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-  Surface area: 1,138,914 sq. km.
-  Population: 42,105,000
-  Language: Spanish
-  Type of State: unitary republic

COLOMBIA - Annual report 2002 (1/2)

The ongoing civil war is also a war of information in which journalists continue to be victims. Organised crime and corrupt government officials take part in violence against the media, encouraged by the fact that 95 per cent of such crimes go unpunished. The government’s response is inadequate.

Attacks on press freedom once more produced a heavy toll in 2001. Three journalists and a media assistant were killed, eight journalists were forced to flee abroad and six were attacked and 19 threatened. But these figures are only a small part of the picture because journalists often kept quiet about threats they receive for fear of reprisal. Six other journalists were killed but Reporters Without Borders does not have enough information to say whether their deaths were due to their journalistic activity.

Most of the attacks on press freedom were linked with the civil war pitting the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC) against the guerrillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). The war is also one of information.

"I cannot allow journalism to become a weapon in the hands of one of the parties to the conflict," AUC chief Carlos Castaño said, explaining the murder of journalists. The biggest threat to journalists now is

the AUC, which murdered two of them and threatened many more during 2001. The Communist Party weekly Voz was particularly affected. The FARC, led by Manuel Marulanda, and the chief of the ELN, Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista, have also declared journalists to be "military targets." In February, the ELN leader justified the kidnapping of journalists by saying the media was biased against the ELN. In October, a FARC communiqué accused the daily El Tiempo and the RCN and Caracol media groups of being "enemies of the peace process" that the FARC had begun with the government. Whole regions of the country have become very dangerous for journalists. In the southwestern province of Nariño alone, one journalist was killed, nearly a dozen threatened or forced to leave the region and at least two media silenced.

As well as armed groups, organised crime, government officials and members of the security forces also attacked the media. In the province of Caqueta, the murder of José Duviel Vásquez appears to have been ordered by the provincial governor, who he had accused of embezzlement. The affair was complicated because the governor is thought to have been elected with the support of the guerrillas operating in the region. In the case of four journalists forced into exile, threats also came from state representatives. The central government itself, which usually respects press freedom, was criticised for two instances of exerting pressure on the media.

The repeated violence against the media was made possible by the impunity enjoyed by more than 95 per cent of the perpetrators. Some of those who order the killings are untouchable. The murder of journalist Jaime Garzón was allegedly ordered by Carlos Castaño himself, head of the AUC’s 8,000-strong army. The acquittal in April of those accused of murdering Nelson Carvajal raised the question of where trials could be effectively held. The Constitution says they must take place in the region where the crime was committed, but local judges are under tremendous pressure. In September, the escape from prison of a parliamentary deputy accused of ordering the murder of two journalists showed how corruption is part of the impunity.

To cope with this difficult situation, the government at the end of 2000 set up a scheme to protect journalists, but it only had a small budget. The programme did not have the means to protect journalists working in the provinces, so it moved them to the provincial capital or to Bogotá for their safety, which suited those who made the threats because it conveniently got rid of them. To try to fight impunity, the government in October boosted funding for the human rights unit in the public prosecutor’s office responsible for investigating the murder of 27 journalists. Some killers have been arrested in recent years, but the masterminds are still only rarely touched.

Media diversity suffered a heavy blow when the robustly independent El Espectador, the country’s only national daily apart from El Tiempo, downgraded itself to a weekly in September because of heavy debts. This was bad news in a country where the main national media are already in the hands of two or three powerful economic groups.

Because of the repeated attacks by their armed groups on freedom of the press, Carlos Castaño, Manuel Manulanda and Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista, have been placed by Reporters Without Borders on its world-wide list of predators of press freedom.

