Five journalists were killed, around 60 were kidnapped, threatened or physically attacked, and more than 20 were forced to leave their region or the country - the toll of press freedom violations in 2003 was comparable to the previous year’s, which was considered very high. And yet the figures were not exhaustive as many journalists prefer to say nothing about the threats they receive for fear of exposing themselves to more. Only the number of attacks on the media by means of explosives fell - to one as against eight in 2002.
There was a change in 2003. Elected officials and the security forces appeared to be implicated in attacks on the press more than in preceding years. Four of the five journalists killed had exposed irregularities or corruption by local elected officials or violence by the security forces.
The death of Luis Eduardo Alfonso, who was supposed to be benefiting from a government programme for the protection of journalists, raised questions about the government’s commitment to the safety of the press. The Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP) found that on 3 May 2003, no protection had yet been provided to a third of the journalists judged by the programme to be in danger because of their work.
At least 10 journalists were detained, threatened, physically attacked or prevented from doing their work by the security forces, which have become more and more intolerant of the press, especially when it is covering the war between the armed forces and the guerrillas. In a new development, two journalists were imprisoned on charges of being linked to the guerrillas.
As elsewhere, the fight against terrorism has become the government’s main preoccupation since 9/11. The Marxist guerrilla movements which used to be referred to as "narco-guerrillas" were renamed "terrorist guerrillas." An "anti-terrorist statute" adopted in early December 2003 revised certain basic rights and could threaten the confidentiality of sources. The new law empowered the military to carry out arrests and searches, tap telephones and intercept mail without a judicial warrant when someone is suspected of terrorist links,
This measure did not erode the popularity of President Alvaro Uribe Vélez. Battered, bruised and drained by four decades of civil war, the population above all hoped that the platform of firmness on which Uribe was elected in 2002 would help bring the war to an end. Largely for this reason, Uribe was unscathed by the failure of his referendum on corruption and the defeat of his allies in the municipal elections. The hope persisted even when he lashed out at non-governmental organisations, accusing them of being the accomplices of terrorism after 80 NGOs described him as "authoritarian" and blamed him for the increase in human rights violations.
Human rights activists were outraged by the impunity guaranteed to the paramilitary United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC) in exchange for demobilising. After the failure of peace talks with the guerrillas during Andrés Pastrana’s presidency (1998-2002), the new administration made talks with the AUC its priority. More than 1,000 were demobilised in October and November and were to benefit from a programme of reintegration in civilian life, although the paramilitaries are accused of war crimes, sometimes carried out with the army’s complicity.
As well as the press freedom violations blamed on state agents, violations attributed to the three most important armed groups also continued. Neither the AUC, whose main leader is still Carlos Castaño, nor the Marxist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) led by Manuel Marulanda, nor the Guevarist guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (ELN) led by Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista stopped targeting journalists whose reports or comments were thought to benefit their adversaries.
In some regions, journalists have to reconcile not only the interests of these three armed groups but also those of the army, which also wants to control news coverage. The situation in the field is often so complex that journalists are not even able to say who is threatening them. Rosa Omaira Moreno, a journalist in the western department of Chocó had to leave the region for Bogotá because of threats apparently coming from the FARC. But once it the capital, she found herself the target of threats which she thought came from the AUC and which forced her to change her address several times and then leave the country. The links between certain elected officials and armed groups make things even more complex and dangerous for journalists.
The situation has become simply unbearable in several departments. In Arauca, an oil-producing department on the Venezuelan border, the death of Efrain Alberto Varela in 2002 was followed by the death of another journalist in 2003, the kidnapping of seven, the detention of three, physical attacks on two, and the arrest of one who was accused of "rebellion." Arauca lost most of its journalists at the start of April after armed groups circulated "hit lists." Of the 16 journalists whose names appeared on the lists - involving almost all of the department’s news media - 13 left the region. This was unheard of.
As a result of the repeated press violations by their armed groups, Carlos Castaño, Manuel Marulanda and Nicolas Rodriguez Bautista are on the Reporters Without Borders worldwide list of predators of press freedom.
