Journalists killed: the worst record on the continent
In a context in which "sensitive" subjects abound (armed struggle between paramilitaries and guerrillas, corruption, drug trade, etc.), it is hardly surprising that Colombia currently has the highest rate of journalists killed in all North and South America.
Yet in Colombia the number of journalists killed has to be considered with caution. Murders are not always motivated by the victims’ journalistic activity. The reason is threefold: first, because journalists are often forced to have several other jobs at the same time, all possible motives for the murder; second, in this country anyone with a qualification in journalism is considered as a journalist even if s/he does not work for the media; and, lastly, like all Colombians, journalists may be victims of widespread delinquency. To these difficulties can be added the fear of testifying among those close to them, and frequent contradictions between sources of information which make the exact motives of any murder more difficult to determine.
Since 1991 RSF has recorded 40 cases of journalists killed for their opinions or while practising their profession. IPYS and RSF consider that in nearly 20 cases these murders are imputable to paramilitary groups or guerrillas. Journalists also pay with their lives their disclosures on corruption or organised crime which implicate the local political class, drug traffickers or the mafia. In the remaining cases the security forces themselves - police, army or intelligence services - are implicated.
Since 1999, parallel to the peace process, there has been an increase in the number of murders by armed groups. These groups are suspected in 11 of the 14 cases recorded by RSF since that date. Of these 11 cases, eight are imputable to AUC paramilitaries and the other three to the FARC. These armed groups thus hope to silence journalists whom they suspect of supporting the opposing camp or who denounce their acts of violence.
Twelve journalists killed in 2001
A total of 12 journalists have been killed in the year 2001, from 1 January to 22 November. IPYS and RSF believe that four of these cases cannot be considered as attacks on press freedom in so far as the victims, although qualified in journalism, were not working for the media. The persons concerned were Carlos Alberto Trespalacios, murdered on 1 May in Medellín, Edgar Tavera Gaona, killed on 17 May in Guepsa (in Santander province), Wilson Peña, murdered by four hired killers on 7 September in Gigante, in Huila province, and Heriberto Cárdenas, killed in Buenaventura in the west, on 14 November.
Moreover, since no ties have been established between their deaths and the content of their programmes or articles, the cases of five other journalists are still under investigation:
Yesid Marulanda, sports journalist of the programme "Noticipacifo" broadcast on the regional TV channel Telepacifico based in Cali, was murdered on 3 May 2001 by two hired killers. According to his family and colleagues, he had received no threat.
Eduardo Estrada Gutiérrez, president of the San Pablo Association for the Development of Communication and Culture (Adecosan), was killed on 16 July in San Pablo (Bolivar province) at a time when his association was planning to launch a community radio station. A source, who required anonymity, told RSF that Eduardo Estrada Guttiérrez was killed because he was about to participate in an initiative to establish dialogue between civil society and the ELN. Without giving an opinion on the motives, the Magdalena Medio Association of Community Radio Stations (Aredmag), to which Adecosan is affiliated, noted the work done by the journalist towards the democratisation of access to the media. According to the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), it was simply the fact of working for a community radio station that cost Eduardo Estrada Gutiérrez his life. These stations are considered as an important stake for armed groups present in the region, which try to control them to strengthen their presence.
Although we have no information on what they said on the air, two other journalists of community radio stations, Pablo Emilio Parra Castañeda, murdered on 27 June, and Arquimedes Arias Henao, murdered on 4 July, might have been killed for the same reason. The former was owner and host of the radio station Planadas Cultural Estereo but also leader of the Red Cross in the town of Planadas for the past two years. The latter, director of Fresno Estereo, had created three other radio stations in the region and was still owner of one of them, Armonia FM Estereo, based in Palocabildo. Both worked in Tolima province where FARC guerrillas and paramilitary groups are present.
Omar de Jesús Castañer Jaramillo, journalist in Chinchina, a town in Caldas province, was killed on 17 August. This information was given to representatives of the IPYS and RSF by the FLIP which did not yet have information on his employment or the motives of the crime.
