Former President Alvaro Uribe continues to denigrate, intimidate and slander journalist Hollman Morris who has previously had his life made miserable by death threats, arbitrary detention and illegal wiretapping by Uribe’s spy agency.
“We may not allow that terrorism deteriorates the freedom of press in this country,” said Alvaro Uribe on March 18, 2007 after Caracol Radio host Dario Arizmendi fled the country. The senior journalist allegedly had to leave the country because now-defunct intelligence agency DAS had detected that an unidentified illegal armed group was at the point of killing Arizmendi.
I am confused about Uribe’s personal interpretation of terrorism, but according to the dictionary, it means “the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes,” which to me sounds exactly what Uribe was doing and continues to do.
Uribe’s defense of press freedom came only weeks after a report indicating that the state was suspected of 35% of the 102 violations of press freedom in 2006, double the violations allegedly committed by the FARC.
By the end of 2007, the number of violations of press freedom had increased by 16% and the state was suspected in 24% of the cases where a suspect could be found. In both years, in most cases, the suspects were simply untraceable.
Returning to the case of Morris, while internationally he is one of the most respected and awarded of Colombian journalists, within Colombia he has been the victim of death threats, two arbitrary detentions and illegal spying by the DAS, all while Uribe was “defending” the press freedom in his country and accusing those of criticizing him of being “useful idiots” or worse, “terrorist assistants.”
On February 1, 2009, Morris attempted to report on the release of a group of FARC hostages. Uribe was infuriated by the reporter’s supposed bias, and Morris was promptly arbitrarily detained and arrested, accused by then-Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos and the previously-exiled Arizmendi of collaborating with the FARC.
The accusations forced the United Nations and the Organization of American States to condemn Uribe, who dismissed the criticism on February 11 and instead — despite an obvious lack of any legal merit — called on the judiciary to open a criminal case against the journalist.
Morris immediately started receiving several anonymous emails telling him that he “must die for supporting a criminal group” and fled the country. Again, Uribe was asked to retract his statement and refrain from linking journalists to terrorist organizations without any legal evidence, but this time without a response. Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office dropped the investigation against Morris because there was no shred of evidence the journalist had committed any crime.
Morris told me that Santos sent him a personal letter after his resignation as defense minister, praising the journalist’s “patriotic” labor.
According to Reporters without Borders, “the ‘democratic security’ policy inherited from the Uribe years led to serious abuses including systematic spying on journalists by the domestic intelligence agencies.”
This “systematic spying” was carried out by the DAS which directly and only reported to the Colombian Presidency until it was dismantled over the wiretaps and increasing reports of its ties to drug traffickers and terrorist organization AUC, the prime suspect of violations of press freedom. Morris was later determined to have been a victim of the illegal DAS spying practices.
His 2010 documentary Impunity, about failures during the peace process with the AUC, received wide critical acclaim abroad but never made it to the mainstream Colombian cinemas and is still virtually unknown among Colombians in their home country. In fact, few Colombians I talk to know who Morris is, and those who do only remember the false accusations made against him that were never publicly retracted.
By the time Uribe left office, despite initial resistance by the U.S. State Department, Morris was invited to become a fellow at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation Program and later became a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Program fellow. This continued until recently when he was appointed director of Bogota’s public television station, Canal Capital.
Uribe’s public platforms and NGOs
Because of the jailing of dozens of Uribe-loyal lawmakers linked to paramilitary death squads (as described in Morris’ documentary), the jailing of government officials over an embezzlement scandal and the illegal wiretapping and the massive loss of Uribe allies in the 2011 local elections, the former president’s political power has shrunk to a few hardline lawmakers in Congress, a few shady allies and no institutional access to security agencies.
Using Uribe’s Twitter account, his allies’ digital platforms, Jose Obdulio Gaviria’s talkshow on Cablenoticias — a television station repeatedly accused of ties to the Medellin cartel — and performances in the mainstream media, Uribe and his allies have returned to attacking Morris and now claim he is “the war correspondent of website ANNCOL (information channel of the FARC),” a “member of the FARC’s international committee.” and, in Uribe’s own words, “a specialist in slander.”
But the intimidation goes beyond bullying and slander. Last Monday, the transmission of Bogota’s Canal Capital was sabotaged and FARC hymns were heard over the regular programming, a clear attempt to try to discredit a public television network now directed by an actually critical journalist.
A second victim of the group’s slander is journalist Juan Diego Restrepo, who in a Semana column exposed alleged ties between Uribe’s ally Jaime Restrepo and the AUC. The journalist was falsely linked to extremist websites that copy-pasted the column without apparent consent of the author.
So, while Uribe and his allies are enjoying the full extent of Colombia’s freedom of expression, and cry they are politically persecuted every time a corrupt ally is arrested or indicted, they are aggressively persecuting, stigmatizing and endangering every person who has the balls to criticize them.
Because of this bullying and Uribe’s apparent moral authority over extreme right-wing armed groups, Hollman Morris and Juan Diego Restrepo are again worried about their lives and that of their families.
And to be honest, even I feel uncomfortable publishing this because Uribe’s message has always been very clear: “Don’t fuck with me or else…”
So in order for Colombian journalism to overcome the terror it has been exposed to, and in cases like Morris continues to be exposed to, it is imperative that important and influential politicians like Uribe are forced, by law, to respect the freedom of press and are forced, by law, to refrain from endangering the well-being and lives of journalists who do nothing but their work.