Five journalists killed
Luis Eduardo Alfonso, 33, the joint editor of a news programme on radio Meridiano 70 in the northeastern city of Arauca, was gunned down at the entrance to radio on 18 March. He was also an occasional correspondent for the national daily El Tiempo and acted as a press consultant for congressman Adalberto Jaimes. He specialised in covering municipal government corruption and arrests carried out by the army without good reason. His name was on several hit lists and he was supposed to be benefiting from a government programme for the protection of journalists. But the protection he received had been limited to occasional visits by police patrols and they had been suspended a few days before his murder. Alfonso had worked with Meridiano 70 owner and director Efraín Varela, who was gunned down by presumed paramilitaries in June 2002 shortly after condemning their arrival in the area.
Guillermo Bravo Vega, the producer and presenter of the programme "Facts and Figures" on the local TV station Altavisión, was gunned down on 28 April outside his home in Neiva (Huila department) by four men on two motorcycles. Family members and colleagues said he had received "constant death threats." A man who introduced himself as a member of the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) came to his home in February and warned him that he would be killed if he did not leave the area.
His family did not rule out the possibility that the murder was linked to his coverage in 2000 of the privatisation of a regional state-owned company, Licorería del Huila, in which he had denounced irregularities it its sale to Licorsa. The investigation was assigned to the human rights unit of the Bogotá prosecutor’s office at the end of July after investigators in Huila were reportedly subjected to harassment. One of the motorcycles used in the murder was found. The daily El Tiempo reported that an AUC deserter told investigators Bravo was killed by a breakaway AUC faction because of his corruption coverage.
Jaime Rengifo Revero, the presenter of a programme called "Journalists in action" on Radio Olímpica, was shot dead at dawn on 29 April at the entrance to the Venecia Hotel, where he lived, in Maicao (in the northern department of Guajira) by two men who got away on a motorcycle. No group claimed responsibility and Rengifo had received no direct threats, but the words "Death to Jaime Rengifo" had been painted on the facade of the town hall at the start of April. Rengifo’s radio programme relayed listeners’ criticisms of public companies, local authorities, the army and the police. He had started up a fortnightly publication in February, called El Guajiro, which was distributed in Maracaibo and Bogotá as well as locally. He had recently drawn attention to the violence and corruption caused by local criminal gangs and paramilitary groups.
Juan Carlos Benavides, 25, a reporter with the community radio station Manantial Estereo, was shot dead on the Puerto Asis road in the southern department of Putumayo on the evening of 22 August and a colleague, Jaime Conrado, was wounded. Two men next to a white car at the roadside signalled to the driver of their pickup to slow down. They opened fire when the pickup drew alongside. The two journalists were going to Puerto Asis to cover President Uribe’s visit to the Putumayo region. They were travelling with indigenous reserve governor Camilo Jamioy, his wife, a municipal councillor of Sibundoy and a candidate in the municipal elections, Alex Mejía. The authorities blamed the shooting on the FARC but the perpetrators were never identified. One of the survivors said it was hard to say whether, among all those in the pickup, the journalists were the targets. Two other persons were wounded.
William Soto Cheng, 46, of the local television station Telemar was gunned down at point-blank range by two men on a motorcycle near the Telemar studios in the Pacific-coast port of Buenaventura on 18 December. In his programme "Litoral Pacífico," he often accused local officials and politicians of corruption and other irregularities, and he had claimed that members of the army and police helped rig municipal elections on 26 October in which Saulo Quiñones of the Colombian Liberal Party was elected mayor. He retracted and apologised after he was threatened with legal action.
A colleague said Cheng had a dispute earlier in the year with an official of the municipal sports institute after trying to charge for publishing sports reports. Cheng also reportedly threatened to disparage a water supply company if it insisted on payment of a bill. The same source said Cheng had recently been threatened and had been thinking of leaving Buenaventura. But most of the local journalists contacted by Reporters Without Borders thought Cheng was killed because of his direct reporting style and what he revealed. One said he himself had been threatened after covering Cheng’s murder. Miguel Contreras Montaño was arrested on 23 December on suspicion of having carried out Cheng’s killing. He had reportedly been the bodyguard of Edgar Salazar, an associate of the new mayor, Quiñones.
