After a mission of inquiry to the country from 22 to 30 October 2001, RSF and the Peruvian organisation IPYS, member of the RSF Network, published a report on the violations of press freedom committed by the Colombian armed groups.
Régis Bourgeat, Reporters sans frontières,
& Iván García, Instituto Prensa y Sociedad
Colombia - 22 to 30 October 2001
The new declared enemies of press freedom
The peace process embarked on by the government with the guerilla of the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces (FARC, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) has been accompanied by a radicalisation of the attitudes of the armed groups towards the media: first the paramilitaries, who wanted to be invited to the negotiation table, then the guerrillas, who accused the media of sabotaging the peace process through its coverage of the negotiations.
Although the armed groups have always attacked the media, the situation has worsened. After the drug traffickers in the 1980s and ’90S, they seem to be the new declared enemies of the media. The war between the paramilitaries of the United Self-defence of Colombia (AUC, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) and the guerrillas of the FARC and the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, the National Liberation Army) is also an information war. "I cannot let journalists become a weapon at the service of one of the actors in the conflict", explained AUC leader Carlos Castaño to justify the murders of journalists. Although this armed group is currently the most dangerous for journalists, the groups of Manuel Marulanda, leader of the FARC, and Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista, military commander of the ELN, have also indicated that journalists are "military targets".
The examples of Nariño and Caqueta provinces show that in the areas in which these groups are fighting for control, or already have control, independent media are virtually non-existent. This situation is particularly tragic since drug traffickers, politicians, corrupt officials and members of the security forces hostile to the media all still attack journalists. Casualties are high: about 40 journalists have been killed in the past ten years, about 50 detained since 1999 and about 30 forced into exile.
A Reporters Without Borders (RSF – Reporters sans frontières) delegation and the Press and Society Institute (IPYS – Instituto Prensa y Sociedad) , two organisations which belong to the RSF Network , visited Colombia from 22 to 30 October to investigate journalists’ working conditions and the impunity enjoyed by the murderers of media professionals. This delegation met about 30 journalists, media owners or directors, and press freedom activists. It also met representatives of the government to discuss initiatives taken by the authorities, as well as President Andrés Pastrana to inform him of its comments.
"Be very careful about what you write because we read what you publish"
In a communiqué published on 9 November 2001, the paramilitary group AUC in Nariño province accused Germán Arcos, cameraman with Caracol Televisión, Oscar Torres, editor-in-chief of the daily Diario del Sur, Cristina Castro, correspondent for the tv station RCN, and Alfonso Pardo, former correspondent for the communist weekly Voz and peace adviser, of covering the conflict in "a dishonest way". The armed group gave the four journalists 48 hours to stop working or run the risk of being "judged". Three weeks earlier, guerrillas of the Marxist group FARC had accused the daily El Tiempo and the groups RCN and Caracol of being "enemies of the peace process" because they criticised the attitude of the armed group without discussing underlying problems in the country.
Suspected of supporting "the other camp", journalists are constantly caught in the crossfire between armed groups, none of which has renounced its power to sow terror. Apart from the AUC and FARC, in March 1999 the guerrilla of the ELN, the country’s third largest armed group (5,000 men), stated that "journalists and media that served as a channel for spreading the policies" of paramilitary groups were a "permanent military targets". These targets included editorial staff, against whom seven bombings or attempted bomb attacks have been recorded since 1995. Two occurred in 2001: one attempt, for which the AUC claimed responsibility, was aimed at the Communist Party organ; another, thought to be by the ELN, destroyed the premises of Radio Caracol in Medellín.
The testimonies gathered by IPYS and RSF show the intolerance of armed groups as regards information published. "Be careful about what you write because we read what you publish" a correspondent of one of the dailies was warned. Since 1 January 2001, 20 journalists have been declared to be "military targets" or accused of "supporting the guerrillas". Confusion is sometimes such that journalists do not know who is threatening them. Armed groups sometimes deny having issued a communiqué even though it bears the emblem of their local front. On 29 May 2001, five journalists from Cali were listed as "military targets" in a communiqué signed by the "Farallones Front", a local group of the AUC. "After verification, we established that in Valle province, there are media and journalists at the service of the guerrillas", the communiqué stated. Authenticity of the document was denied by the leaders of the armed group contacted by the managing editors of the media concerned.
