Claims police spied on two journalists revive surveillance fears of Colombia's press

By Alexandra Ellerbeck/CPJ Americas Research Associate on February 5, 2016 5:08 PM ET

When Claudia Morales's six-year-old daughter asks about her mother's bodyguards, the Colombian journalist tells her they are colleagues. "She's too young to understand," Morales, who works for the Bogotá-based Caracol Radio in the city of Armenia, told CPJ in a telephone interview. Vicky Dávila, the news director of LA Fm Radio who also has private security, said that her 14-year-old son is afraid and has asked why they don't leave their home in Bogotá.

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The journalists' safety concerns were brought home late last year, when a flurry of emails sent from an anonymous account between November 29 and December 2 claimed that Morales and Dávila were under surveillance by members of the Colombian National Police. "They have photos of you, your husband, and your children," one of the emails, sent to Dávila on December 1, claimed. Other emails warned the journalist, "Be very careful," and claimed those spying on her had links to drug traffickers and hit men.

The allegations of surveillance have revived memories of a series of scandals that have shaken the country in the past decade. Since 2009, Colombian journalists who were victims of surveillance, have taken steps to prevent their phones from being intercepted or their emails being hacked. Surveillance and illegal spying have become a serious threat to press freedom and confidential sources have been endangered as a result, CPJ has found.

In the weeks before Dávila and Morales, who is also a columnist for El Espectador, began receiving the anonymous emails, they had been covering a series of critical stories about allegations of sexual harassment, corruption, and prostitution in the police force.

On December 3, the Attorney General's office in Colombia opened a criminal investigation into allegations that the journalists had been spied on, according to news reports. Among the evidence being analyzed are more than 90 emails sent to Dávila, which provide details of her and Morales' personal lives. The anonymous sender of the emails, who claimed to work for the police, alleged that the intelligence agency has a special room for intercepting emails and phone calls.

Both Dávila and Morales told CPJ there was no way the personal messages and meetings with sources that were cited in the messages could be obtained without surveillance of some sort. Morales said some of the information about her came from at least eight years ago. The emails, which have been viewed by CPJ, implied that several other journalists were allegedly under surveillance by the police, including Daniel Coronell, the executive vice-president and executive director of news at Univisión.

Omar Alberto Jaimes, a communications director for the Attorney General's Office, told CPJ that he was taking the claims seriously, adding that the emails showed "something happened." He said that the lead prosecutor in the case, Daniel Ricardo Hernández, has been placed under government protection after receiving death threats in phone calls to his office and home.

The anonymous emails accused police at the highest levels, including Captain Wilson Carvajal and the director of the national police, General Rodolfo Palomino, of being involved in the surveillance of the journalists. In a statement on December 14, Palomino said that he would never give orders to intercept a journalist.

The police are also conducting an internal investigation. On December 22, El Espectador published a press release from the General Inspector of the Police that said Carvajal had passed a polygraph test. The General Inspector said police were pursuing a line of investigation related to an unnamed former police official who was fired for misconduct and who, police claim, had links to some of the information sent to the journalists. The police said they had identified a series of false social media profiles used to defame the institution, according to the statement.

Attempts by CPJ to seek public comment from the police were not successful.

President Juan Manuel Santos has tried to distance himself from the surveillance abuses that happened under previous administrations. During a graduation ceremony of police lieutenants on December 7, the president was reported as saying, "In this government we do not wiretap or illegally pursue citizens, journalists, or critics." On December 9 he created a special commission to investigate allegations of police abuse, including illegal spying, although Dávila, Morales, and Coronell told CPJ they did not believe the commission had the capacity to sufficiently investigate or punish any wrongdoing. The Minister of the Presidency, María Lorena Gutiérrez, who is a coordinator for the commission investigating the police, did not immediately respond to CPJ's request for comment.

CPJ has documented numerous illegal wiretap cases against journalists in Colombia under the administration of former president Álvaro Uribe. In 2009, CPJ reported on a massive spying campaign by the Administrative Department of Security (DAS), the country's national intelligence service. Over 600 people were targeted for illegal surveillance in that case, including journalists, judges, opposition politicians, and government officials, according to reports. In the wake of the revelations, President Santos, who first took office in August 2010, signed a decree to disband the DAS in 2011. Last May, CPJ hailed the sentencing of two former senior government officials for their roles in that surveillance program.

However, the recent allegations of spying against Dávila and Morales, coupled with other prominent surveillance scandals in the past two years, suggests journalists are still targets for the nation's complex network of intelligence agencies.

In February 2014 for instance, the newsweekly Semana revealed the military had set up an Internet café under the codename Andrómeda, which was used to allegedly wiretap and hack the communications of government and FARC representatives, as well as journalists. In October 2014, the magazine alleged that the Center of Military Intelligence maintained a detailed list of the email addresses of public figures and prominent national and international journalists, most of whom were covering the peace process. The purpose for the list, which included email addresses for Dávila and Morales, remains unclear, according to press reports.

The investigation into the current allegations of spying is ongoing, but the history of surveillance and concerns about new technologies have added to an environment of unease and had a direct impact on the way journalism is practiced in Colombia.

Coronell, who was a victim of the DAS surveillance, told CPJ that he rarely makes phone calls to sensitive sources in Colombia for fear of surveillance. "It's limited my work, made it slower and harder. I often have to meet sources from Colombia in another country," he said. "Over the past 10 years, especially during Uribe's administration but still now, I feel like I'm living in a spy movie from the Cold War."


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