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Colombia


Area : 1,138,910 sq.km.
Population : 45,600,000.
Language : Spanish.
Head of state : President Alvaro Uribe Vélez.

Colombia - Annual report 2007

Three journalists were killed and seven others forced to flee their region or even the country after being threatened. The paramilitary forces, dismantled but not disarmed, continue to terrorise people, especially in northern provinces.

President Alvaro Uribe, reelected on 28 May 2006, started off his second term poorly, with a new breakdown in talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas (about 17,000 fighters whose leaders are active enemies of press freedom), a scandal about bogus attacks by the army that were attributed to the FARC, another about links between ruling-party politicians and the paramilitaries and the failed demobilisation of the paramilitaries.

The 2003 “Justice and Peace” plan that ended in April 2006 demobilised 30,000 militia members of the right-wing United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC), in exchange for not being punished. So the plan satisfied nobody, especially not local journalists, who continued to be threatened by these predators of press freedom too, who were not disarmed and who simply switched to drug-trafficking and contract killings.

Four men, including two former paramilitaries, were arrested in the murder of Gustavo Rojas Gabalo (“El Gaba”), of Radio Panzemu, in the northwestern town of Montería. He had denounced local corruption and was shot by two men on a motorcycle on 4 February, dying in hospital six weeks later.

August was the worst month for the media, with the murder on the 9th of Milton Fabián Sánchez, of the community radio station Yumbo Estéreo, in the western town on Yumbo. The crime has not been solved but the journalist also tackled other sensitive subjects such as lawlessness and human rights violations. Atilano Segundo Pérez, programme director of Radio Toledar, in the northern town of Los Alpes de Cartagena, may have been killed on 22 August because he publicly denounced the criminal activities of a supposedly demobilised group of paramilitaries.

Forced to go into exile

The paramilitaries, condemned as leading enemies of the media by the country’s Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) and well-established in northern coastal provinces, often threatened journalists and forced them to flee the region and sometimes the country. Olga Cecilia Vega, of the US daily The New Herald, has received death threats and warnings and been spied on ever since she interviewed a FARC military chieftain in October 2005. She had to leave the southern town of Florencia quickly on 1 February after an ultimatum from two strangers who accused her of being a “guerrilla.” She twice escaped AUC attempts to kill her in 2002 when she worked for RCN Radio.

Nine other journalists were similarly forced to flee. Herbín Hoyos Medina, a formed FARC hostage and presenter of the “Voices of captivity” programme on Radio Caracol, fled the country on 6 July after repeated threats from a mysterious Action and Justice Front for Freedom and Democracy. The also-unknown Social Front for Peace tried to compromise Hollman Morris, producer of the programme “Contravía” on the state-run TV station Canal Uno, by distributing a bogus video presenting him as a FARC spokesman. But former paramilitaries were behind it. Morris also enraged the army, the government and President Uribe himself, whose handling of the civil war he publicly criticised.

Defamatory accusations of working with guerrillas were also made in threats in June by paramilitaries (renamed The Democratic Front for Free Colombia and the United National Board for Free Colombia Self-Defence) against the NGO Media for Peace and 28 others, including FLIP. A “Black Eagles” commando waged a terror campaign in the north against local media, especially Radio Galeón, based in Santa Marta, from October to December.

The simmering conflict with neighbouring Venezuela (Uribe suspects Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez of collaborating with the FARC) affected the media for the first time when Freddy Muñoz, Colombia correspondent for the Caracas-based Latin American TV station Telesur, which has close ties to Chávez, was arrested in Bogotá on 19 November and charged a month later with “rebellion and terrorism.” He was accused (without evidence) of being behind a FARC attack in 2002 but was conditionally freed on 9 January 2007.



 
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