Four other journalists were killed in 2003 but it was impossible to say at the end of the year if their murders were linked to their work.
Oscar Salazar Jaramillo, a radio journalist and former parliamentarian, was found stabbed to death in his home in Sevilla, in Valle del Cauca department (350 km southwest of Bogotá), on 10 March. He was found lying on his bed, surrounded by liquor bottles. He had been stabbed several times with a kitchen knife. There was no sign of a break-in and nothing appeared to have been stolen. The police thought the murder could have had a personal motive or could have been the work of a common criminal. Salazar was the owner and manager of Radio Sevilla, a station which he founded in 1954 and which was affiliated to Radio Caracol. He presented a weekly local news programme, "Sevilla en 7 días," in which he had reported cases of embezzlement in the municipal government. He had himself held several municipal government posts and was a parliamentarian in the 1970s.
José Emeterio Rivas, 44, of Calor Estereo, was murdered along with a friend on a road 30 km outside the northern city of Barrancabermeja on 6 April. For the past four years, he had presented the programme "Las Fuerzas Vivas" in which he criticised the local government and armed groups. Shortly before his death, he had criticised the municipal government for issuing contracts to people associated with the paramilitaries. He had been benefiting from a government programme for the protection of journalists since 2001 after he criticised abuses by local paramilitaries. He had asked for his protection to be reinforced a month before his murder.
But local journalists said Rivas was a controversial figure. He was prosecuted for "corruption" when he was himself a member of the Barrancabermeja municipal council. Colleagues suspected him of blackmailing. Mayor Julio César Ardila Torres surrendered himself to the authorities on 17 September, two months after a warrant was issued for his arrest on suspicion of instigating Rivas’ murder. Three members of the municipal government had already been arrested on 11 July: Fabio Pajón Lizcano, the deputy head of public works; Juan Pablo Ariza, the deputy head of finances; and Abelardo Rueda, the manager of the urban development agency. The mayor rejected the charges and demanded that the case be transferred to Bucaramanga (in Santander department), claiming that he was the victim of a "political conspiracy."All four were finally cleared in October and the three who had been jailed were released.
José Nel Muñoz, a presenter on radio Latina Estereo in Puerto Asis (in the southern department of Putumayo), was found dead on 6 October near the hamlet of La Libertad, in a FARC-controlled area. He had been shot several times. Nel went to La Libertad to host a local festivity and had not been seen since it ended. His colleagues said he had received no threats and did not broach sensitive issues on his programmes. He could nonetheless have been killed by FARC guerrillas looking for his friend "Alveiro," who helped Nel host the festivity and who was suspected of being linked to the paramilitaries. They may have killed Nel in a fit of anger at failing to find Alveiro. However, acid had been poured into Nel’s mouth, which usually means the victim was deemed to have talked too much.
Zuly Esther Codina Pérez, the presenter of the weekly programme "Entérese" on Radio Rodadero of the Toledar network, was killed by two hitmen as she left her home in the northern city of Santa Marta on 11 November. She also worked as a cashier at the Santa Marta hospital, where she was a union member, and she headed a neighbourhood association. As such, she had criticised the dangerous presence in an adjoining shantytown of clandestine petrol stores - a business controlled by the paramilitaries. However, her families and colleagues said she had not received any threats and they stressed the conciliatory approach she used in all her activities. She had been a journalist for 28 years.
New information on journalists killed before 2003
Jorge Eliécer Vásquez and Rodolfo Nelson Rosado Hernández were sentenced on 13 May 2003 by a court in Valledupar (in the northern department of César) to 39 years in prison for carrying out the murder of Guzmán Quintero Torres, editor of the local daily El Pilón. The instigators have not been identified. Quintero, who wrote about human rights violations by the army, was murdered on 16 September 1999.
The last hearing in the trial of Juan Pablo Ortiz Agudelo and Edilberto Antonio Sierra Ayala for the 1999 murder of journalist and humorist Jaime Garzón, was held on 10 December. The prosecution called for them to be found guilty of carrying out a contract killing, and for Carlos Castaño, the head of the paramilitary AUC, to be convicted in absentia as its instigator. Attorney Alirio Uribe, representing the Garzón family and Reporters Without Borders (which was registered as a plaintiff in the case) supported the call for Castaño’s conviction but he said Ortiz and Sierra should be acquitted.
