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Colombia27 February 2009

Call for inter-american intervention in new phone-tap scandal

Reporters Without Borders today called for an investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), after a new phone tap scandal aimed at journalists, judges and opposition politicians was revealed by the weekly Semana in its 21 February 2009 edition.

The denials by President Alvaro Uribe and the “purge” announced within the intelligence service, the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), still does not answer the question of the objectives and use of the information,” the worldwide press freedom organisation said.

“This scandal is not the first of its kind and once again we note that some of the journalists targeted in this new case are those who are highly critical of the government, sometimes vilified by the president himself and often subjected to threats,” the organisation said.

“The scandal is all the greater because the content of some phone-tapping was apparently made known to para-militaries, drug-traffickers and even guerrillas, clearly endangering the lives of journalists and their sources.”

“The question has to be put: either the presidency ordered the DAS, which it controls, to undertake the phone-tapping, or the DAS was acting without authority, which does not excuse anything. In both cases, it fully justifies an inter-American investigation because of the so obvious bias of the Colombian authorities,” the organisation said.

Felix de Bedout, of privately-owned W Radio on 5 November 2008 sent an email to his colleague on the weekly Semana, about irregular practices on the part of the DAS head, Fernando Tabares, and of his counter-espionage counterpart, Jorge Lagos.

Two hours later, counter-espionage officials telephoned, by mistake, to Semana to recount in detail the exchange between the two journalists. According to Semana, citing a DAS official, between 19-21 January documents and recordings of journalists, opposition politicians, judges (including on the Supreme Court) and officials in the Uribe administration were collected in counter-espionage centres and some of them destroyed.

The weekly said that six journalists were among those being spied on: Alejandro Santos, editor of Semana, Julio Sánchez Cristo, director of W Radio, Felix de Bedout, Darío Arizmendi, director privately-owned Radio Caracol, Ramiro Bejarano, editorialist on the daily El Espectador and Daniel Coronell, head of news on the public channel Canal Uno, particularly detested by President Uribe.

According to information obtained by Reporters without Borders, other journalists may also have been the target of unauthorised monitoring, including Hollman Morris, director of the news programme “Contravia” (Contra-flow) on Canal Uno, also in the sights of the presidential palace. The director of the DAS, Felipe Muñoz, who took on the job the day after the partial destruction of the recordings, partly confirmed the Semana report. A judicial investigation is currently under way. The DAS officials, Fernando Tabares and Jorge Lagos have resigned.

Denying any implication in this case and calling himself a “victim of this slander” on privately-owned RCN radio, the head of state on 26 February ordered a halt to phone-tapping by the DAS, with the aim of turning it over to the police. An infiltration scandal within the DAS, in May 2005, led to the resignation of the director at the time, Jorge Noguera, who is now in prison. His successor, María del Pilar Hurtado followed him in October 2008 after phone-tapping against Gustavo Petro, senator for the leftist opposition party Polo Democratico. In the interval, in May 2007, defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos also publicly admitted that opposition politicians and journalists had been monitored by the police intelligence service (Dipol), after the Semana revelations.

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