As a result of the increase in political polarization that the country is undergoing and the continual frictions among the various branches of the administration the climate for the exercise of freedom of the press and of opinion has worsened in recent months.
These past six months have been characterized by an increase in legal and administrative actions against news media and columnists and by the use of means of pressure against journalists – such as subpoenas to testify in court cases – clearly ignoring professional secrecy as enshrined in the Constitution.
There have also been, on the part of the federal government, defamatory remarks about media and journalists because in observing freedom to report they publish investigations and denunciations concerning situations in which public officials or congressmen belonging to the government coalition are implicated, such as the case of the so-called “Parapolitics” or “Yidispolitics,” drug trafficking and its relationship to some members of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the National Police.
León Valencia, María Jimena Dussan, Salud Hernández, Rodolfo Segovia and Fernando Londoño of the El Tiempo publishing company; Alfredo Molano and Pascual Gaviria of El Espectador; Ernesto McCausland of El Heraldo and also an El Tiempo columnist; Raúl Tamayo of El Colombiano, and Diego Martínez of El País, among other columnists, were charged with criminal libel in legal proceedings that are still under way in the courts.
A number of newspapers are facing lawsuits, including those concerning civil liability, for publishing reports based on press releases from the police. There are also some investigations under way in the National Electoral Council concerning publication of opinion polls by the news media.
On the legislative front, according to the Association of Colombian Newspapers (Andiarios) Congress is debating a bill to regulate the right to information, with serious implications for the free and independent practice of journalism, as it would create an Information Council made up of officials and media and journalists associations, with the risk that it could become a kind of censorship tribunal. Another bill seeks to substitute fines for the imprisonment provided for currently in cases of libel. This bill would eliminate indirect defamation.
Another bill, which sought to prevent access to confidential information and punish with imprisonment anyone revealing secret evidentiary information and material, was withdrawn by its proponent. Similarly, a bill that would allow retraction in a libel suit on the offended party’s agreement, has not been pursued.
Regarding journalists’ right to safety, in these last six months there has been no homicide related to the practice of the profession.
According to the Foundation for Press Freedom there has been a reduction in the number of violations involving threats, which continue to be the most common form of intimidation and pressure, especially on journalists working in the provinces.
In the battle against impunity noteworthy have been decisions of the Colombian Attorney General’s Office tending to solve the murder of journalist Nelson Carvajal Carvajal in Piotalito, Huila province, whose case the IAPA in 2002 submitted to Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The speaker of the Huila Assembly of Deputies (lower house), Carlos Augusto Rojas Ortiz, was arrested as one of the alleged masterminds behind Carvajal’s murder, and in the same decision the Office asked the public prosecutor to petition the Supreme Court to review the acquittal by the Neiva Specialized Court and High Court of Fernando Bermúdez, former Pitalito city council member, and Ramiro Falla, the city’s former mayor.
In these last six months the Human Rights Unit asked the Justice and Peace Unit of the Colombian Attorney General’s Office to gather evidence and documents on the demobilized paramilitaries who have testified voluntarily in murder cases, among many others José Arturo Guapacha, Didier Aristizabal and Jaime Garzón, which gives rise to hope that these crimes will be solved.
Work has continued on taking statements in proceedings under way concerning the murders of Amparo Leonor Jiménez, Carlos José Restrepo Rocha, Pablo Enrique Medina, Jaime REngifo Revero, José Duviel Vásquez, Orlando Sierra and Gustavo Ruiz Cantillo.
Sentencing is expected in the next few days of the killers of José Emeterio Rivas and Martín la Rotta, who have asked for a swift sentence.
Relevant incidents during this period:
Julio César Ardila, the mayor of Barrancabermeja, turned himself in on April 30 to a court in Bucaramanga, Santander province. Ardila, who denied the charges against him, had been on the run for four years. He is under investigation for the April 7, 2003 murder of José Emeterio Rivas, head of the anti-political corruption program of Calor Estereo radio station in the oil port of Barrancabermeja.
On May 24 journalist Carlos Humberto Jiménez was found dead in Cali, Valle de Cauca. Police said his murder had a personal motive. He had been Cali correspondent of the Bogotá newspaper El Tiempo.
The Attorney General’s Office announced that it is moving ahead with formally reopening investigations into the December 17, 1986 murder of El Espectador editor Guillermo Cano. It was doing so because of an article published by that newspaper in December last year under the headline Lazos Familiares (Family Ties), which reported that certain names and groups involved in money laundering had never been taken into account during previous investigations.
The chief photographer of the Barranquilla newspaper El Heraldo, Jairo Buitrago, complained of having been beaten up by police officers when he refused to hand over photos he had taken at a public hearing at which a woman was charged with causing the death of two people in a traffic accident.
A public prosecutor in Bogotá asked the “TV Séptimo Día” (Seventh Day TV) program of Canal Caracol television network to hand over reporter’s notes in an investigation into irregular plastic surgery operations and ordered it not to air the program until after the authorities had carried out an investigation of their own.
According to a report by the Foundation for Press Freedom Claudia Julieta Duque has relinquished the protection she had been provided by the Interior Ministry since December 2003. A journalist with the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers Group, she complained that her bodyguards were providing detailed information about her movements to officials of the Security Administrative Department (DAS). Duque has been the recipient of threats and been followed since 2001 as a result of her investigation into the August 13, 1999 murder of journalist Jaime Garzón in Bogotá.
