Six journalists were murdered in 2007 but only one of the killings was thought to be job-related. Crimes against media workers have fallen under President Uribe but he is vindictive towards journalists, putting their lives in danger. The media remains the target of armed groups and six journalists were forced to flee the country during the year.
The murder of Elacio Murillo Mosquera, correspondent for the weekly Chocó 7 Días and programme chief for the radio station Canalete Estéreo, on 10 January 2007, was the only one of the six journalist deaths during the year that might have been job-related. Shot dead by a motorcyclist (later arrested), he had been investigating the activity of armed groups in the coastal province of Chocó and had reported the demobilisation of 150 paramilitaries of the “Bloque Pacífico” section of the right-wing United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC). If Murillo Mosquera’s murder turns out not to be related to his work, 2007 will be the first year since 1985 that no journalist has been killed in Colombia for doing his job. In the second half of the year, five other journalists were murdered but for reasons unrelated to their work.
The fewer crimes against media workers under the rule of President Alvaro Uribe (elected in 2002 and reelected in 2006 on a national security platform) is an achievement in a country at war with itself for the past 42 years and notorious for its extreme danger. But press freedom has not really improved at the same time. The AUC, officially demobilised between 2003 and 2006, has not disarmed and has kept its influence, even in the political background, where some of the media is poorly regarded. Two gunmen, suspected members of The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), went to the hotel of freelance photographer Afranio Franco in Planadas (Tolima province) in May 2007 and forced him to hand over his film. He had earlier had death threats. Ten employees of the radio station HJ Doble K in Neiva (in the southwestern province of Huila) were injured in the bombing of the station on 22 March just as the local mayor was due to visit it.
Threats attributed to the FARC also forced the head of Caracol Radio, Darío Arizmendi, to leave the country on 8 March. Germán Hernández Vera, editor of the daily Diario del Huila, in Neiva, also fled abroad later that month apparently after FARC threats. The journalist had recently exposed embezzlement.
Exile or death
Killings of journalists have been replaced by flight into exile. Seven fled the country or their region in 2007, one more than in 2006. Hollman Morris, producer of a programme currently off the schedule of state-owned TV station Canal Uno for financial reasons, left with his family for the United States on 21 October after new e-mailed death threats. He had also been forced to flee in 2005 after being accused of being “a FARC spokesman” in a video distributed by a paramilitary group.
Drug-smuggling remained the most dangerous subject for the media to cover. The curiosity of Rubén Valencia, managing editor of the regional daily Q’hubo, in Cali, about Olmes Durán Ibargüen (“El Doctor”), head of the Pacific coast drug cartel arrested in Bogotá on 15 June, resulted in a contract being put out to kill him. Giovanni Alvarez, of the community radio station La Nueva in the northern city of Barranquilla, fled abroad in October following serious threats to him after he reported on corruption during the regional election campaign.
Journalists also risk their lives if they look too closely at the ties between the authorities and the paramilitaries since they officially disbanded, ties some call “para-politics”. Death threats from former or present AUC members sometimes come only hours after a journalist has been criticised by a politician, a police officer or even the president.
An irritable president
President Uribe does not like being criticised and often personally takes issue with journalists, which would not matter if the media was working in safe conditions. Uribe made at least three such attacks in 2007. He accused Carlos Lozano, editor of the communist weekly Voz, of being “in the pay of FARC” when speaking on Caracol Radio in February. Daniel Coronell, news editor of the publicly-owned TV station Canal Uno and columnist for the magazine Semana, had to argue live with the president on radio station La FM on 9 October. Uribe was enraged to hear Coronell recall the disclosure by the mistress of the late Medellín cartel boss Pablo Escobar that Uribe had dealings with the druglord when he was governor of Antioquia province, and called the station at once to respond. A few hours later, Coronell got an e-mail from the Aguilas Negras paramilitaries warning that “anyone who attacks the president signs his own death warrant.”
Gonzálo Guillén, correspondent for the US daily El Nuevo Herald, fled the country after he was attacked by Uribe in print for the same reason six days earlier. His complaint against the president for “insults” is in abeyance and after he returned to Colombia in early December, he received countless threats.
TV station in danger
A row over tapping the phones of opposition figures or sympathisers, such as Hollman Morris, by the intelligence services has keep up tension between the presidency and some of the media. The treatment in Colombia of the Latin American TV station Telesur, founded by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, did not make a rapprochement any easier between Uribe and Chávez, who mediated the release of FARC hostages. One of the station’s reporters, Freddy Muñoz, was freed on 9 January 2007 after being held for 50 days by paramilitaries, and his captors claimed (using an alleged doctored photo) that he was a member of their group, which led to Muñoz’ arrest for “terrorism” on 7 February. National police chief Gen Oscar Naranjo criticised Telesur journalist Wiliam Parra in November of misusing an interview he had with a policeman who had been kidnapped by the FARC. The tape of the interview was to be used by Chávez as proof the policeman was still alive in the negotiations for his release.