Following their inquiry, IPYS and RSF consider that the hypothesis of a murder for motives concerning the journalist’s work is the most credible in the cases of Flavio Bedoya, Jorge Enrique Urbano Sanchez and José Duviel Vásquez.
Flavio Bedoya, correspondent for the weekly Voz in Tumaco, in the south-western province Nariño, was murdered on 27 April 2001 by hired killers. This 52-year-old father of three and journalist for the Colombian Communist Party organ received death threats after publishing an article on 4 April on violence perpetrated by paramilitaries near Tumaco, along with an interview by a FARC commander. In this article he criticised the "inability of the army and police to capture the criminals". According to the Voz editorial staff, the journalist was killed by paramilitaries (see above, "Particularly dangerous regions").
On 8 July Jorge Enrique Urbano Sánchez died when hit by four bullets fired by two unknown killers on a motorbike. A friend of the journalist was also injured during the attack. Jorge Enrique Urbano Sanchez had denounced the lack of security reigning in Buenaventura, a harbour town in the western province Valle. He worked for the radio station Mar Estereo, affiliated to the Todela group, and for the programme "Amanecer Porteño", broadcast on the local TV channel Telemar. His criticism was closely related to his work as leader of an organisation responsible for maintaining public areas in the town. Two months earlier he had been threatened after participating in operations in which drug addicts and street vendors were forcibly moved from a public park.
Two days earlier José Duviel Vásquez was also killed. He was the third journalist of the station La Voz de la Selva, in Florencia in Caqueta province, to be murdered in eight months. He was also the last. The Foundation Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, owner of the radio station, decided to sell it.
La Voz de la Selva: the voice of the Turbay disappear in Florencia (Caqueta)
Guillermo León Agudelo, managing editor of La Voz de la Selva, was murdered on 30 November 2000. According to several witnesses he had received no threats and nothing he said on the air could explain his death. The murder, two weeks later, of Alfredo Abad, news editor at the radio station, was interpreted by Diego Turbay, a Liberal Party member of parliament, as "a warning" by FARC guerrillas. He considered that the Turbay family was being targeted through the radio station. La Voz de la Selva had been created on the initiative of Diego Turbay’s father, Hernando Turbay, a staunch opponent in the 1970s and 1980s of the presence of guerrillas in the region. Since then, the Turbays have been in the FARC’s line of sight. Diego’s brother, Rodrigo Turbay, was killed by this group after it had detained him for two years. Shortly after the death of Guillermo León Agudelo, Andrés Paez, a member of parliament who had supported Diego Turbay, was also murdered.
Finally, on 29 December 2000 Diego Turbay and six other persons, including his mother, were killed on a Caqueta road, presumably by a FARC commando. Caqueta, a strategic area in the drug trade, has become even more important since the government granted the demilitarised zone in it to the FARC.
According to a member of the Caqueta Journalists’ Association cited in the 8 January 2001 issue of the weekly Semana, the tribute paid by Caqueta journalists to the fight between the Turbay family and its enemies does not stop there. "To the murders, one must add the four other journalists forced into exile in the past six months. [...] It is disturbing to note that practically all the dead or threatened journalists had ties to the Turbay family or were people who did not use their media to attack this family".
According to Omar Garcia, the murder, seven months later, of José Duviel Vásquez who had succeeded Alfredo Abad at the head of the radio station, could have different origins. Omar Garcia, who also worked for La Voz de la Selva, was with José Duviel Vásquez when he was killed and was also injured in the attack. In a testimony published in the weekly Semana dated 29 October, he drew attention to the major affairs that his colleague had denounced. In February 2001 he had revealed an affair of corruption and blackmail that implicated the former Florencia mayor, Lucrecia Murcia, and several municipal councillors. Editorial staff of the radio station also inquired into the responsibility of the governor of Caqueta, Pablo Adriano Muñoz, in assumed misappropriation of funds, and criticised the large amounts spent by the governor on his own security. After that, the governor and Duviel Vásquez were enemies. The journalist laid charges for "defamation" against Pablo Adriano Muñoz after the latter had accused him of endangering his life through his repeated criticism. A few days before his death José Duviel Vásquez reportedly told several people that he felt threatened. Carlos Alberto Beltran, the lawyer he had chosen to defend him and who was also the administrative manager of La Voz de la Selva, had to leave the town after escaping a murder attempt.
