Colombia, while still being one of the most dangerous places in the world to work as a journalist, made some important forward steps in 2012 according to a “state of journalism” report released by NGO Fundacion para Libertad de Prensa (FLIP).
“While in some places in Colombia the press work as in the first world, in others they survive literally like it was the Democratic Republic of Congo, with journalists being threatened by the armed groups and under pressure from the military,” claimed the report.
Colombia is especially dangerous for journalists working at the local level according to the report, with 158 incidences of direct aggression towards journalists reported in 2012. This includes the death in police custody of 31-year-old journalist Guilermo Quiroz, and the intimidation of 10 journalists in Santa Marta, which resulted in the forced displacement of six and the exile of one.
The report says that the public forces “excel at the obstruction of the work of journalists” and it cites 31 hostile acts by police or military in 2012 which left one reporter dead. The death of Quiroz highlights the lack of a good relationship between journalists and the public forces which has pushed the Ministry of Defense to begin a pilot program to train its members in treatment of journalists and freedom of expression.
Through its analysis of unattributed hostilities against journalists, FLIP says the public forces appear like “a recidivist entity,” constantly relapsing into hostile behavior against the press. Out of the 44 unattributed assaults last year, 31 are reportedly related to the public forces, with journalists claiming that threats and restrictions on their movements from the authorities affects their work.
FLIP complains that disciplinary investigations involving police hostility towards journalists are carried out internally and no guarantees are offered to the injured party. Out of the 31 cases FLIP has registered, only one has so far been heard, and the accused received a penalty of only two months suspension from duties.
Some improvements have certainly been made to temper the blustery relationship between the public forces and journalists. Following the FARC kidnapping of French journalist Romeo Langlois who had accompanied the armed forces on a jungle raid against a FARC coca laboratory, it was decided that the Ministry of Defense should create a protocol of relations between the military and journalists. This document is in the process of being drawn up.
Freedom of expression
Colombia has a reputation for censorship and violence against journalists with accusations of illegal wire-tapping and monitoring of journalists by the secret police (DAS) under the administration of ex-president Alvaro Uribe.
Investigations into DAS activities last year entered a lethargic period according to the report. Although the interceptions and monitoring have been condemned, the investigation of DAS directors and other members of ex-president Uribe’s government haven’t seen much advancement.
The Antonio Nariño Project (PAN) which surveyed 600 journalists in Colombia at the end of 2012 put the country at a middle level for freedom of expression with a score of 50 out of a possible 100. Although the theme of security continues to be the principal object standing in the way of freedom of press in Colombia, FLIP has noticed with worry the increase of judicial processes against journalists as a method of censor.
The report highlights the case of newspaper editor Luis Augustin Gonzalez who was sentenced to 18 months and 18 days in jail and given a fine for questioning the political aspirations of the ex-governor of Cundinamarca and an ex-senator. In an unexpected twist, during the journalist’s appeal the Prosecutor General who had previously sought the conviction, called on the court to absolve Gonzalez. The case is being considered.
In August the High Court sued Cecilia Orozco and Maria Jimena Duzan who in different publications claimed the Supreme Court made personnel changes to favor lawmakers suspected of criminal activities. The court’s decision was later retracted.
In a positive step, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the1996 attack on Colombian journalist Luis Gonzalo “Richard” Velez Restrepo who was attacked by soldiers while filming members of the army. Velez and his family subsequently began receiving death threats that intensified further when the journalist tried to promote the judicial process relating to the original attack.
In April 2012 President Juan Manuel Santos signed a law with the principal aim of protecting the rights of the author on the Internet. This was a great step forward for the protection of freedom of expression on the Internet, FLIP however claims that Colombia has been behind the foray in this case with other countries years ahead in legislation for Internet publication.
The report also expresses hope that the current peace talks between the government and the FARC will have implications for the security and the freedom of expression for journalists and that the truth will come out about the scale of atrocities committed by the guerrillas and agents of the state during the conflict.
Of the 140 officially registered assassinations between 1977 and 2012 the paramilitaries have been named as responsible for 20.71%, the FARC 8.57%, public forces 7.14% and the ELN 4.28%.
The process of ruling on the 140 assassinations of journalists in the last 15 years has been interminably slow with only two cases coming to court in 2012. The Prosecutor General’s office in fact has not even received 49 of the records, while of the 91 records that the office holds, 35 are inactive.
In the PAN survey Colombia only scored 38 out of 100 for access to information, which was its lowest scoring element, but this is expected to be somewhat remedied by the passing of the Access to Information Law passed by Congress. The report notes however that there are aspects of this law which are contrary to international standards and calls for these to be revised.
The Victims Law also recognized journalists as a population that should benefit from the collective reparation of people affected by the internal conflict, and a victims’ monument unveiled last year in Bogota included journalists.
Another good development for reporters last year was the National Protection Union (UNP) announcement which has set aside 7% of funds dedicated to the protection of journalists.