Colombia remains among the most dangerous places in the world to practice journalism, according to a new report released by a national NGO Tuesday.
The Foundation for the Liberation of the Press’ (FLIP) review of 2013 portrays a diverse set of professional obstacles and targeted violence that continues to complicate and endanger the work of journalists active in the Andean nation. Colombia, the report claimed, is the country with the fifth highest level of impunity in the world for crimes committed against journalists.
Since 1977, the FLIP has recorded the murder of 142 journalists. According to the NGO, there were 123 direct attacks on 194 journalists in Colombia in 2013, two of which resulted in death.
The violence, said FLIP Director Pedro Vaca, was likely political in nature. Vaca told Colombia Reports, “one would think that in Colombia, a country with armed conflict, that the conflict would generate assassinations against journalists but the last three killings, one in 2012 and the two in 2013, have been provoked by denunciations of local administrative corruption. This generates much worry.”
Still, Colombia’s longstanding armed conflict does play a noted role in the threats posed to reporters. At least 57% of press assassinations can be attributed to players in the armed conflict, according to FLIP. Of the 30% of cases in which the killer’s identity could not be ascertained, the FLIP suspects a large proportion are linked to armed conflict.
Edison Molina was one of the most recent journalists to lose his life in the course of his job. Molina was killed in September of last year in Puerto Berrio — a rural area of the central state of Antioquia, an area with a strong presence of illegal armed groups — reportedly for criticisms he was making through a development organization he was involved with.
2013’s other victim was Jose Diaro Arenas, a magazine vendor in Caicedonia, a town in the Valle de Cauca department, shot in broad daylight for yelling, “Abuses in Caicedonia Jail?” a headline in a magazine he was selling, according to eyewitnesses.
Despite the more graphic nature of assassination, the FLIP report reveals that intimidation is a much more prolific problem than murder. Some 75 journalists were recorded as having received death threats in 52 separate incidents in 2013. A full three-dozen journalists were reportedly subjected to physical battery in 18 separate incidents during the same year, with 10 journalists claiming to have been detained illegally and three forced into exile.
Media coverage of massive social demonstrations and labor strikes during the months of June, July and August was frequently impeded by public security forces. Vaca told Colombia Reports that “the social protests were the greatest event of aggression towards journalists in 2013.” He added that there “had not been sufficient guarantees for the press to cover these events. In just these three months FLIP reported 44 attacks on journalists, of which 33 were attacks by public security forces.”
During the protests, according to FLIP, two journalists were attacked every three days. Members of the press reporting on and filming a broad spectrum of social demonstrations were reportedly attacked with stones by police forces and guerrillas, and subject to illegal detentions, illegal confiscation of equipment, threats, and stigmatization.
In 2014, nationwide congressional and presidential elections will take place on March 9 and May 25 respectively.
FLIP figures referenced by the Mission for Electoral Observation (MOE) allege that press freedom in 25 municipalities throughout the country are at risk. FLIP has classified six municipalities as falling under extreme risk, eight municipalities as high risk and 11 municipalities as medium risk — high risk being defined by MOE as “municipalities that have submitted violations to freedom of press that are related to the coverage of public servants, public leaders and public security forces during the specific period.”
While FLIP observed a 40% and 33% decrease in municipalities with extreme risk and high risk, respectively, medium risk municipalities reportedly increased by 120% over the same period. Overall, there was a 7% decrease in risks relating to press freedom over the past three years.
Perhaps the subtlest form of interference is what Vaca refers to as “censure of an indirect character” from politicians claiming “injury, slander, defamation” from journalists. According to Vaca, “there are international standards [to protect against unfair libel suits] that judicial officials are not implementing. This creates silence and prevents the journalists from continuing to criticize the government.”
Another nuanced form of press subversion implicates journalists themselves. According to Vaca, “blackmail for political advertising, where [journalists] are used [by political interests] to say or not say things” is a real threat to a free and independent press. The FLIP report explains that politicians may use the promise of future access to manipulate journalists toward their own goals.
Vaca said that press freedom in Colombia “will get better, and the situation is less grave than past years.” The process, however, is likely to play out differently than it has in other conflict areas, he said. “Colombia has a very distinct reality and is difficult to compare (to other countries) conflict circumstances, peace transition, peace negotiations are not happening in other parts of the region and there is no parameter for a clear comparison.”
- Interview with Pedro Vaca, Director of the Foundation for the Liberation of the Press
- Protestas: Sin garantias para cubrir. Informe sobre la situacion de la prensa en Colombia 2013 (FLIP)
- Amenazas de muerte contra 130 periodistas en el ultimo año (Defensoria del Pueblo)
- Nota de prensa: Periodismo critico sigue en peligro en Colombia (OIDHAC)
- Mapas y factores de riesgo electoral: Elecciones nacionales 2014 (MOE)