Fact-finding mission - 28-29 November 2002
Enquiry by Reporters Without Borders (Paris), Press Freedom Foundation (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP, Bogota), the Press and Society Institute (Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, IPYS, Lima), the Antonio Nariño Project (Proyecto Antonio Nariño, Bogota), and the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA, Miami).
A fact-finding mission went to the department of Arauca on 28-29 November to assess freedom expression. Five organisations took part: Reporters Without Borders, the Press and Society Institute (Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, IPYS), the Press Freedom Foundation (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP), the Antonio Nariño Project (Proyecto Antonio Nariño) and the rapid response unit of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA), which provided support.
The mission was prompted by the recent murder of Efraín Varela, the region’s most influential journalist, and by reports from journalists in Arauca that they have been threatened. The fact that three of the department’s municipalities have been declared a rehabilitation zone was an additional reason.
The mission concentrated on the municipalities of Arauca and Saravena, where it interviewed 15 journalists working for local and national media, and five news media owners or managers. The following civilian and military authorities were also interviewed: the commander of the rehabilitation zone, the commander of the Arauca police, the mayor of the city of Arauca, the attorney general, the departmental interior secretary, the DAS director, the ombudsman and two members of the public prosecutor’s office. The mission also spoke with civil society and church representatives in Arauca.
Background: the presence of armed groups
The eastern department of Arauca has been marked by the presence of armed groups: the 10th and 45th Fronts of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Domingo Laín Front and ABC Column of the National Liberation Army (ELN), and - since last year - counter-insurgent paramilitary groups, namely the Victors of Arauca Column and a supposed Capital Column in the municipality of Arauca. Since 22 September, three of the region’s municipalities (Arauca, Arauquita and Saravena) form part of a rehabilitation and consolidation zone decreed by the government, where the military presence has been increased.
This zone includes the Caño Limón oil wells and the start of the pipeline that has been blown up more than 700 times. The ELN and, more recently, the FARC have had a significant impact in the region, even influencing decisions on spending and investment of oil royalties. Currently, almost all the mayors and councillors have been threatened by the FARC, with the result that many have resigned and some have been killed. This year has also seen acts of terrorism that have had serious consequences for the civilian population. Furthermore, Arauca is of strategic importance because of its long frontier with Venezuela and its coca crop, with some 8,000 hectares under cultivation, according to official estimates.
The presence of paramilitary groups in the department has been known since September 2001 and has contributed to an increase in violence in the region. These groups are blamed for the 28 June murder of journalist Efraín Varela, which dealt a major setback to press freedom in the department, as he was the region’s most respected journalist and the one with the most listeners, and because the purpose of his murder was clearly to silence him, as this fact-finding mission confirmed.
Journalism is still in its early stages in Arauca. Most of the news that circulates in the department is produced in the municipality of Arauca, where there are four radio stations with regional coverage: La Voz del Cinaruco (affiliated to Caracol Radio) , Meridiano 70 (which is independent) , La Voz del Río Arauca (affiliated to RCN Radio) and Radio DIC (a community radio station). There are two stations with local coverage - Sarare Estéreo and Tame Estéreo, based respectively in the municipalities of Saravena and Tame - and an army radio station.
Two privately-owned television networks, RCN Televisión and Caracol TV, have a correspondent in Arauca and there is a community television station, Canal 4. As for print media, there are just two monthlies, El Corredor and Nueva Frontera.
The press community consists of some 30 journalists of whom only 20 per cent are university-educated. About 80 per cent of them combine their press work with business or political activities.
Attacks against press freedom in Arauca
It has not been easy to work as a journalist in Arauca in the past two decades. A radio station, Radio Caribabare, was blown up in 1984. Three journalists have been murdered in the past 11 years. Henry Rojas Monje, correspondent for the national daily El Tiempo, was gunned down in December 1991. An army officer was convicted of being behind this murder, and a professional soldier was convicted of carrying it out. Iván Darío Pelayo, director of the radio station Llanorámica, was murdered in August 1995, and Varela, owner and director of the radio station Meridiano 70, was killed in June.
Mario Parra, a journalist with the radio station La Voz del Cinaruco, had to flee the country in early 2000 after receiving threats in April 1999. Marta Rojas, a journalist with Savarena, also had to flee the region in 1994 to ensure her safety. A bomb went off outside the home of Zoraida Ariza, La Voz del Cinaruco’s correspondent in Saravena, in February 2001. This took place after she broadcast a report on 22 February 2001 on public order disturbances by the ELN in the region. These threats are attributed to the guerrilla groups.
In short, attacks against press freedom are not a new phenomenon in Arauca, and army members, guerrilla groups and paramilitary groups have all been implicated in them.
