In Colombia, disguises heighten press risk

By Lauren Wolfe/Deputy Editor on July 30, 2008 9:54 AM ET

A couple of weeks ago, the Colombian government admitted that during a daring hostage rescue mission--code-named Operation Check--one of its soldiers had disguised himself as a member of the Red Cross. Then last week, Juan Manuel Santos, Colombia's defense minister, divulged that two of the soldiers had taken on the mantle of journalists. One posed as a cameraman, the other as a reporter. Both purported to be from an actual Caracas-based regional network called Telesur. They had gone so far as to take acting lessons in preparation.

Santos told a July 23 press conference in Washington that the use of the Telesur logo in the July 2 rescue of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 other hostages was "an insignificant detail given the magnitude" of the operation. CPJ disagrees. While we recognize that such missions require stealth and perhaps unconventional tactics, posing as a journalist in this kind of situation is far from insignificant. As outlined in a letter to Santos yesterday, here's why:

The impersonation of journalists increases the risks for all journalists, particularly for provincial reporters who cover the five-decade-old civil conflict in regions controlled by illegal armed groups. In rural areas, journalists are frequently threatened by guerrillas and paramilitaries and pressured by military and civilian authorities, CPJ research shows.

It affects the media's position as an independent body, especially those journalists working in conflict zones who rely on their civilian status, as established by the Geneva Conventions.

By posing as journalists, security forces undermine the role of the free press and bring mistrust to the profession, ultimately damaging the public good.

Impersonating journalists or human rights workers in Colombia endangers their colleagues on dangerous assignments around the world. "It increases the risks, especially at a time when reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan are being kidnapped and accused of being spies," said Joel Simon, CPJ's executive director. "These tactics should only be used as an absolute last resort, as they endanger all journalists, particularly those working in conflict zones who rely on status as neutral observers to keep them safe."


2 comments

Senor Simon,
My wife is Colombiana. You and I know full well that the FARC ar not REVOLUTIONARIES, they are a terrorist drug organization. Maybe in the beginning, with support from Fidel Castro and his “Russian financiers, they could be characterized as such.
I, an American, I believe that if the legitimately elected government of Colombia wants to impersonate the Pope, or even that “CLOWN” Dictator in Venezuela to bring FARC to a miserable demise, they have my blessings and 80% of the rest of the intelligent free world. Revolutionaries don’t take hostages for ransom. Revolutionaries don’t bomb and kill innocent civilians to control a town. True Revolutionaries have the support of the majority of the people.
I feel for Reporters and their plight, however, they are human beings and should first and foremost support their duly elected officials. Countries are best changed through “Legal Elections”, not kidnapping, force and drug smuggling.

Lefty

The problem is, Lefty, that legitimate authorities should be held accountable for their actions and thus should not impersonate groups or individuals who they can then easily blame for their mistakes. Additionally, how would you feel if a soldier enters your house for a search because you are a suspected FARC supporter, under the pretext of being a journalist reporting on something? Journalists are the ones reporting on what is happening on both sides of the Colombian conflict. If anyone involved in the conflict impersonates a journalist in order to gain access/information, how are you ever going to know the truth? Who is going to report on it? This impersonating is beyond irresponsible. It puts in grave danger the people who inform both sides on what is truly going on and makes the reality -beyond propaganda- clear to the general population.

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