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Colombia18 September 2002

Reporters Without Borders criticises curbs on foreign media

Reporters Without Borders today denounced Colombian government restrictions on foreign journalists going to parts of the country involved in civil war as an attack on internationally-recognised media rights.

A presidential decree on 10 September provided for setting up "special rehabilitation and consolidation zones" where fighting was going on and which foreigners, including journalists, could only enter with special permission from the defence ministry.

It said this was to prevent the armed groups "having contact with foreign terrorists." Special correspondents would have to notify the authorities in advance of their movements, which would be authorised or not according to the military situation.

"The possibility of journalists being refused entry into the special zones is a flagrant violation of the Inter-American Human Rights Convention, whose article 13 guarantees freedom of movement for journalists," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Menard in a letter to Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.

He called for journalists to be allowed into the zones on simple confirmation of their professional status. "Either possible terrorists are prevented from entering the zones while journalists are allowed in on this basis, or else journalists’ activities are monitored and the decree can be used to fight a war hidden from public scrutiny," he said.

Ménard said he was also worried about the decree’s impact on the protection of journalists’ sources, since it authorised arrests, searches and phone tapping. "If such measures are applied to journalists, they will endanger the impartiality of the media," he said.

The "special zones," which may involve 14 of the country’s 34 provinces, will be ruled by a military commander with the supervision of a governor, who will have eight days to decide whether to authorise entry into a zone, which can be refused "according to what the public order situation is." If the official decision is not obeyed, the journalist will be deported.

Interior minister Fernando Londoño said the measure was to isolate armed groups from contact with "foreign terrorists." But presidential press office chief Ricardo Galán told the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) that the curbs "would not affect" foreign correspondents based in the country. These reporters have been told they can apply for a pass from the defence ministry valid until the end of this year with no guarantee of renewal.

The decree allows arrests and searches of people’s homes without legal warrants in the event of "unavoidable emergency or when a basic right is seriously or imminently endangered." Police can also order phones to be tapped and mail intercepted with permission from a judge.

The measure is part of the national state of alert President Uribe declared on 12 August to step up the government’s battle against communist guerrillas and far-right paramilitary groups. Three supposed members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) were arrested in August last year on suspicion of having trained members of the far-left Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) in urban guerrilla techniques.

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