Efraín Varela: a murder that changed the way journalism is practised
Varela, 53, was gunned down by unknown assailants on 28 June at Km 5 of the road from Arauca to Caño Limón as he was returning home from a class at the National University. For the past eight years he had presented a news programme and, during election campaigns, a programme called "Let’s talk politics." He was a lawyer and graduate of the External University of Colombia, with postgraduate degrees in public law and conflict resolution. As a journalist, he had founded Radio Caribabare in Saravena and was a correspondent for La Voz del Cinaruco. He also wrote for the newspaper El Espectador from Arauca. He was president of the Arauca Departmental Peace Commission from 1999 to 2001, mayor of Saravena and Arauca councillor.
According to sources who spoke to the mission, Varela was known as an outspoken journalist who criticized guerrillas, paramilitaries, the army and the civilian authorities alike. His radio station had many listeners in Arauca department and many civil society organisations viewed him as model campaigning journalist. According to journalists, listeners, civil society groups and the Church, his murder had a radical impact on the way journalism is practised in the department. Now most of the news programmes limit themselves to reading the army’s press releases and reporting light news such as birthdays and social activities.
Eye-witnesses of Varela’s murder told the prosecutor’s office that Félix Cruz Bata was among those who carried it out. Known as "Comandante Tolima," Cruz Bata leads a paramilitary group that began operating in the city of Arauca on 21 June. Varela had criticised this, and the army’s failure to react to the group’s presence. Witnesses who asked not to be identified said there was an army presence less than one kilometre from the paramilitary roadblock where Varela was murdered. They also reported a complete absence of military forces since the murder, along with the absence of a serious investigation.
It is true that investigators did link Cruz Bata to the case on 30 July and issued a warrant for his arrest. However, the commander of the rehabilitation zone, General Carlos Lemus, told the fact-finding mission that Cruz Bata was killed while fighting alongside his troops a few months earlier in place known as La Antioqueña. Since 28 October, the subsection of the prosecutor’s office responsible for investigating attacks against the press has been trying to establish whether Cruz Bata is dead or alive.
After Varela’s murder, the length of Meridiano 70’s news programme was reduced from two and a half hours to one hour and it now has only two journalists, instead of the six it had before (including correspondents). Furthermore, at the decision of the current directors, only official bulletins are read out, almost all of them coming from the XVIII Army Brigade.
Journalists on blacklists
Presumed paramilitaries of the Victors of Arauca Column circulated several communiques in which they declared the region’s journalists and news media in general to be a military target. The last communiqué, dated 24 September, names five journalists of whom three are identified as enemies and the other two as "persons who have the chance to change and cooperate." After a long list of names, the communique ends by warning: "we are watching them, just as we are watching other advisers, teachers, unionists, street vendors, journalists..."
This mission also received information about the following two cases:
• Rodrigo Ávila, correspondent for Caracol TV and a journalist with the community radio station Radio DIC, who in the past also worked with Varela for Meridiano 70. Ávila was not only on the list just mentioned. He also got a call at his home on 3 July from a man describing himself as a member of the paramilitary group Victors of Arauca, who told him: "You have 72 hours to get out of the region." Ávila went to Bogota with the support of Caracol TV but returned to Arauca on 25 July. Thereafter, he was assigned a bodyguard by day until he decided to dispense with this measure because he considered it to be inadequate. However, he still hopes to obtain communications equipment and a bullet-proof vest although his request for these items was not granted by the interior ministry’s protection programme for journalists.
• Carmen Rosa Pabón, La Voz del Cinaruco’s news director. In addition to being on the list, she was warned by state security sources that the FARC might try to kill her. She left the region and the format of her programme changed completely. Now it carries only official bulletins and light news of no consequence. Her radio station has also constantly been the target of threats and warnings by the guerrillas.
Luis Eduardo Alfonso, a journalist with Meridiano 70, and Augusto Báez of the radio station Tame Estéreo also temporarily left the region.
There have been two other cases of threats against persons involved with the news media in Arauca but in this mission’s view, the threats could be linked to their political activity. They are Luis Guedes, an announcer with La Voz de Cinaruco, who is also an Arauca councillor, and José Dil Gutiérrez, who worked on Varela’s programme "Let’s talk politics" and who was also the press officer of one of the candidates for governor in Arauca.
This mission is extremely concerned about the vulnerability of these journalists and the slow response of the various government departments that are required by article 73 of the constitution to protect journalists in their work. It is clear that journalists in Arauca do not enjoy the basis security measures they need to cover the conflict.