Conflict that exists even in editorial offices
In a context that is as complex as it is hostile, journalists often opt for self-censorship. Without a strong organisation to defend press freedom and solidarity in the profession, they feel particularly vulnerable. The media rarely defend colleagues or monitor inquiries on murders of journalists. As one newspaper director commented, "the conflict has gone as far as editorial offices". For example, some reporters covering the peace process with the guerrillas are, with doubtful humour, called "spokespersons of the guerrillas" by colleagues who have ties with military sources. This lack of mobilisation can only encourage those responsible for the violence. At present, only the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP – Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa) is exclusively devoted to defending press freedom. But most of its efforts go into a programme to protect journalists, the effectiveness of which depends on discretion. As a result, very few people know about the FLIP today. This Colombian press freedom association has nevertheless told RSF and IPYS representatives that it plans on stepping up its public denunciation of attacks on the press. Maria Teresa Ronderos, FLIP president, affirmed that their priority is "that those who threaten should know that it will cost them dearly".
According to the association Medios para la Paz, which proposes training seminars, it is also journalists’ practices and habits that put their lives in danger. Some of them fail to adhere to the simplest code of ethics in their relations with their sources, going so far as to spend their holidays with members of an armed group. "That is why the philosophy of Medios para la Paz is to consider professionalism as the first safety precaution", explained Gloria Moreno, director of the organisation. She pointed out the responsibility of editorial staff who, eager to get a scoop, would make their reporters take ill-considered risks. She also cited the example of a correspondent of a TV news programme in Barrancabermeja who, after being dismissed, was offered a job again if she was the first person to find a trace of an aeroplane hijacked by the ELN. The journalist managed to do so, but after crossing through two towns in which the army and guerrilla were fighting. Although it is founded, criticism of the lack of professionalism among journalists or the irresponsible behaviour of certain media managers should not make us forget that the use of violence against the media is unjustifiable and unacceptable, especially since such self-criticism is more than likely to discourage the profession from taking action to protect and defend its members.
Paramilitaries: the main threat to press freedom
Since 1999, 27 journalists have taken these threats seriously enough to opt for exile. Half of them attribute the threats to paramilitaries. "The Self-defence paramilitaries carry out their threats more easily", explained a press reporter. Of the 14 cases of journalists murdered for professional reasons since 1999, eight can be imputed to this armed group. One of the most well-known cases of exile is Ignacio Gómez. Between February and May 2000, this El Espectador journalist received no less than 56 threatening letters. In an article he revealed that a massacre of 49 peasants was committed by paramilitaries with the support of members of the army. After escaping kidnapping in the streets of Bogotá on 24 May, he took refuge in the USA on 1 June 2000. He returned to his country a year later. Three other media professionals have also returned and others regularly travel between their host country and Colombia. Unlike dictatorships which persecute opponents and can force them into exile for many years, the situation in Colombia does not prevent journalists from going back to their country occasionally for the threat doesn’t come from the government.
Many media professionals interviewed by RSF and IPYS agree that AUC violence has become the main obstacle to press freedom. In the past two years Carlos Castaño, a good communicator, has multiplied interviews with the national and international press. He is thus trying to convince public opinion that the massacres perpetrated by his men are justified by their objective: defending the middle classes against the guerrillas. In an interview with the French daily Le Monde in the spring of 2001, he readily admitted that the AUC had executed "two local journalists who were, in fact, guerrillas". "I cannot let journalists become a weapon at the service of one of the actors in the conflict" he explained. A few days after publication of the article, a 250kg TNT bomb, placed outside the premises of the Bogota communist weekly Voz, was neutralised by the police. Shortly afterwards Carlos Castaño claimed responsibility for the bomb.
In their relations with the media the guerrillas make no efforts to be as convincing. The only answer given by a second-in-command to questions by media correspondents sent to Putumayo to interview him in the presence of his armed group, was an official communiqué by his movement which he suggested the journalists copy. Locked in their own rhetoric, the guerrillas are wary of media owners "in the service of huge monopolies" and accuse the media of being "the main cause of Colombia’s problems". A communiqué dated 18 October, in which the FARC accuse El Tiempo and the groups RCN and Caracol of being "enemies of the peace process", also attests to this armed group’s impression of being ill-treated by the media. In February 2001 Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista, ELN leader, justified kidnappings of journalists by the discrimination of which he says his group is a victim in the media. Several observers questioned by the IPYS and RSF report that the national press does indeed more readily denounce violent acts committed by the guerrillas than by paramilitary groups. Although the FARC’s and ELN’s record as regards repression of press freedom is not as bad as that of the paramilitaries, it speaks for itself: three journalists killed since 1999 and six others threatened and thus forced into exile. In total, the FARC and ELN have kidnapped, sometimes for only a few hours, 56 journalists since 1998, most often for the purpose of forcing them to put out a press communiqué or to denounce violent acts by the army or paramilitaries. In the case of Henry Romero, kidnapped by the ELN in October 1999, the armed group wanted to judge this Reuters photographer for publishing photos on which guerrillas appeared unmasked. He was released after a week.