Uribe argued that the course of the investigation had been perverted by the Department for Administrative Security (DAS) - an intelligence service under the president’s authority - with the help of investigating judge Eduardo Meza. He said the prosecution was based on false testimony provided by the DAS. He accused the DAS of contradicting itself and he accused Meza of failing to pursue leads. He concluded his arguments by calling for an investigation into the irregularities committed by the DAS and Meza. At the end of the hearing, the court adjourned to consider its verdict.
Garzón’s murder on 13 August 1999 in Bogotá is supposed to have been linked to his participation in negotiations to obtain the release of persons abducted by the FARC. Castaño is alleged to have seen this as playing into the hands of the guerrillas. He may have been helped by elements within the army that were also unhappy with Garzón’s role and with the possibility that he might expose military involvement in kidnapping for ransom.
11 journalists kidnapped
Robert Pelton, a journalist with US and Canadian citizenship, was kidnapped on 19 January 2003 in the south of Panama by AUC paramilitaries who had crossed into Panamanian territory. Two students accompanying Pelton were abducted with him. Pelton was in southern Panama preparing a report for National Geographic magazine. AUC chief Carlos Castaño said Pelton was not kidnapped but was "given shelter" from presumed crossfire between the AUC and the FARC. The three were handed over to a humanitarian commission on 24 January and left the country.
British journalist Ruth Morris and US photographer Scott Dalton, on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, were captured by ELN guerrillas on 21 January at an ELN roadblock near the village of Tame in the department of Arauca. They had been hoping to talk to the victims of recent guerrilla attacks in the area and report on the deployment of 60 members of the US special forces, who were supposed to train the Colombian army. They were released on 1 February. Morris told Reporters Without Borders’ correspondent that the guerrillas had probably intended to free them quickly, as early as the next day. But after press reports about the kidnapping, they apparently decided to use the two journalists for propaganda purposes, by handing them over to commission of well-known figures. In the end, the journalists were surrendered to the Red Cross.
Four journalists with RCN Televisión and a freelance photographer were kidnapped by FARC guerrillas on 26 January in the northeastern department of Arauca and held for 36 hours. They had been heading to the city of Arauca (the departmental capital) to cover a car-bomb explosion that had left seven dead. The guerrillas accused them of working for "the television of the Álvaro Uribe government" and threatened several times to murder them if they came back. They were released the next morning but their equipment was confiscated. Three of the journalists subsequently left the region or the country.
Pedro Cárdenas, the news editor of radio RCN Honda in Honda (in the department of Tolima), was kidnapped by presumed AUC paramilitaries on 12 March. Police quickly rescued him and arrested his abductors. Cárdenas had often criticised the municipal authorities in the two programmes he presented, exposing cases of alleged corruption. Nine days before his abduction, he was visited by two men who told him to stop talking about the municipal council. Three days after his abduction, he left Honda for Bogotá. He left the country altogether on 17 June after receiving new threats apparently linked to the deposition he made about his kidnappers.
Jineth Bedoya and John Wilson Vizcaíno of the daily El Tiempo were kidnapped by members of the FARC’s "Front 44" section in Puerto Alvira, in the central department of Meta, on 8 August as they were investigating the fate of 70 families that had disappeared since a guerrilla operation in the village in 2002. They were held for five days and their material was confiscated.
Two journalists imprisoned
Two journalists were imprisoned in 2003 but it was impossible to say at the end of the year if their imprisonment was linked to their work.
Emiro Goyeneche, one of the main presenters on Sarare Estéreo, a radio station in the town of Saravena (in the northeastern department of Arauca), was arrested by soldiers as he was hosting his morning programme on 20 August. Twenty-nine other persons were rounded up in the same military operation. Goyeneche was accused of "rebellion" because of supposed links with the ELN guerrillas, but his lawyer, Daniel Acevedo, said the charge was unfounded. His colleagues said the arrest was a mistake. Several had accused the authorities of harassing them on account of their programmes.
