca told CPJ. “They create widespread anxiety among the media and may cause people to question the credibility of journalists.”

Still, Vaca said such fabrications are unusual. Since he became director of FLIP in 2013, Vaca said, the organization has dealt with about 75 threats against Colombian journalists and four of them, including the Toro and Vargas cases, have turned out to be false. He said FLIP determined that the other two cases lacked merit almost immediately and therefore did not publicize them.

“We operate on the basis that journalists are telling the truth,” Vaca told CPJ. “The dangers that Colombian journalists face are real.”

Indeed, in 2013, Toro received genuine threats after publishing a novel about Cali gangsters, according to FLIP. Some of the people he interviewed while researching the book later demanded money for having provided him with information and threatened Toro when he refused to pay them, according to FLIP. Toro briefly fled Cali and later received assistance from the Colombian government’s National Protection Unit.

This agency was founded in 2011 to guard people under threat, including union leaders, human rights activists, politicians, and journalists. It escorts around 7,500 at-risk people at a total cost of $600,000 per day, according to a report by AFP.

That assistance included direct cash subsidies for a rental car so Toro could safely move about Cali, and the journalist had come to depend on these payments, which amounted to about $400 a month, Vaca told CPJ. But according to news reports, the National Protection Unit had fallen five months behind in making these payments. In addition, the reports said Toro had resigned from his newspaper jobs to focus on writing his next book and that his debts were mounting.

Fearing that the government was about to remove his protection and end the payments, Toro concocted the threatening e-mail that he sent to himself as well as to the journalists Gildardo Arango, Álvaro Miguel Mina, Henry Ramírez, Cristian Abadía, Darío Gómez, Óscar Gutiérrez, and Julio César Bonilla, he admitted in his letter last month.

“I stupidly thought that I could extend the protection and speed up delivery of the five months of payments owed to me,” Toro wrote in the letter.

He did not respond to CPJ’s request for comment.

Toro’s colleagues were flabbergasted and disgusted. Abadía told CPJ that he had immediately left Buenaventura for Bogotá, where he now works as a freelancer. He said his family back in Buenaventura was worried for his life and had urged him to flee Colombia. Mina, a radio reporter, told the news magazine Semana that the threats prompted him to leave Colombia for a month. “I am very sad to learn that the intimidation that caused so much fear among our families came from within our own ranks,” Arango, who directs a news program for the Cali TV station Telepacífico, told reporters.

The Colombian Attorney General’s office announced that it would investigate Toro for “false accusations.” Diego Fernando Mora, who heads the National Protection Unit that assisted the journalist, issued a statement saying his office was also filing a lawsuit against Toro, noting that more than 114 million pesos (about US$50,000) had been spent to protect the reporters who had received the false threat.

Vaca, the FLIP director, told CPJ that the episode also reflects badly on the National Protection Unit. He said the Unit should not make cash payments to journalists because they may prompt poorly paid reporters into exaggerating the threats they face in order to keep the money flowing. Mora did not reply to CPJ’s request for comment.

In the case of the false kidnapping, Vargas, a photographer for the daily Diario del Cauca, had told CPJ in January that he was driving his motorcycle to his home in Popayán when two armed men forced him into a car, and took him to a wood hut on the outskirts of the city. His disappearance alarmed his editors and a large number of government security agents were mobilized in an effort to find him, according to the Bogota daily El Tiempo.

Vargas initially claimed that he managed to pry loose a board from the wall of the hut where he was being held, allowing him to escape. But Colonel Pedro Rodelo, chief of the Popayán police, told CPJ in January that Vargas emerged in good condition and showed no signs of physical mistreatment, which he found a bit odd given the journalist’s account of his kidnapping. But when asked by CPJ, Rodelo denied that he was casting doubts on Vargas’s account of the kidnapping.

A few days later, however, Vargas issued a statement admitting that he had invented the whole story as a result of “personal circumstances” that he did not explain. “I apologize to my family, friends, and colleagues in the media,” he said. Shortly afterwards, Vargas resigned from Diario del Cauca, the paper’s editor, Carlos Villamil, told CPJ.

On Wednesday, Vargas told CPJ he had been going through a rough patch but did not offer detail about his motives. “In truth, I lost my family–my wife and son–over this incident. I was going through a period of depression and marriage problems. That’s how everything began,” he said.

Villamil described Vargas as an experienced and trusted member of his news staff but said he was under a lot of stress at the time of the incident because he was separating from his wife. He added that one reason why Vargas’s account seemed plausible is because in January 2014, the photographer had received genuine death threats after producing a documentary and publishing photos in Diario del Cauca about local resistance to a housing project being built on environmentally sensitive wetlands. Villamil said that once the Popayán police had concluded that Vargas’s story was false, they urged the photographer to come clean.