While collaborating to the investigation on the death of his colleague, Omar Garcia was threatened with death several times, in the street or by phone. He was a beneficiary of the Programme for the Protection of Journalists. After being transferred to Bogota, where his safety was still not guaranteed, he was forced to leave the country. A source close to La Voz de la Selva reports that since Duviel Vasquez’s murder no journalist in the region has dared to criticise the governor. In the spring of 2001 Ricardo Calderón, special correspondent for the weekly Semana in Florencia, was forced to leave the region abruptly after noticing that he was being followed. In an article on Diego Turbay’s murder, published a few months earlier, this journalist had noted that Adriano Muñoz had been jailed in connection with an inquiry into Rodrigo Turbay’s abduction, before being released due to a lack of evidence.
In Colombia the rate of impunity is over 95%. "Such a high level that, after drug trafficking, impunity has become the second factor of crime", a magistrate commented bitterly. This percentage unfortunately also applies to the murders of journalists. Yet during the past five years an increasing number of inquiries have led to the identification and even the arrest of murderers.
A Human Rights Unit was created in 1991 in the state prosecutor’s department. It investigates cases of threats or murders of trade unionists, persons whose status falls under international humanitarian law, members of the Patriotic Union (an attempt to bring the guerrillas back into political life in the early 1980s and several members of which have been killed) and journalists. In total, 1,100 investigations are in the hands of the Human Rights Unit. In July 1999 a sub-unit was created exclusively to investigate cases concerning journalists. Four investigating judges were appointed to the unit. Currently, 35 cases have been entrusted to it, of which 30 concern murders between 1986 and 2001.
In a single murder case, that of Ismael Jaime Cortés, director of the daily La Opinion, killed on 6 May 1992 in the northern province of Magdalena, some of the persons who participated in the murder were found guilty and given jail sentences which were confirmed on appeal. In five other cases the presumed murderers were arrested but have not been tried, or their trial is under way. Three files have been sent to other services since the murders have no link with journalism. In the 21 remaining cases, to which can be added other cases of journalists murdered because of their work but which have not been entrusted to this sub-unit, no suspect has been arrested.
Several factors explain the maintenance of quasi-generalised impunity. First, the crime rate is very high: with 15 murders per day in the town of Cali alone, investigating judges have the impression that they are using the legal means of a country at peace, in a war situation. They complain of a lack of resources and judge the state’s response insufficient. In certain provinces a single judge has to rule on all cases. That is the case of Valledupar, capital of César province in the north-east. There, the trial of Libardo Prada Bayona, presumed murderer of journalist Luz Amparo Jiménez Payares, killed on 11 August 1999, was postponed seven times before eventually opening on 10 July 2001, nearly two years after the first scheduled date. In 1996 Luz Amparo Jiménez Payares, a television journalist, covered the expulsion by paramilitaries of peasants who had occupied the property of a former minister, Carlos Arturo Marulanda.
To compound the problems of resources, magistrates, witnesses and lawyers are subjected to intimidation. Cited by the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), Ricardo de la Hoz, plaintiff lawyer in the Luz Amparo Jiménez Payares case, claims that five or six lawyers of Libardo Prada Bayona decided not to defend him after receiving threats. "Even within the Valledupar courts, I was told not to attend the hearing", reports Hoz. According to Diana Calderon, head of the IAPA special unit responsible for investigations into murders of journalists, pressure on witnesses is particularly strong because investigators’ proof relies mostly on testimonies. "There is a huge weakness in the provision of material evidence or evidence based on expert assessments", she notes. The state prosecutor, Luis Camilo Osorio, agrees on this point.
