The front page of the January 11, 2020, issue of Semana, pictured, alleged a widespread military campaign of espionage against the magazine. (Photo by CPJ)
The front page of the January 11, 2020, issue of Semana, pictured, alleged a widespread military campaign of espionage against the magazine. (Photo by CPJ)

Colombian magazine Semana alleges military spied on its journalists

Bogotá, January 13, 2020 – Colombian authorities must undertake an in-depth and transparent investigation into allegations that the military illegally spied on journalists, and ensure those responsible are brought to justice, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On January 11, the Colombian newsweekly Semana published a report entitled “Wiretaps without quarter: The prosecution of Semana,” which claimed that the country’s military had, without obtaining legal warrants, surveilled the publication’s journalists and their sources throughout 2019 in retaliation for the magazine’s investigations into alleged wrongdoing by military officers.

The piece, based on confidential documents obtained by Semana and interviews with military sources, alleges that army intelligence and counterintelligence agents illegally monitored the Bogotá offices of Semana, including by parking a car near the office equipped with devices to intercept phone calls and text messages. It also alleges that agents followed journalists, including editor-in-chief Alejandro Santos, while they conducted interviews.

The piece quotes an anonymous source who claimed to have been offered more than $15,000 by an army colonel to introduce malware into the computers of Semana journalists, and also describes an instance of an army officer mailing a tombstone to a Semana reporter as a threat.

“As if journalists in Colombia did not already face enough danger from other armed actors, it is clear that the military poses a serious threat to reporters and their sources,” CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick said from New York. “Colombian authorities must thoroughly investigate the army’s alleged illegal spying operation and ensure that its architects face justice.”

In another report published on January 11, citing military sources and leaked documents, Semana alleged that the surveillance was part of a broad program that monitored journalists, politicians, and Supreme Court magistrates, with the goal of protecting army officers from judicial and media investigations into alleged homicides, spying, corruption, and other illegal acts.

President Iván Duque said he had ordered an investigation into the allegations, saying there was “zero tolerance” for illegal behavior, and suggesting that a few “bad apples” in the military were responsible, according to news reports.

CPJ emailed the Colombian Defense Ministry for comment but did not receive a response. In a statement released on January 11, the ministry said it had called for an immediate investigation and would fully cooperate.

According to the Semana report, growing concerns within the government about the spying prompted Duque to replace army commander Nicasio Martínez on December 27; at the time, the commander said he was resigning for personal reasons.

In 2009, Semana published a report revealing that the Department of Administrative Security, Colombia’s domestic investigative agency, which has since been dissolved, was spying on politicians, human rights workers, judges, and reporters.