A new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that Colombia has halved its impunity rating in the last seven years, but says the country still has a long way to go to achieve justice for killed journalists.
In the global rankings, Colombia has moved from 5th to 8th in the list of countries with the worst records of prosecuting those who murder journalists.
The report is quick to point out that the decreased impunity is not primarily due to more efficient prosecutions, but rather an overall drop in violence against journalists.
“[Colombia’s] 2014 rating fell to less than a third of what it was in 2008, an improvement that has less to do with justice—only two convictions have taken place there in the past 10 years—than with an overall decline in fatal journalist attacks,” the report said.
While some point to new security policies implemented by the Santos administration to explain a decrease in anti-press violence, the report suggests that “waning” of the conflict between the government and the FARC guerrillas can “to a large extent” explain the drop.
John Otis, a CPJ correspondent in Bogota who contributed to the report, told Colombia Reports in an interview that the Colombian government has indeed made some improvements in protecting journalists in recent years.
“There have been more arrests. They have widened the state of limitations for crimes against journalists,” Otis said. “There are some signs of improvement. With that said, the country still has a long, long way to go.”
Otis believes that the fact that President Santos is a former journalist helps.
“Santos is much more concerned and aware about his image abroad than Uribe was. He seems to care much more about what Human Rights Watch says and what international watchdogs say about Colombia,” he added.
The CPJ report says that symbolic gestures, such as Santos attending a ceremony held by the government’s Victims’ Unit to honor murdered journalists, have helped.
“It is not the same thing as a court putting killers in prison,” the director of Colombia press freedom group FLIP told CPJ. “But it does have a healing effect.”
CPJ also spoke to an expert on crimes against reporters who works in Colombia’s Prosecutor General’s Office. The expert identified two factors that have contributed to the slow and inefficient prosecutions of journalist murders.
One, he said, is the structural inefficiencies of the justice system which faces a huge backlog and a lack of resources and manpower to investigate all of the cases it is assigned. CPJ says that the Prosecutor General’s Office could not even provide information on 30 cases of journalist killings “because the files had apparently been lost or misplaced.”
Another factor, the expert claimed, is the focus of authorities on prosecuting the “last link” in the chain that is responsible for the murders without investigating the criminal organizations and corrupt politicians behind them.
“The masterminds who target reporters nearly always remain free,” CPJ writes.
While the number of killings of Colombian journalists has declined in recent years, Otis said that there are other ways of silencing the press.
“The problem is that you don’t have to kill a journalist to squash freedom of expression. All you have to do is make a couple of threatening phone calls and that journalist isn’t going to write about that subject anymore, or he might have to leave town,” Otis said.
This has led to self-censorship by Colombian journalists who are often threatened not only for investigating powerful and corrupt players in Colombia, but even for just covering armed groups.
“Just stenography journalism – even that can get you into a hell of a lot of trouble here. That’s created a lot of self-censorship, especially out in the countryside where the BaCrim [paramilitary successor groups] are really strong,” Otis added.
According to an infographic released earlier this month by Reporters Without Borders, Colombia is the deadliest country for journalists in Latin America after Mexico with 56 killed in the last 14 years.
- The Road to Justice: Breaking the Cycle of Impunity In The Killing of Journalists (CPJ)
- Interview with John Otis