Journalists covering the conflict report that the security forces are sometimes just as intolerant as the armed groups towards the press. "And that one? Is he with us or with the others?", asked an officer, referring to a journalist. The organisation Human Rights Watch has several times accused certain brigades of the army of collusion with paramilitary groups. Carlos Pulgarín, correspondent for El Tiempo in Monteria, was accused by a colonel of being a "guerrilla spokesperson" before being assaulted by presumed members of the AUC. The journalist had published news about losses suffered by that armed group during clashes. Apart from the army, the police and prison guards are also sometimes implicated. On 25 May 2000 Jineth Bedoya of El Espectador was kidnapped at the entrance of a Modelo prison in Bogota, right in front of the guards. A year and a half later, conclusions of the inquiry carried out by the National Prisons Institute (INPEC – Instituto nacional Penitenciario y Carcelario) have still not been made known. The journalist was released about ten hours later, after being hit, drugged and raped. A few days earlier she had published an article on murders committed in the prison by detainees belonging to the AUC.
Particularly dangerous regions
Attacks against El Espectador journalists in 2000 and recent bombings of Voz and Radio Caracol show that violence by armed groups does not spare the media in cities.
Yet the situation in the provinces is certainly even more difficult, for three main reasons. Above all, journalists working for small media are more isolated. Second, armed groups have a much stronger presence and some regions are completely under their control. This is the case of the town Montería, in the north-western province Córdoba, an AUC stronghold, or the demilitarised zone granted to the FARC, in the southern province Caqueta. Lastly, armed groups are fighting for control of many regions such as Nariño in the south-west, César in the north-east, Magdalena in the north, Putumayo in the south, North-Santander in the north-east, and Arauca in the east.
Two regions have sadly been distinguished in recent months for multiple attacks on press freedom: Nariño, on the border with Ecuador, and Caqueta. In the latter province the demilitarised zone around the provincial capital Florencia is a case apart that will be addressed in the section dedicated to impunity.
Situated on the border with Ecuador, Nariño with its large Pacific coastline is strategically situated for drugs and arms trafficking. Paramilitary and guerrilla groups and drug traffickers are all fighting for control of this province and, in particular, its harbour Tumaco. In September 2000 the paramilitaries arrived in the harbour town which they then undertook to "clean up". An article in El Espectador reported that after murdering delinquents and beggars, the paramilitaries turned on labour leaders and independent voices. Carlos Lozano, director of the weekly Voz and member of the Communist Party, revealed that left-wing leaders in the region had received threats. A number of them left the region in early 2001. On 27 April Flavio Bedoya, Voz correspondent in Tumaco, was killed after publishing an article denouncing violent acts by this armed group. He had also received threats. He had also been working for a local publication El Faro, in which he denounced corruption. The manager of this publication was also forced to leave the region. A radio programme "La Caja de Pandora", known for its independent tone, was taken off the air. In eight months 39 political murders have been committed in the town.
The Navy, present in the region, is accused of covering up this violence. Journalists who try to carry out investigations are threatened. A member of the military films new arrivals at the airport as they arrive. The press in Pasto, the provincial capital, has not been spared. On 19 April two grenades thrown at the premises of the weekly El Otro destroyed part of its equipment. The director of the publication, Ricardo Romero, said that neither he nor journalists at the weekly had received threats. He considers, however, that the attack is related to denunciations published in the weekly. Shortly afterwards, Ricardo Romero, former member of the guerrilla group M19 (Movement of 19 April) and four El Otro journalists, were forced into hiding. According to two Pasto journalists, this attack is also part of a systematic policy to gag the independent media. Publication on 9 November of a communiqué by the local front of the AUC, threatening to attack four journalists accused of "dishonest" coverage, is the last recorded attack on press freedom.
In the demilitarised zone of 42,000 squared kilometers granted to the FARC, the problem is different. Paradoxically, journalists who have worked in San Vincente del Caguan, the main town in the zone, have been threatened more by the AUC than by the FARC. The latter, responsible for the area, have shown relatively more consideration for press freedom within the territory. By contrast, several journalists who had gone to cover the peace process were suspected of playing into the guerrillas’ hands. At least three of them, threatened, were forced to leave the country: Martin Movilla and William Parra, of the channel Caracol Televisión, and Eduardo Luque Díaz, of RCN Radio. The former two were accused by anonymous callers of being "friends of the guerrillas". The third was covering the entire Caqueta province. Hollman Felipe Morris also received threats following his reports for the channel RCN TV. In September 2000 he was also forced into exile after publishing articles in El Espectador on the peace process or violence by paramilitaries.
