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Colombia5 December 2002

Media becomes "military target" in the Santander province

Reporters Without Borders today denounced threats and attacks by Colombia’s rival armed groups against three radio stations and a daily newspaper in the northern province of Norte de Santander in recent weeks.

"The armed groups must stop treating journalists as military targets and stop trying to control the news," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard. "The pressure they are exerting in Norte de Santander is making it impossible to work as a journalist there and depriving the people of the warring region of all news."

Journalists have become specials targets of the country’s three armed groups - The United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN). Reporters Without Borders has put AUC leader Carlos Castaño, FARC leader Manuel Marulanda and ELN leader Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista on its worldwide list of 39 "predators of press freedom."

With more than 40 journalists killed on the job over the past decade, Colombia is the most dangerous country in the Americas for journalists. Reporters Without Borders and the Peruvian Instituto Prensa Y Sociedad (IPYS), in a report in October 2001, deplored the fact that the media had become a declared "military target."

Radio Catatumbo, an RCN Group station in Ocaña (Norte de Santander province), received a cassette on 26 November, apparently from the ELN’s Armando Cauca Guerrero Front, which warned the regional media against "working with the army" and "twisting the facts." It said they might be attacked as the RCN radio station and the daily paper La Opinión in Cúcuta (the provincial capital) had been recently.

The radio station’s chief, Agustin McGregor, told Reporters Without Borders that after listening to the tape, he had been contacted by a "Commander Raul" of the ELN who demanded that it be broadcast in its entirety. This was done the next day during the morning news programme, after which McGregor said he gave the cassette to the local state prosecutor’s office. The army then demanded a right of reply on the air.

The radio has been threatened before. During the recent presidential election campaign, the ELN threatened reprisals if it broadcast ads for hardline candidate Alvaro Uribe. As a result, the station decided not to broadcast ads by any of the candidates, which later drew a complaint by the Uribe campaign to the country’s electoral council.

All three armed groups are active in the Catatumbo region, as well as a fourth, the Maoist Popular Liberation Army (EPL) and all are pressing the media to put out their propaganda and not that of their "enemies." The staff of Radio Catatumbo say they feel "obliged" to broadcast them "to avoid trouble." The army also calls the media very often to publicise its activity and the results of its efforts in the region.

A car-bomb exploded in Cúcuta on 13 November near the building that houses the studios of RCN and La Voz de la Misericordia and near the home of a local police official. The army said the ELN was responsible. RCN’s local manager, Fernando Fonseca, said its was "clear that the media had been declared military targets" by the rival forces.

A week later, a bomb was defused at the offices of the daily paper La Opinion in the town. "We’re not going to change our editorial line," the paper’s managing editor, José Eustorgio Colmenares, said afterwards.

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