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Colombia14 April 2006

Video smears journalist, portrays him as FARC supporter

Reporters Without Borders today called for an investigation into a campaign to smear and endanger Colombian freelance journalist Hollman Morris by means of a video portraying him as an advocate for the leftist guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It seems likely that members of the military and right-wing paramilitaries were responsible for the video, which began circulating in Bogotá last month.

“Morris has never hidden his criticism of President Alvaro Uribe on human rights issues,” the press freedom organisation said. “Can he be blamed for saying the atrocities of the civil war are not just the work of the guerrillas but also, and to a significant degree, the army and paramilitaries as well?”

Reporters Without Borders continued : “The Colombian authorities must accept that it is the press’s job to criticise. They must also realise that they cannot claim to be engaged in a peace process while letting the paramilitaries and certain members of the army use smear campaigns to escape responsibility for what they have done.”

The organisation added : “We hope there will be a proper judicial probe into the origins of this video, with the use of expert evidence, and that possibility of military involvement is investigated.”

Based in Bogotá, Morris heads a documentary production company that bears his name, making weekly documentaries for the “Contravía” programme on the public TV station Canal Uno. He has often covered subjects related to the 40-year-old civil war including, recently, one about a massacre of eight peasants on 21 February 2005 in the northwestern village of San José de Apartadó, a self-declared “peace community.” President Uribe caused an outcry by suggesting there were contacts between the villagers and the FARC, which had accused them of being in cahoots with the army.

Three people publicly accused the army of involvement in the San José de Apartadó massacre. One was Father Javier Giraldo, who worked with the peace community. Another was the village’s former mayor, Gloria Cuartas, who is now a candidate for the Alternative Democratic Pole. Morris was the third.

An anti-FARC propaganda video began circulating in the provinces last September, reaching the capital in March. It is supposed to be the work of a unknown group called the Social Front for Peace (FSP) while the production house is ironically identified as “Chávez-Castro Ltda.” In the final minutes of the video, Father Giraldo, Cuartas and Morris are presented as FARC spokesmen. Statements they have made are taken out of context to create the impression that they support the FARC, as Reporters Without Borders confirmed when it viewed the video.

The FSP portrays itself as a human rights organisation but according to Cuartas, the former mayor, it is a cover for demobilised paramilitaries. Cuartas insists that the military are responsible for the video’s distribution, which has come in the run-up to elections next month. Morris believes the authorities are behind it, and he views it as “one more link in a chain of threats” against him. He has already been the target of reprisals for criticising the Uribe administration.

The military raided his production house in 2004, seizing equipment and material. He received a funeral wreath and death threats on 17 May 2005. The president’s office voiced outrage about this at the time. But Morris told Reporters Without Borders : “One month later, as I was doing a documentary for the BBC, President Uribe said on the country’s main TV stations that it was sad to see journalism playing into the hands of terrorism. He was alluding to me and the BBC.” Members of an intelligence agency known as the DAS were caught spying on his company’s premises without a judicial order in August 2005.

Uribe is tipped to win his bid for reelection on 28 May but he is under attack from part of the press. The latest issues of the magazines Semana and Cambio referred to links between government officials and paramilitaries and the possibility that his 2002 election victory was due to fraud. There is also criticism of the handling of the disarmament of the paramilitaries, who are still influential and deeply involved in drug trafficking. Uribe reacted on 12 April, attacking media that “exploit press freedom to usurp the role of the courts” and suggesting that a return to censorship could be possible.

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