Constraints on the press: "There is no more news in Arauca"
The direct and indirect threats against the press by the guerrillas and the paramilitaries have greatly limited their ability to freely report the news. To avoid problems, many journalists in Arauca just carry the official communiques issued by the police and XVIII Army Brigade. "The army doesn’t like us to interview the guerrillas. At times, they let us know that they do not like certain things we run," one journalist said. Most of the journalists are afraid to go out of the towns and do not do investigative reporting. Many news media decided not to run any of the releases put out by civil society organisations for fear of reprisals from the authorities. "There is no more news in Arauca," some of the civil society organisations said.
The community radio station Radio DIC has not broadcast its news programme in the municipalities of Saravena, Arauquita, Tame and Fortul since 13 November as a result of pressure from a senior army officer. This came after Radio DIC broadcast a statement from a civil society organisation on 12 November accusing army personnel of abuses against the civilian population in one of these municipalities.
Varela’s family confirmed to the mission that Meridiano 70 was the subject of an investigation by the communications ministry as a result of army complaint after Varela and Ávila broadcast an interview with an ELN chief. Gen. Lemus, the zone military commander, confirmed that he had made several complaints to the communications ministry against news media which, in his view, defended criminal activity. However, he claimed to be unaware of the Meridiano 70 case.
Furthermore, this mission learned that an unidentified armed group ordered a television station to stop filming news reports related to selective killings carried out in one municipality. The television station decided to limit its coverage of the murders to the information provided by the army in its official communiques.
Without a doubt, the army’s constant monitoring of the content of the news carried by the local media, the many complaints it has filed, and its comments to journalists about its satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their news reporting have the effect of veiled or direct pressure on the news media. Nowadays in Arauca almost all the news that is published comes from just one source, the armed forces.
It must be stressed that journalists have little access to information from civilian sources, whether government or private, as the prevailing climate of intimidation means that few civilian officials or members of the community are ready to talk to the press.
Right to information
Although the mayor of Arauca told this mission that the way freedom of expression was exercised in his city was "exaggerated," we found that the Arauca population’s right to information is restricted.
The plurality and quality of information have been hit by the elimination of a news programme in Saravena, the reduction in the length of news programming, and the reduction in the range of sources. The fact that 80 per cent of the advertising in the Arauca news media comes from official sources - and is allocated without the use of transparent criteria - poses a serious problem. When ask to rate the degree of freedom of expression they enjoy in their work on a scale from one (no freedom) to ten (total freedom), journalists in Arauca responded with an average rating of four.
The quality of information may also be affected in the department of Arauca by the fact that most of the news media are owned by politicians and several journalists receive fees from a Congressman to keep his name in the news. However, in any country that respects press freedom, partisan news media are a normal part of the press spectrum and are accepted participants in the democratic debate as long as the do not incite racism or any other form of discrimination.
That the participants in the armed conflict should respect press freedom as the guarantee of society’s right to be informed and that this principle should be included in any humanitarian accords. According to the first additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions, journalists must be treated as civilians and must be protected as such. The work of journalists guarantees the right of citizens to information and they be should guaranteed the ability to work in an independent free and responsible manner, as envisaged by article 73 of the constitution.
That the Colombian armed forces should avoid stigmatizing journalists and news media because of the news they publish. It is a journalist’s legitimate right to consult a source, and does not mean the journalist identifies with the source’s interests. Quoting a group that is outside the law may in no way be considered a crime. According to article 5 of the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression adopted in October 2000 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR): "Restrictions to the free circulation of ideas and opinions, as well as the arbitrary imposition of information and the imposition of obstacles to the free flow of information violate the right to freedom of expression."
That the office of the public prosecutor should pursue the investigation of Varela’s murder, that the security forces should arrest those who were behind the murder and those who carried it out, and that they should be tried according to the rule of law.
That the office of the public prosecutor should investigate the origin of the threats against journalists described in this report, and that the judicial authorities should act so that those responsible should not remain unpunished.
That the interior ministry’s programme for protecting journalists should move quickly to provide appropriate security measure for journalists at risk, especially Ávila.
That the authorities of the department of Arauca should explain the criteria used to allocate official advertising in the news media and should publish an annual report of what has been allocated. Article 13 of the IACHR’s Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression states that "the arbitrary and discriminatory placement of official advertising and government loans... threaten freedom of expression, and must be explicitly prohibited by law."
That the national and international news media should send special correspondents to support the news coverage of what is happening in the region.
That the local news media should implement the security measures proposed in the "Charter for the Safety of Journalists Working in War Zones or Dangerous Areas" that was drawn up at the beginning of this year on the initiative of Reporters Without Borders (read the charter).
That the international community should support training programmes for the news media and journalists in Arauca.