Reporters Without Borders today said it was devastated to learn that Otoniel Sánchez, a journalist working for local TV station CNC in the southwestern city of Cartago, was forced to flee the city after an attack on his home on 19 October.
The press freedom organisation also condemned repeated attempts by a group of suspected paramilitaries known as the “Black Eagles” to intimidate journalists Vanny Johann Sierra Mójica of the Hoy Diario de Magdalena newspaper and Camilo Munive of Radio Galeón in the northern Santa Marta area in the past month.
“The situation of these journalists unfortunately reflects that of all the local press in Colombia, which has to censor itself if it wants to survive and keep on working,” Reporters Without Borders said. “We voice our full support for these three journalists and we urge the authorities to protect them.”
The organisation added: “Those who investigate the threats against Sánchez should take a look at the Cartago municipal government. As for the ‘Black Eagles,’ they must be quickly dismantled and their members must be punished. And the demobilisation of Colombia’s paramilitaries must be accompanied by effective disarmament.”
According to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), gunmen fired on Sánchez’s home in Cartago at 2 a.m. on 19 October after he reported mismanagement at the municipal ice rink. Sánchez told the FLIP he had repeatedly received threatening phone calls. “We are tired of your comments,” a caller said on one occasion.
The night before the shooting attack, Sánchez received an anonymous phone call in which he was asked if he had received the package sent to his office. In fact, Sánchez’s colleagues returned the package to the delivery company fearing it might be a parcel bomb. It was finally opened by police bomb disposal experts, who found three 9 mm bullets inside, the same calibre as those fired at his home.
There was also a message inside the package that said: “You journalists think the bullet won’t hit you but you are completely wrong. Or have you forgotten what happened to Polanco, of the same TV station?” CNC news director Oscar Polanco was murdered in Cartago on 4 February 2004. Cartago-based radio journalist Candela Estéreo meanwhile received a parcel bomb on 3 October which fortunately did not go off.
Sánchez is the seventh journalist to have to flee the region where they work in Colombia since the start of the year. Exactly when he left Cartago and where he has gone is being kept secret.
In Ciénaga, 30 km outside Santa Marta, Sierra has received four letters and Munive has received 10 phone calls in the past month telling them to shut up and leave the town where they both work as local correspondents. They told Reporters Without Borders the harassment began after they reported an increase in the local murder rate a month ago. The messages are signed “Black Eagles,” who are assumed to be a local paramilitary group.
Several demobilised paramilitaries were arrested and questioned by the police as part of their initial investigation into the threats. Ciénaga is currently home to about 180 former members of the right-wing paramilitary groups that used to combat the left-wing guerrillas. These groups have been demobilised and are now the recipients of government-run social reintegration programmes.
The local police chief told Reporters Without Borders he checked the activities of the demobilised paramilitaries every month but acknowledged that some of them had “not followed the path they were supposed to take in the reintegration process.” At the same time, the threats against the two journalists could also have come from ordinary criminals.
Munive has been given police protection after filing a complaint, but Sierra did not follow suit, fearing that it might only expose him to greater danger.