CESO-FIP Condemns Wave of Agressions Against Journalists in Colombia

(Barranquilla, Piendamó, Neiva, Santa Marta, Barrancabermeja, Bogota, June 7) Three journalists in Barranquilla were threatened with fake bomb packages. This episode is part of a series of acts of intolerance against press freedom in less than a month and has raised serious questions about safety of the press in Colombia. Two reporters from alternative media were captured, material was stolen from two journalists, the water service was suspended to a colleague, an indigenous radio station was destroyed by the police, a colleague is now a refugee in another country and shocking statements against journalists were made by politicians in different parts of Colombia.

On June 3, Gustavo Bell Lemus, El Heraldo newspaper director in Barranquilla, and columnists Ernesto McCausland Sojo and Armando Benedetti Jimeno received at their homes card board boxes with a watch inside connected to several wires. The first two journalists received the package the same day and Benedetti two days later. The messages found inside the boxes read “Don’t butt in when you’re not called. Next time it will explode”.

Bell was appointed director of El Heraldo in the beginning of 2005. He was vice president of Colombia and Minister of Defense during Andrés Pastrana’s administration (1998-2002). McCausland is a senior journalist of Caracol Radio and film producer. Benedetti was Minister of Communications during Ernesto Samper’s administration (1994-1998) and columnist for El Tiempo daily.

The evidence seems to indicate El Heraldo’s editorial policy against corruption and the chaos in the local administration of Barranquilla and Benedetti and McCausland’s criticism of high criminality rates in the region motivated the threats. Some media organizations such as Semana magazine have pointed out an editorial in El Heraldo and an article written by Benedetti warned about constructions taking place in Arroyo del Country: “The journalists wrote these constructions harmed the city’s environment and the area people appreciated”.

Journalists from alternative media detained

On May 18, two colleagues working for communitarian media were detained and beaten by the police while covering marches of approximately 12 thousand natives and countrymen from the departments of Cauca, Nariño and Putumayo, south of Colombia. The demonstrators protested against the Free Trade Agreement Alvaro Uribe’s administration will sign with the US and demanded that the Colombian government comply with previous agreements regarding lands.

ESMAD squads captured journalists Richard Calpa and Marcelo Forero along with 30 other people inside Radio Libertad, an indigenous radio station in Totoró. Calpa, 22 years old, graduated from Javeriana University and is the youngest radio station director in Colombia. When Calpa was arrested, he was coordinating live transmissions of “radiocicla”, a communitarian broadcaster. All the work equipment was burned by police officers.

Forero, 29 years old, reporter of El Turbión, an on line newspaper with 18 thousand subscribers and the online radio station of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) covered the entire story.

The dead or injured were disregarded by most media organizations. During the attacks in the indigenous settlement La María, about 800 kilometers away from Bogotá, the communitarian headquarters were destroyed, vehicles and furniture were burned.

ONIC and various organizations of countrymen sent out a media release with a dramatic call: “Media organizations please, stop being an echo to the lies of national and department governments of Cauca and at least publish what we say and do”. Two reporters were arrested. The police initially denied the journalists were in prison but two days later released both reporters.

Masks, suspended water service and journalists kidnapped

Meanwhile in the city of Neiva, the Association of Journalists in Huila (ASPEHU), a recently established organization, denounced how several teenagers with knives and masks on physically and verbally attacked Novedades TV crew in Huila. According to ASPEHU, Novedades director José Ignacio Valencia was leaving Surcolombiana University after working on a report about an indigenous leader, when unknown men intimidated him and his cameraman Mauricio Suaza Ramírez, obligating them to hand over the material they had recorded.

The teenagers, who were not natives, claimed the material filmed by the journalists was going to be given to the Army. Other teenagers and adults intervened to explain this wouldn’t happen that the journalists and their news program were very well known in the region. However, this did not stop the intimidation against the press but the attackers were pressured to return the tape with the journalistic material.

A shocking unprecedented event took place in the city of Santa Marta. Raúl Caballero Rolón of Radio Magdalena, affiliated to Caracol, had to suffer having the water service of his home suspended by police and officials of the Spanish water company Metroagua. Caballero is the director of the program “The Community’s Complaints and Denounces”. The bad-quality of the city’s water service and high prices imposed by Metroagua have been denounced in the program. Those who suspended the journalist’s water service justified their action by stating a possible fraud was carried out by the journalist and his family.

Near the end of May a photojournalist whose name is reserved, was forced to abandon Colombia after being kidnapped downtown in Bogotá by a group of unknown men. The journalist had escaped from previous threats received in his hometown, south of the country. He was kidnapped and kept in a ranch during a week and released in the city of Cali. The journalist and his wife were able to leave the country thanks to the support from the Protection Committee for Journalists of the Interior Ministry, Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, and the IFJ Center of Solidarity.

Last January Diro Cesar González, director of La Tarde weekly and his wife who is also a journalist, had to flee from the oil port of Barrancabermeja when unknown armed men on motorcycles constantly rode around their home and they were included in a list of journalists who were allegedly going to be killed by paramilitaries. Gonzales and his wife were victims of new threats a few weeks ago when they were about to move once again to a nearby city. The journalists’ were planning to reopen La Tarde newspaper, but to edit and publish in another city. However their plan was frustrated when unknown men called various radio stations to state Gonzalez had died and their editorial designer was kidnapped and almost raped. Fortunately she was able to escape and stated her kidnappers kept repeating she had to leave her job.

Presidential attacks against journalism

With the exception of the threats made last weekend, all the aggressions against journalists occurred during a very tense election period. On RCN television, Colombian president Álvaro Uribe argued with the director of Semana magazine after both Semana and Cambio magazines disclosed various accusations of a possible electoral fraud in 2002 presidential elections when Uribe won, paramilitary infiltration in the Administrative Security Department (DAS) and a series of alleged political crimes.

The president, evidently upset responded to the questions by assuring the accusations were not only attacks against his administration, but also against democracy and government institutions: “We are not playing with dolls. We’re dealing with something serious that Mister Alejandro Santos (Semana director) should understand instead of carrying on with funny and shallow publications harming institutional legitimacy.”

The scandal about corruption in the DAS and the president’s “angry declarations” motivated statements and protests from various press freedom groups and columnists. Their conclusion was basically the same: the President’s way of speaking on that occasion was a huge mistake and his act of undermining the press and focusing his attack on journalism was a message that has caused concern.

When this report was being elaborated, two press freedom groups, Medios para la Paz (MPP) and Fundacion para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) were threatened by an illegal armed group who call themselves Democratic Free Colombia Front. According to the threatening message sent by this group, MPP and FLIP are now military targets.

Center of Solidarity

International Federation of Journalists

Ceso- IFJ