The accusation against Goyeneche was based on information provided by presumed ELN deserters. After previous roundups carried out on the basis of tip-offs from informers, the judicial authorities had to release many suspects because of the lack of proof. Goyeneche was being held at Combita high-security prison in Boyacá department, which is notorious for cases of torture and its high death rate.
Ricardo Perea Vargas of the ecological magazine Regeneración was arrested with four other persons by police detectives near the town of Los Patios in Norte de Santander department, near the Venezuelan border, on 30 November. He was accused of "rebellion" and of having information about armed groups. At the time of his arrest, he was on his way back from Venezuela where he attended a congress organised by the Venezuelan government. The police confiscated computer diskettes, video cassettes and notes from the five detainees. The Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP) quoted another Regeneración journalist, Francisco Restrepo, as saying Perea went to Venezuela to cover the congress.
Three journalists detained
Danilo Sarmiento, a photographer with the daily El Tiempo, was detained by agents of the DAS intelligence agency on 17 January 2003 after taking photos of the arrival of 60 US special forces trainers at a military base. He was taken to a DAS office in the northeastern city of Arauca and forced to erase the shots from his digital camera. He was joined there by Jorge Enrique Meléndez of El Tiempo and Carlos Pérez of RCN radio who had gone looking for him. All three were held for two hours on the grounds that their press cards had expired although this document is no longer used.
Eight journalists physically attacked
Someone opened fire on journalist Eduardo Ardila on 15 January in the streets of Florencia (in the southern department of Caquetá) but he managed to find refuge in a house until police arrived. As a result of his coverage of the civil war, Ardila had already received threats from paramilitary groups, which accused him of bias in favour of the guerrillas. He was forced to leave the region.
Caracol TV correspondent Rodrigo Ávila and RCN Televisión correspondent Carlos Pérez were clubbed with gun butts and punched by soldiers on 26 January in the northeastern department of Arauca to stop them filming the arrival of car-bomb victims at a hospital. Six soldiers had been killed by the blast.
Herminso Ruiz, a photographer with the weekly El Espectador, was hit by metropolitan police on 8 February in Bogotá as he took pictures of the devastation caused by a bomb explosion at El Nogal, a club frequented by politicians and businessmen. Ruiz arrived at the scene before police cordoned it off and refused to leave when asked. Several police officers then set upon him, beating him and confiscating his camera.
José Iván Aguilar, the presenter of the programme "Noticias Ya" on Radio Súper in Villavicencio, was heading to work on 6 May when two men on a motorcycle pulled up alongside his car. One said: "It’s the journalist" and then three shots were fired, one of which grazed him. Aguilar’s programmes often dealt with the civil war and corruption. A few months before, he had exposed a case of corruption involving the mayor, and interviewed a paramilitary commander. He had already been threatened several times two years earlier. A bomb went off near Radio Súper’s studios on 7 April 2002, a few days after he reported the discovery of an AUC mass grave near Villavicencio.
Yesenia Ayala of Enlace Diez Televisión and cameraman Guillermo Gómez were attacked at the oil terminal in the northeastern city of Barrancabermeja on 21 June while covering a demonstration by workers called by their union. When clashes broke out with police, the journalists were threatened by demonstrators who demanded that they stop filming. They left to avoid being hit.
Jorge Real Castilla, a cameraman with RCN TV in Valledupar (in the northern department of César), was manhandled by soldiers on 18 August when he filmed the bodies of rebels killed by the army. His material was confiscated. After the TV station’s managers intervened with the military authorities, his material was returned, but it had been damaged.
31 journalists threatened
On 3 March, Gladys Barajas, the head of the Circle of Colombian News Photographers (CRGC), announced her intention of fleeing Colombia after receiving an e-mail message the previous evening warning her that she had seven days to live and that her silence "would no longer suffice" to save her life. Previously, on 17 and 25 February, she received two anonymous letters saying "the time of defending journalists is over" and pronouncing "death to trade unionists and press freedom activists." Barajas had recently campaigned for the release of foreign journalists held hostage by guerrillas.
Patricia Sánchez, the correspondent of the daily El Tiempo in the western city of Buenaventura, was threatened in early March after covering the arrest of eight presumed FARC militiamen. Soon afterwards, she received a written threat warning her not to cover the arrest of a presumed paramilitary accused of murdering both a policeman and a member of the local prosecutor’s office. Sánchez left the region shortly thereafter.