Currently, the most threatened journalists are those from Caqueta province who have been covering the peace process since it was launched. They have been branded by the AUC as "spokespersons of the guerrillas". Maria Luisa Murillo, correspondent for El Tiempo, Luis Alfonso Altamar Gaitán, contributor to several media and director of his own television channel, and Efraín Jiménez, correspondent for RCN Radio and journalist for the station Ecos del Caguan, was unable to be present for an interview with RSF and IPYS representatives because the paramilitaries control all roads between San Vincente and Bogota. Since the existence of the demilitarised zone is being challenged, the three journalists would like to express their fears of seeing paramilitaries take over the territory. The murder on 10 October 2001 of "Lelo", the appointed driver of international press correspondents who went to cover negotiations, was considered as a warning. His body was found with a bullet in his mouth, next to his burned out taxi. He was murdered by four presumed paramilitaries who had pretended to be journalists.
Within the demilitarised zone the FARC have committed no serious attack on press freedom. Two former correspondents in this region report that negotiations were the first opportunity for the media and the armed group, which had until then been underground, to get to know each other. Attacks on the media by guerrillas have mostly been verbal and directed against the important media or press owners. They regularly accuse them, as in the 18 October communiqué, of harming the negotiations through their coverage. While it seems that the armed group has never hesitated to formulate criticism or comments directly to journalists present on the scene, cases of threats or attacks have been rare. "I was able to write everything I wanted to on the FARC and even to denounce the massacre by this armed group of about twenty persons accused of being paramilitaries, without exposing myself to reprisals", said a former correspondent. Yet another reporter told RSF that he had on occasion been a victim of acts of intimidation by the armed group.
The authorities’ response: the Programme for the Protection of Journalists
In response to the insecurity faced by journalists, the government passed Decree N° 1592 on 10 August 2000 which instituted the Programme for the Protection of Journalists. This programme is run by the Committee for the Regulation and Evaluation of Risks, under the vice-minister of the interior. Representatives of the various state institutions, especially the police and Colombian security police (DAS – Departamento administrativo de seguridad), sit on this committee along with a representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and of press organisations.
Among them, the FLIP plays a key part, that of carrying out a preliminary investigation to determine whether the journalist seeking assistance has been threatened for professional reasons. The security services, the national police or the DAS then evaluate the risks. On this basis, proposals are made to the journalist concerned to reinforce her/his security: from the granting of a mobile phone to contact the Committee in cases of emergency, to the payment of an air ticket to travel to the capital or leave the country.
If the journalist finds refuge in Bogota, s/he can receive a monthly grant of 850,000 pesos (435 euros / 385 dollars) for three months, exceptionally renewable for an equal period. The FLIP tries to form partnerships with embassies or organisations, with a view to facilitating departures abroad or settlement of journalists in Bogota. An agreement has been signed with an institute offering training in journalism, something which is particularly worthy of merit since some provincial journalists are self-taught. In coordination with the IPYS, a "home for journalists" ("Casa de refugio") has been founded in Lima to accommodate those who are most threatened. This initiative, supported by several international press freedom organisations, is based on the principle that exile in a culturally and geographically close country can prove to be less difficult than expatriation to the US or Europe.
Since its creation the Programme for the Protection of Journalists has processed 70 requests for assistance. In 41 cases a risk evaluation was performed. A total of 19 journalists have received assistance, six of them to leave the country. The minister of the Interior judges the increase in the number of threatened journalists as "worrying". Those who have benefited from the programme are essentially journalists in the provinces where armed groups, drug traffickers and corrupt authorities hold sway. Between March and October 2001 the committee recorded 28 threats against media and journalists.
Source of threats against journalists who attended the Programme
|AUTHORS OF THREATS||NUMBER OF THREATS|
|Paramilitary groups (AUC)||12|
|Guerrillas (Farc, ELN)||2|
Source : Interior ministry’s Programme for the Protection of Journalists
The programme has difficulties. Above all, it is limited by its budget which totals 300 million pesos (roughly 150,000 euros / 135,000 dollars), while the cost of so-called "heavy" protection (provision of an armoured car and two bodyguards) is estimated at 120 million pesos per year. The programme is therefore not able to offer journalists protection in their own town. When the threat is serious, the journalist is transferred to the regional capital or Bogota. Even for some of the organisations on the committee this solution is unsatisfactory. They consider that it amounts to "playing the game of the authors of the threats by ridding them of the journalist", especially since journalists often prefer to keep a low profile and ask for their situation not to be made public. Such decisions are always respected by the committee, although they deprive it of means to pressurise the authors of the threats. Although the beneficiaries of the programme have to lay official charges against those who threaten them, they often do not follow it through for fear of reprisals or because they are convinced of the futility of carrying on.
Another problem is the participation of the police and the DAS in the programme. Although it is probably inevitable, it is likely to arouse suspicion in those who are threatened precisely by members of the police or army. The fact that the programme currently treats only a very small number of threatened journalists is also due to the fact that it was launched only last year and is still largely unknown to journalists.
...end of part 1