Threats are sometimes carried out. Carlos Alberto Oviedo, former member of parliament for Armenia, a town in Quindio province 300 km west of Bogota, the person assumed to be behind the murders of Ernesto Acero Cadena and Jairo Elías Márquez, had the reputation of killing the murderers. In connection with an inquiry into the death of Jairo Elías Márquez, two people were killed: a witness and one of the presumed murderers. Ernesto Acero Cadena, journalist for the magazine El Informador Socioeconómico, killed in December 1995, like Jairo Elías Máquez, owner of the fortnightly El Marqués killed on 20 November 1997, had implicated the member of parliament in an affair of corruption.
In view of the problem of local pressures, the prosecutor’s department deplores the fact that the Colombian constitution requires the holding of a trial in the province in which the crime took place. A legal reform authorising the centralisation of trials, in order to remove local pressure from judges, has always come up against the refusal of the supreme court, guardian of the constitution. Yet officials of the public prosecutor’s department say they are convinced that the outcome of two trials of the assumed murderers of journalists would have been different if the hearings had been in Bogota. They mention the case of Juan Carlos Henao, the presumed murderer of Ernesto Acero Cadena, acquitted on 14 June 2000 by the Armenia court of first instance. Probably a victim of strong pressure, the representative of the state prosecutor, who had pleaded for the accused’s conviction, did not appeal. In April 2001, confirmation on appeal by the Neiva supreme court (in Huila province) of the acquittal of the presumed murderers of journalist Nelson Carvajal, also angered the state prosecutor’s office. While the prosecutor’s recommendations are generally followed by the judges, the court considered the evidence as insufficient and the testimonies as hardly credible. It favoured a hypothesis excluded by the investigators. Informed that during the inquiry an investigator had been pressurised, RSF asked the authorities "to ensure that court rulings are made entirely independently".
Lastly, the persons behind murders are very rarely questioned. Some of them, like Carlos Castaño, AUC chief, have become untouchable. Several dozen warrants have been issued against him but the man is at the head of a veritable army of 8,000 men. In July 2000 a warrant was issued for his arrest for ordering the murder of journalist and humorist Jaime Garzón. To date, only the presumed murderer and the man accused of driving the motorbike have been arrested. Jaime Garzón was killed on 13 August 1999. According to the investigators, Carlos Castaño accused the humorist of intervening as an intermediary in the release of persons kidnapped by the guerrillas. They have excluded the possibility of participation in the crime by certain sections of the army which, according to several witnesses, were also displeased about these initiatives taken by the humorist. Moreover, the escape in early September 2001 of Carlos Alberto Oviedo was a new demonstration of the impunity enjoyed by murderers. The former member of parliament allegedly bribed prison guards. Implicated in nearly ten murders, including two of journalists, Carlos Alberto Oviedo was finally arrested and sentenced to 39 years in jail for murder. Despite such a heavy sentence, he was granted special treatment and was simply placed under house arrest. The day after his escape the justice minister immediately ordered the opening of a penal and disciplinary inquiry against ten officials of National Prisons Institute (INPEC), including the former director. The results of this inquiry have not been made known.
To compensate for the lack of resources of the Human Rights Unit, it was decided in October 2001 to create regional human rights sub-units throughout the country. A total of 25 units were to be created. Under direct control of the Bogota office, they were to take over some of the inquiries. Three sub-units already exist in Neiva, Villavicencio and Cali. According to the prosecutor’s department, in the latter town results have already been achieved in the investigation of a massacre. This reform does not, however, have unanimous approval. Several human rights activists fear that such decentralisation will expose investigations to local pressure.
National Television Commission’s planned censorship
On 23 October 2001 the National Television Commission (CNTV), a public institution responsible for regulating the content of televised programmes, made public its proposed regulations in terms of which television channels would be prohibited from "broadcasting interviews, statements and communiqués of members, spokespersons or representatives of armed groups or criminal organisations". In other words, "one can give information but one cannot broadcast pictures of these persons", specified Sergio Quiroz, CNTV president. The regulations would also ban the broadcasting of images that "harm human rights" and of "close-up shots of violent acts", in the name of "the fundamental right of victims to privacy and dignity". The CNTV is an institution composed of five members (two appointed by the government and three others by the media or organisations of civil society), independent of the government.