Rodrigo Ávila, Caracol Televisión’s correspondent in the city of Arauca, received anonymous threats by telephone on 20 March as he was covering the funeral of Luis Eduardo Alfonso of radio Meridiano 70, who was killed two days earlier. The caller warned him that he was next on the hit list.
Two hit lists naming a total 18 journalists in Arauca department were handed on 28 March to Rodrigo Ávila, Caracol Televisión’s correspondent in the city of Arauca, himself one of those named. One list was thought to have come from the FARC guerrillas, the other from the AUC paramilitaries. The second list included the names of two local journalists who had recently been killed. Believing they were under sentence of death, 13 of the journalists left the region for Bogotá, where they hoped to obtain government protection. At least seven subsequently returned to Arauca after the authorities undertook to protect them. However, these undertakings were only partially fulfilled.
Diógenes Cadena Castellano of radio Huila Stereo left Neiva (in Huila department) for Bogotá on 4 May because of messages saying he would be "next" which he had been receiving ever since 29 April, the day after journalist Guillermo Bravo Vega’s murder in Neiva (see above). Cadena said he did not know who sent the messages, pointing out that both the FARC and the AUC were present in the Neiva region. Cadena had investigated corruption cases in recent months. Like Bravo, he also raised questions in 2002 about the way the city hall privatised a state company.
Albeiro Sánchez, Francisco de la Hoz, Wilfredo Vargas, Hernán Díaz and Eladio Narváez of Radio Delfín in Riohacha (in La Guajira department) received several death threats by telephone on 8 May while polling listeners about the profile of the next mayor. They were told to stop the poll and not name the candidates for mayor on the air.
It was reported on 21 May that Adonai Cárdenas Castillo, the correspondent of the daily El País in the western city of Buenaventura, had received several death threats by telephone as a result of an article on 2 April accusing the paramilitaries of being linked to criminal groups and blaming them for the city’s high murder rate.
Fernando Marimón, the editor and presenter of the news programme "Mundial" on Radio Vigía in the northern city of Cartagena, was criticising the government’s referendum on corruption on the air on 25 September when an unidentified caller threatened to shut him up.
Rosa Omaira Moreno of the newspapers La Voz del Chocó and Presente left Colombia with her two daughters on 7 October. Moreno, who was also a radio presenter and editor of the magazine El Congreso, had often criticised abuses by both guerrilla groups and paramilitaries in the western department of Chocó, where she lived. She had taken refuge in Bogotá since March 2003 after being threatened by the FARC. In the capital, she had been forced to move home five times because of threats thought to have come from the paramilitaries. She had previously had to leave Chocó in the early 1990s after criticising her brother-in-law’s 1992 murder by the FARC.
Erika Manchola, a correspondent in the southern city of Florencia for the regional daily La Nación de Neiva, fled to Bogotá on 8 October after receiving anonymous threats for the previous four months. Initially, after discussing it with her editors, she decided to stay in Florencia and adopt safety measures. But shortly after reporting in September that the army had close relations with the extreme right-wing AUC paramilitaries, she had received an anonymous call suggesting she should leave.
Two armed men on a motorcycle approached Pedro Javier Galvis Murillo of the weekly La Noticia in the centre of Barrancabermeja (in the northeastern department du Santander) on 14 October and gave him a week to leave the region. He had been working for La Noticia for just two weeks, mainly covering local news and court cases. He left Barrancabermeja four days after receiving the warning.
Yaneth Montoya, the correspondent of the regional daily La Vanguardia Liberal in Barrancabermeja, received an anonymous call at home on 24 October warning her of an AUC plan to kill her. Two days before, the department’s ombudsman had been told of an AUC hit list on which Montoya’s name appeared. She had been reporting on the civil war and judicial matters for the newspaper for the past three years. Eight months pregnant, she gave birth prematurely as a result of the stress and was forced to leave the city.