In June a controversy arose in the media amid the start of a campaign to collect signatures in support of El Espectador columnist Alfredo Molano, who in February this year was sued by a public prosecutor for libel over an op-ed piece in which he accused the Araujo families of unlawful conduct.
Another controversy arose on learning of news according to which the Presidency’s press secretary was preparing a stylebook to unify the journalistic content of news media and the country’s journalism schools. However, César Mauricio Velásquez, President Uribe’s press officer, said the stylebook was merely “a guide to the correct use of commas, numbers, and capital and lower-case letters for the internal use of the government.”
Journalist Ernesto McCausland complained to the IAPA’s Rapid Response Unit that the city commissioners of Barranquilla, capital of Atlántico province, had approved a proposal to take legal action against it over its criticisms of the commission. McCausland had written a column in which he expressed fear that the city commissioners would turn the Barranquilla Carnival into a political event. He also was the subject of insults from some commission members. Support from press freedom organizations for McCausland led to the commission dropping the proposal.
The editor of the magazine La Verdad, Pedro Cárdenas, reported having been beaten up in Bogotá by two men riding a motorcycle. Cárdenas told police that one of the men threatened him with a gun and warned him not to distribute the magazine in Tolima province, where Cárdenas had been exposing local politicians’ links with paramilitaries. Cárdenas is being protected under the Interior Ministry’s protection for journalists program. He had gone into exile for a year due to threats against him.
On June 19 ELN guerrillas freed journalist Mario Alfonso Puello of Radio Delfin in La Guajira. It is not known why he had been kidnapped on February 17 as he was returning from a literacy course he was working on with professors from the Open University.
A demobilized paramilitary of the Catabumbo Block of the Colombian United Self-Defense Forces (AUC) known as “El Iguano” confessed voluntarily that the former deputy head of Colombia’s National Security (DAS), José Miguel Narváez, had incited paramilitary chief Carlos Castaño Gil to murder journalist Jaime Garzón. Several days later another paramilitary, Ever Veloza, a.k.a. HH, said in his testimony that a number of members of the military also were believed to have been behind the crime.
Luis Fernando Soto Zapata, who murdered La Patria managing editor Orlando Sierra on January 30, 2002, died in a clash with police chasing him after a holdup in Cali in Valle del Cauca province. He had been released from prison in October last year after serving only five years, thanks to a series of sentence reductions that have been repudiated by the press.
In July a group of soldiers fired into the air and prevented a group of journalists from Huila newspaper La Nación, RCN Televisión and Magazin 740 from working in San Vicente del Caguán, Caquetá province, as they sought information on an armed clash. The journalists complained that the Army in that part of the country do not like to be filmed and that they are frequently subjected to intimidation.
On July 20, national Independence Day, several journalists in Arauca covering a “March for Freedom” were threatened by FARC guerrillas. Among those threatened was Carmen Rosa Pabón, host of “Caracol News” broadcast by La Voz de Cinaruco, and Phillip Moreno, local correspondent of RCN. The incident followed threats made in May to journalists from Sarare Estéreo radio station in Saravena, also in Arauca province, after they found the station’s walls daubed with the insignia of the paramilitary movement AUC.
The Foundation for Press Freedom rejected statements made by Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos in which he acknowledged that the Colombian Army had used the logo of the international television network Telesur in the recent rescue of 15 kidnap victims of the FARC. The Foundation said the use of press equipment by the Armed Forces increases yet further the vulnerability that the press faces in Colombia, especially in areas when illegal armed groups are present, and implies a lack of awareness of the civilian status that journalists have amid armed conflicts.
In August President Alvaro Uribe asked for an investigation into whether the director of Noticias Uno, Daniel Coronell, had committed a criminal offense in not having denounced, or having aired in 2004, an interview in which former Congresswoman Ydis Medina says she had received privileges from the government in exchange for her supporting vote for legislation that enabled the re-election of the president in Colombia. The press repudiated the president’s stance.
The Supreme Court and the House of Representatives Prosecution Committee subpoenaed journalists Rodrigo Silva of Caracol Radio and Edgard Velosa and Sandra Pureza of Canal Caracol television to testify in proceedings concerning the so-called Parapolitics and bribery. They rejected the call and warned that the Court and Congress cannot attempt to have them reveal their sources.
The Colombian Attorney General’s Office called on journalists William Parra of Telesur and Carlos Lozano, editor of the weekly Voz, to testify concerning alleged links to FARC guerrillas, based on information found on computers belonging to guerrilla chief Raúl Reyes.
On August 21 the Supreme Court issued an important ruling in which it ordered the Army to hand over information requested by a journalist and ordered that any entity denying information under the pretext of national security must explain its reasons for doing so.
On September 2 the Colombian legislative and judicial branches of government accepted recommendations to look into amending public policy to combat impunity during a judicial forum organized by the Inter American Press Association and the Association of Colombian newspapers (Andiarios), taking part in which were magistrates, judges, public prosecutors, journalists and news media executives. The recommendations arose from the work carried out by lawyers Rodrigo Uprinmy and Guillermo Puyana to detect irregularities in the legal proceedings concerning the murder of journalist Orlando Sierra that enabled the killer to be sentenced to just 19 years and six months in prison when this kind of aggravated crime carries a 39-year term – and he in fact was freed after serving only five years of his sentence.
Congress is considering a bill that, in an effort to “democratize the media,” would require media outlets to sell shares on the stock market.