Three journalists killed

Flavio Bedoya, correspondent of the Communist Party weekly Voz in Tumaco (Nariño province) was murdered on 27 April 2001 by hired killers. Aged 52 and father of three daughters, he had received death threats after writing an article about the extortions of paramilitary forces in the region that appeared on 4 April together with an interview with a FARC commander. He criticised "the inability of the army and police to capture the criminals." Carlos Lozano, managing editor of Voz, said all left-wing militants in the region, including Bedoya, had received threats since paramilitary forces arrived in Tumaco in September 2000. Some had fled the region in early 2001. Thirty-nine people were murdered for political reasons in the town in the space of eight months. Bedoya also denounced corruption in articles in a local publication, El Faro, whose editor was also forced to leave the region. Nariño province, on the border with Ecuador and with a long Pacific coastline, is a strategic area for drug and arms smugglers. Paramilitary groups, guerrillas and drug-lords battle to control it, especially the regional port, Tumaco.

José Duviel Vásquez, news editor of the Voz de la Selva radio station in Florencia (750 km southwest of Bogotá), was shot dead on 6 July by two men on a motor-cycle soon after he had left the radio. Omar Garcia, a colleague who was wounded in the attack, later recalled in the weekly Semana the major scandals Duviel Vásquez had exposed, including alleged embezzlement by the governor of Caqueta, Pablo Adriano Muñoz, whose large personal security budget he had noted. Duviel Vásquez had sued the governor for libel after he accused the journalist of endangering his life with his constant criticism. Duviel Vásquez’ lawyer, Carlos Alberto Beltrán, who was also administrator of La Voz de la Selva, was forced to leave Florencia after surviving an attempt to kill him. A source close to the radio said that since the death of Duviel Vásquez, no journalist in the region had dared to criticise the governor, who was also thought to have ties with the FARC guerrillas, who are very active in the region. Duviel Vásquez was the radio station’s third journalist to have been murdered in the space of eight months. The two earlier killings, of Guillermo León Agudelo, on 30 November 2000, and Alfredo Abad, 15 days later, were seen by Liberal Party deputy Diego Turbay, the station’s owner, as a "warning" by the FARC. Turbay himself was murdered on 29 December 2000 by a commando presumed to be from the FARC.

Jorge Enrique Urbano Sánchez, of the radio station Mar Estereo (part of the Todelar group), was killed on 8 July when two people on a motor-cycle fired four shots at him and also wounded a friend of his. He had denounced lawlessness in Buenaventura, a port town in the western province of Valle, where he also worked as head of an organisation in charge of maintaining the town’s public spaces. Two months earlier, he had been threatened after taking part in the eviction of drug addicts and the removal of vendors from a public park. He also worked for a TV programme, "Amanecer Porteño," put out by the local TV station Telemar.

Six other journalists were killed in 2001 but it was not possible to say by year-end if their deaths were to do with their work as journalists.

Yesid Marulanda, a sports reporter with the "Notipacífico" programme broadcast by the regional TV station Telepacífico, in Cali, was murdered on 3 May by two hired killers. His family said he had not received any threats.

Eduardo Estrada Gutiérrez, president of the Association for Development of Communication and Culture of San Pablo (Adecosan), was killed on 16 July in San Pablo (Bolivar province), as Adecosan was preparing to set up a community radio station. A source which insisted on anonymity told reporters Without Borders he had been killed because he was due to take part in a meeting between civil society groups and the ELN guerrillas. According to the Association of Community Radios of Magdalena Medio (Aredmag), linked to Adecosan, the journalist paid tribute to his efforts to broaden access to the media. The Inter-American Press Association said he had probably been killed simply because he worked for a community radio. Such stations are considered strategically important by the armed groups in the region who seek to control them to bolster their own position. Two other community radio journalists may have been killed for similar reasons though it was not known what they had said on the air. They were Pablo Emilio Parra Castañeda (murdered on 27 June), owner and presenter of the station Planadas Cultural Estereo and Red Cross chief in the town of Planadas for more than two years, and Arquimedes Arias Henao (killed on 4 July), who was boss of the station Fresno Estereo and had set up three other community radios in the region, of which he still owned one, Armonia FM Estereo, in Palocabildo. Both men worked in Tolima province, where FARC guerrillas and paramilitary groups are active.