An anonymous threatening letter was received on 24 October by the editorial staff of the news programme "Noticolombia" on the local cable TV station CNC in the southeastern city of Popayán. The letter was addressed to the "enemies" of a candidate in the municipal elections due to take place on 26 October. The day before, the programme had accused the candidate of using a fax machine belonging to a public body for electoral purposes. The programme’s editor, Adriana Payán, had received threats at the end of September after reporting similar irregularities.
José Domingo Pitta Vega of "Noticias Caracol" on the local radio station La Voz del Cinaruco and a reporter for the newspaper Nueva Frontera in the northeastern city of Arauca, was told on 18 December that the ELN guerrillas were planning to kill him. Pitta said he had already escaped a murder attempt on 9 December in the town of Guasdualito, on the border with Venezuela. Station manager Carmen Rosa Pabón had meanwhile received death threats from the FARC which accused her of just reporting the press releases issued by the local authorities.
Harassment and obstruction
Two journalists with the daily La Vanguardia Liberal, reporter Abdel Martínez and photographer Raúl López, went to the prison in Valledupar (in the northern department of César) on 18 January 2003 to cover a hunger strike by inmates. From outside, López managed to take photos of prisoners waving their shirts through the windows of their cells. Prison guards then invited the two journalists to enter, but once inside they were forced to surrender their digital camera. After the prisoner photos had been erased, the camera was returned and they were allowed to leave.
The weekly El Espectador reported on 11 May that police intelligence services obtained a copy of the first draft of an investigative article it wrote on alleged irregularities in the Banco del Pacífico. The article, later published, said loans were made to people linked to the bank’s board of governors in 1997 when current interior and justice minister Fernando Londoño Hoyos was its chairman. The weekly alleged that the police director general, Gen. Teodoro Campo, gave Londoño a copy of the first draft. The minister acknowledged receiving a copy of the draft, but insisted that it arrived anonymously, in an unmarked envelope. Gen. Campo for his part denied any involvement.
Senator Juan Gómez Martínez, a former editor of the daily El Colombiano, on 16 June withdrew a bill he had presented envisaging sentences of up to four years in prison for defamation. Gómez said his aim was not to restrict press freedom but to "make journalism more responsible." National Assembly representative Jesús Ignacio García said it would have "criminalized" journalism and could have forced journalists to reveal their sources in violation of the constitution.
Members of the FARC attacked a National Radio and Television Institute (Inravisión) relay tower on 23 September. They forced technicians to vacate the location before setting fire to equipment and dynamiting the tower. Many areas in Cauca, Valle and Nariño departments (in the west and south-west of the country) were deprived of the regional public television services, in particular, Canal Uno, Canal A, Señal Colombia and Telepacífico.
A Bogotá judge on 18 November sentenced Lisandro Duque, a columnist with the daily El Espectador, to three days in prison and a fine of 470 euros for failing to publish the correction that was ordered when he was convicted of libel. Duque had been found guilty of libelling Claudia Triana de Vargas, the head of a film production company, in a 13 April column. He issued a correction on 7 September, but he wrote that there was not "sufficient proof" to substantiate his criticism of Triana instead of writing that there was no proof. The judge ruled on 18 November in favour of Triana’s petition that the correction did not comply with the court order. Duque appealed.
Beatriz Elena Mantilla, the correspondent of the daily La Vanguardia Liberal in Barrancabermeja (in the northeastern department of Santander) received a phone call on 27 November from Col. Ricardo Bernal telling her that she was henceforth persona non grata in the battalion he commanded. He criticised the newspaper for giving more importance to a soldier’s accidental death - which Mantilla had covered - that President Uribe’s visit to the region.
Congress on 10 December passed a so-called "anti-terrorist statute" proposed by President Uribe’s government that would amend the constitution. Among the powers it gave the military was the authority to carry out arrests and searches, tap telephones and intercept mail without a judicial warrant when someone is suspected of terrorist links. The first draft envisaged sentences of as much as 8-12 years in prison for the dissemination of reports that endanger army operations or encourage terrorist activity. A provision introduced later banned the media from revealing the names of persons arrested during the first 72 hours they are held, on the grounds that this protected their reputation. This provision was eventually also dropped. The "statute" was still pending the approval of the constitutional court at the end of the year. If obtained, it could take effect in 2004.