The CNTV’s planned regulations will probably be rejected. According to Eduardo Cifuentes, the ombudsman, no institution in Colombia has the power to restrict press freedom, protected by Article 214 of the constitution, even in exceptional situations. The day after its publication the proposal was criticised by all the media. While a part of the profession deplores the fact that competition between television channels has effectively caused them to vie with one another in the broadcasting of harsh pictures of the conflict, all media professionals agree that it is up to journalists alone to decide what should be broadcast. Himself a former journalist, President Andrés Pastrana disapproves of the project. During an interview granted to the IPYS and RSF representatives, he expressed his preference for "self-regulation" by the media.
Yet, in an editorial published in the weekly Semana, journalist Maria Isabel Rueda questions the government’s role in this respect. She asserts that Sergio Quiroz is "the personal representative" of Andrés Pastrana and points out that he does nothing without the president’s approval. According to the daily El Tiempo, the CNTV project could be part of a series of government initiatives intended to prepare people for the end of the peace process. At a time when the government is questioning the FARC’s status as interlocutors, the armed groups would be deprived of access to the small screen.
On two occasions since the accession to power of Andrés Pastrana, the CNTV or senior officials have asked television channels not to broadcast a particular report or interview. In 1997 the CNTV was used by the administration of President Ernesto Samper (1994-1998). At the time, criticised by the press regarding the presumed financing of his campaign by the Cali Cartel, the president managed to obtain the annual re-evaluation by the CNTV of concessions which had originally been attributed to TV news until 2004.
Fight against impunity
Forty journalists killed in the past ten years, about 50 abducted in the past three years, and about 30 forced into exile. In this respect Colombia holds the dismal record for violence in all these categories, perpetrated above all by armed groups and especially AUC paramilitaries. In several regions in which the AUC, FARC or ELN are fighting for or have control, press freedom barely exists, either because the independent media have been wiped out or because self-censorship has taken over. That is why Carlos Castaño, Manuel Marulanda and Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista are on RSF’s list of the 39 most dangerous predators of press freedom in the world. This violence is also imputed to drug traffickers, corrupt local politicians and members of the security forces anxious not to see their "affairs" made public.
Impunity has trapped the press in a vicious circle of violence and fear. Not only is it difficult for journalists to publish or disseminate their news, they are also unable to denounce pressure on them and thus to try to put an end to it. The government’s efforts to guarantee journalists’ protection and to reinforce the means of the public prosecutor’s department are praiseworthy. Yet they are still very limited, especially financially. In this context, journalist’s only choice is between self-censorship and putting their lives in danger. That is why RSF and IPYS are convinced that the government’s priority must be the struggle against impunity. In an interview with representatives of the two organisations, President Andrés Pastrana said he shared this concern and called on the international community to financially support the programme to protect journalists.
IPYS et RSF recommend:
1 - that the government:
reform the judiciary so that presumed murderers can be tried in Bogota, out of reach of local pressure;
increase the funds of the Programme for the Protection of Journalists so that it has the means to offer media professionals protection in their home towns and thus to guarantee the practice of journalism in a larger part of the country;
to do everything necessary so that the conclusions of the INPEC inquiry into the kidnapping of Jineth Bedoya in May 2000 and the escape of Carlos Alberto Oviedo in September 2001 are published as soon as possible.
2 - that the international community provide financial support for the Programme for the Protection of Journalists and the struggle against impunity.
3 - that the CNTV withdraw it proposed regulations intended to ban the broadcasting of pictures of members of armed groups or criminal organisations or which "harm human rights".
4 - that the media take action to defend press freedom:
by carefully monitoring investigations and trials concerning murders of journalists, particularly in the case of Luz Amparo Jiménez Payares whose trial is currently under way, and that of Jaime Garzon in which the conclusions of the inquiry should soon be made public;
by supporting the action of the FLIP, either in its columns or financially.
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