The press in Colombia: violence against journalists goes unpunished

Friday, November 14, 1997

The press in Colombia: violence against journalists goes unpunished

(Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, 14 November 1997)

Background
The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) calls Colombia one the most dangerous countries for journalists in the Western Hemisphere. According to their published report, Unpunished Crimes Against Journalists, over the last two decades more than 100 journalists have been killed there. The sad truth is that these murders are usually not adequately investigated due in part to the sheer scale of violent crime in Colombia. ) In 1995 alone, there were 39,000 killings.

Murders of journalists in Colombia are being committed with near impunity. More than 95 per cent of murder cases involving journalists remain unsolved. The Inter American Press Association's Unpunished Crimes Against Journalists report states that this has had a "chilling" effect on freedom of the press in Colombia.

Impunity enjoyed by the murderers has a debilitating effect on free and objective reporting. As a result "entire regions have become barren of coverage [because] few journalists venture to report from those areas," or they practise self-censorship, according to the Unpunished Crimes report.

Journalists who work in the provinces are especially at risk. They are under relentless pressure from drug traffickers, paramilitary gangs, guerrilla groups and corrupt politicians.

Update
As of late 1997, Colombian journalists continue to experience both acts of violence and government supported restrictions to freedom of the press. The most recent victim of violence against the press was recorded on 1 November 1997, with the discovery of the dismembered body of Alejandro Jaramillo, 67. He had joined the staff of Diario del Sur in Pasto two months earlier and reported on crime and judicial issues. (See IFEX Alert 3 November 1997.)

This raises to five the number of journalists murdered in Colombia in the last seven months. A country-by-country report published by IAPA in October 1997 reviews significant events affecting the media in Colombia during the previous six months. The report sited instances where journalists continue to experience acts of violence and state supported restrictions to freedom of the press.

On 20 March, Gerardo Bedoya, opinion page editor of the Cali daily El Pais, was found stabbed to death in Cali. Drug traffickers are believed to be behind the killing. A bomb killed a radio technician and wounded a newscaster at the offices of Radio Cadena Nacional and Radio Monumental in the city of Cucuta, on 17 October. Police claim the ELN guerrilla group launched the attack in an attempt to disrupt the 26 October midterm elections for local authorities. On 19 May, right-wing extremist paramilitary members allegedly gunned-down reporter Elsa Alvarado, her researcher/husband Mario Calderon, and his father, Carlos Alvarado, in her Bogota apartment. Unlike the vast majority of murders committed against journalists in Colombia, however, this crime led to the arrest of five people on 29 September 1997.

Selected developments of the past seven months

* On 8 July, The National Television Commission (CNT) prohibited the former mayor of Bogota from reporting for the news programme QAP because he did not have a journalist's license. The National Newspaper Association (Andiarios) said that it would file a suit in the Constitutional Court to have the licensing law declared unconstitutional.

* On 30 July, in a close 5-4 decision the Constitutional Court partially upheld the Samper government's controversial television law. It threw out the article that allowed the government to evaluate news programme content every six months, but approved another allowing the CNT to suspend licenses of broadcasters failing to meet the criteria of reporting with "objectivity, impartiality and informational balance". In February of this year, the CNT began the process of evaluating the content of television news programmes through a confidential ranking system. On 27 February, three news programmes were deemed unacceptable in light of the new law and were slated to be taken off the air. However, this decision was shelved due to a strong political backlash.

The recently created CNT is made up of six members, five of whom are appointed by the government. The television law was advanced by congressional representatives under investigation by the justice system for alleged links to drug trafficking, and has been widely criticized by national and international press. In defiance of the Court's decision not to invalidate the television law, the news programme QAP has refused to apply for a news broadcast license. It is protesting the potential harm this arrangement could do to an unbiased, independent news medium.

* On 31 July, President Samper met with an IAPA delegation in Guatemala and informed it about the results of a human rights programme which was established within the Office of the Presidency in order to investigate cases of murdered journalists.

* On 30 September, a group known as the "Extraditables," threatened to kill journalists and congressmen who favour an extradition treaty with the United States.

Summary
Colombian journalists continue to work under extremely adverse conditions. They are routinely subjected to violence and threats at the hands of drug traffickers, guerrillas and the military. In addition to these hardships, the new television law and the actions of the National Television Commission are a source of concern. The Commission is not independent of the government and the new laws have been heavily criticized as overly restrictive.

References

* IFEX Action Alert Service

* Inter American Press Association, Report of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information: Country-by-Country, 22 October,1997. (Click here to read an IAPA summary of press freedom in Colombia.)

* Inter American Press Association, Unpunished Crimes Against Journalists, 1997.

* LatinoLink News, The Quest for a Brighter Future in Colombia, 2 November 1997.

For more information on freedom of the press on Colombia, search the IFEX Internet Service.

Click here to read a letter of protest written by the CCPJ and sent to Colombian President Ernesto Samper Pizano on 13 November 1997.

© The Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists (ccpj@web.net)