Officials sentenced in Colombia for spying on journalists

Bogotá, May 1, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the sentencing on Thursday by the Colombian Supreme Court of two former senior government officials for their roles in an illegal surveillance program. The program, which occurred while former President Álvaro Uribe was in office, involved spying on some of the country’s most prominent journalists as well as judges, human rights activists, and opposition politicians, according to news reports.

“We are pleased that there is finally accountability for one of the worst institutional threats to press freedom in Colombia of the past decade,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. “Authorities must continue their investigations so that all those responsible are brought to justice and ensure that it never happens again.”

María del Pilar Hurtado, the former head in 2007 and 2008 of the government’s intelligence agency–the now-defunct Department of Administrative Security (DAS)–was sentenced to 14 years in prison following her conviction in February for unlawful violation of communications as well as falsification of public documents, criminal conspiracy, embezzlement by appropriation, abuse of authority, and other charges, according to news reports. Hurtado fled to Panama in 2010, but turned herself over to Panamanian authorities earlier this year after her political asylum was revoked. She was deported back to Colombia.

Bernardo Moreno, who was the chief of staff for former President Uribe, was sentenced to eight years of house arrest for his involvement in the spy program. The court called for a congressional committee to investigate the former president to determine the extent of his involvement.

As Uribe faced growing scrutiny in the news media, the DAS, from 2004 to 2009, intercepted the phone calls of local reporters, hacked their e-mails, and subjected them to surveillance and harassment. Details of the spying were first revealed in 2009 by the newsmagazine Semana, which was a victim of the surveillance program.

According to news reports, the court said that both Hurtado and Moreno acted with the consent of Uribe, who served two presidential terms from 2002-2010. Uribe denied any knowledge of the spying ring and tweeted Thursday that he was “saddened” by the conviction of honorable officials whose only crime was defending Colombia’s national security. Despite a series of scandals at the end of his presidency, Uribe remains widely influential and is now a senator.

“Spying on the press violates one of the central precepts of journalism: that reporters will be able to protect their sources, particularly in an environment as risky as Colombia, which historically has been one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the region,” said Geoffrey King, CPJ’s Internet advocacy coordinator, from New York. “The sentencing of Hurtado and Moreno sets an important precedent for leaders around the world who seek to snoop through journalists’ records with impunity.”

Those targeted by the DAS included Semana Director Alejandro Santos; Semana columnist Daniel Coronell; Julio Sánchez Cristo, director of national W Radio; Darío Arizmendi, director of national Caracol Radio; Ramiro Bejarano, a columnist for the daily El Espectador; Hollman Morris, journalist and producer of the weekly news show “Contravía” on Canal Uno; and Félix de Bedout of W Radio. At least 17 former DAS officials, out of 68 identified as responsible in the illegal espionage scheme, have been sentenced to jail terms, according to news reports.