Omar de Jesús Castañeda Jaramillo, of the Mirador Estereo community radio in Chinchiná (Caldas province), was killed on 17 August. A colleague said that while he had worked at Caracol Radio, he had denounced alleged abuses in the town government. Another colleague said he had reported on police brutality in December 1998 and was investigating suspected police involvement in summary executions. A third source said he had clashed with residents of the Mirador district of Chinchiná about ownership of the Mirador Estereo station.

Alvaro Alonso Escobar, managing editor and owner of the weekly paper La Región and correspondent in Fundación (in Magdalena province, 850 km north of Bogotá) of the daily El Informador, was shot dead near his home on 23 December by a man he had just had an argument with. Some thought the killing may have been for personal reasons. El Informador said the articles he wrote for the paper about events in Fundación and the nearby area were not especially critical and did not deal with the war between armed groups in the region. Both the paper and the police said he had not been threatened. He wrote and distributed by himself La Región, which also avoided sensitive topics.

A media assistant killed

A driver known as "Lelo," who worked for foreign journalists covering the negotiations between the government and the FARC in the demilitarised zone, was murdered on 10 October 2001 at San Vicente del Caguan (Caqueta province). His body was found with a bullet through his mouth beside his burnt-out car. He was thought to have been killed by four paramilitary soldiers who pretended they were journalists. His murder was taken as a warning by the paramilitaries to the region’s journalists. The government’s challenging of the existence of the demilitarised zone raised fears among journalists of being accused of complicity with the guerrillas if AUC forces were to invade the region.

New information on journalists killed before 2001

The high court in Neiva (Huila province) in April 2001 upheld the acquittal by a lower court of Fernando Bermúdez, Víctor Trujillo and Álvaro Quintero, accused of murdering Radio Sur journalist Nelson Carvajal on 16 April 1998. The decision angered the public prosecutor’s office, which said businessman Bermúdez had ordered the murder, with Trujillo and Quintero as accomplices. Carvajal was killed while investigating corruption in the former town government in Pitalito (southwest of Bogotá), of which Bermúdez was a member. Although the public prosecutor’s recommendations are usually followed by judges, the lower court found the evidence insufficient and the witnesses unreliable and opted for a version of events dismissed by investigators. The prosecutor’s office said the result would have been different if the case had been tried in Bogotá, beyond the reach of local pressure. The Colombian constitution requires a trial to be held in the province where the crime was committed.

Former parliamentary deputy Carlos Alberto Oviedo, allegedly behind the murder of journalists Ernesto Acero Cadena and Jairo Elías Márquez, escaped from prison in early September after apparently bribing members of the National Prisons Institute (INPEC). Oviedo, who has been blamed for nearly a dozen killings in all, had been arrested and jailed for 39 years for homicide. Despite the stiff sentence, he was given privileged treatment and held in a "house prison," where he was watched by a guard. The day after he escaped, the justice minister announced an immediate criminal and disciplinary enquiry into the behaviour of 10 INPEC officials, including its former chief. The enquiry results have not been disclosed. Acero Cadena, a journalist on the magazine El Informador Socioeconómico, killed in December 1995, and Elías Márquez, owner of the fortnightly El Marqués, who was killed on 20 November 1997, had both criticised the former deputy for corruption.

Edilberto Antonio Sierra ("Toño") was arrested on 27 September, suspected of being the driver of the motor-cycle that carried the killer of journalist Jaime Garzón, who was murdered on 13 August 1999. The suspect was said to be close to a petty criminal known as "El Bocha," already arrested in connection with the case and suspected of being the actual killer. An arrest warrant was issued in 2000 against the leader of the AUC, Carlos Castaño, who is thought to have ordered the killing of Garzón, a journalist and humorist on Radionet and Caracol Televisión. Investigators said Castaño had criticised him for acting as an intermediary in the release of people kidnapped by the guerrillas. The public prosecutor dismissed a suggestion that sections of the army, also irritated by Garzón’s efforts, had been involved in the killing.

Part 2

americas countries list
1. Americas introduction

see also
Annual report 2002

Hard times for press freedom
Africa annual report 2002
Asia annual report 2002
Europe annual report 2002
Maghreb / Middle-East annual report 2002