Country Summary

A Colombian journalist was assassinated, and others braved death threats, physical attack, bombings and kidnapping at the hands of a broad range of players--drug barons, the military, paramilitary groups and guerrilla terrorists--all intent on silencing them.

Moreover, in a continuing pattern of remarkable intolerance, Colombian government officials, including legislators, the judiciary and the president of the republic, maintained a hostile posture toward the press because of its hard-hitting reporting on official corruption and government links to drug trafficking.

The most controversial story of the year revolved around charges by a former cabinet minister that President Ernesto Samper knowingly accepted drug money to help financial his presidential campaign. In a bold gesture that illustrates the Colombian press’s increasingly independent stance, several journalists called upon Samper to resign. It was the first time the Colombian press has openly challenged the legitimacy of a democratically elected head of state.

In a move that is widely interpreted as a punitive action against the press for its criticism of Samper and other reports of official corruption, the Congress in December passed a bill that would allow the government to revoke a television station’s license if it finds that the programming does not conform to a standard of “objectivity, impartiality or balance.”

Drug-mafia violence against the press has been steadily decreasing, reflecting a national decline in drug-related violence. But a series of death threats against several reporters early in the year by members of the notorious Cali drug Cartel sparked concern that the drop could be an aberration.

El Espectatador, the nation’s oldest daily newspaper, continues to grapple with serious financial problems that date, in part, to the 1989 bombing of the newspaper by the Medellin cocaine cartel. The bombing, ordered by the late cartel leader Pablo Escobar, caused extensive damage and was intended to cripple the newspaper’s main production facility. In 1986, Escobar was behind the assassination of Guillermo Cano Isaza, editor of El Espectador.

On the positive side of the ledger, the Colombian press has been taking significant steps toward monitoring press freedom and professionalizing journalists. With the support of CPJ, several prominent journalists in February formed the Foundation for the Freedom of the Press in Bogotá. The Foundation for New Journalism, an educational group headed by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garc’a Márquez, organized a series of journalism training workshops for young professionals.

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