British reporter Ruth Morris and US photographer Scott Dalton (photo, CR El Tiempo), both on assignment for the Los Angeles Times, were freed on 1 February after being held 11 days by guerrillas of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN). They were handed over to International Red Cross officials between the towns of Fortul and Tame, in the northeastern department of Arauca.
Their release, originally set for 31 January, was delayed because of fighting in the area between the army and guerrillas. They told a press conference on arrival in Bogota that they had never feared for their lives and had been well treated, but had been worried about distress caused to their families. They were then taken to the embassies of their respective countries.
Ruth Morris: ’I’m afraid our abduction will dissuade some foreign journalists from covering the Colombian conflict.’
Testimony of Ruth Morris collected by Christine Renaudat, Reporters Without Border’s correspondent in Bogota.
’I was out reporting with the photographer Scott Dalton in Arauca in north-east Colombia when we were abducted. I wanted to collect testimony from the victims of the latest guerrilla attacks in the region, for the Los Angeles Times. While we were driving in the sector, our taxi was intercepted at a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and ELN (National Liberation Army) guerrilla roadblock. Immediately, an ELN commander saw us and asked us to follow him. I presented my journalist’s papers and explained we were out reporting. I was sure they were going to let us through. But we had to follow him to meet one of his superiors. When the latter asked us who he had to inform if we were made prisoners, we understood we no longer had any choice. The guerrilla movement apparently intended to release us very quickly: the following day. But the press started to speak of an abduction and things started to get complicated: the front commander decided to detain us longer. We remained eleven days in the hands of the ELN Frente de Guerra Oriental commanded by the man called ’Pablo’. Eleven days trekking through the region without knowing precisely where we were and with Colombian army helicopters buzzing above us. At no time were we afraid of being assassinated: we always thought we were important hostages for the guerrilla organisation, which always ensured we were well treated and safe. We learnt by means of the little radio we were carrying that other journalists were rallying for our release, in Bogata. I interviewed commander Pablo before being released. I think the rebels wanted to use us for their propaganda purposes, convening for our release a committee of several important people in Colombia. But we were finally handed over to the Red Cross. I’m afraid our abduction will dissuade some foreign journalists from covering the Colombian conflict. Many will think it over twice before reporting on the spot.’
1st February 2003
Army and guerrillas urged to allow release of kidnapped Los Angeles Times journalists
Reporters Without Borders called today on all sides fighting in the Colombian department of Arauca to create the necessary conditions to free two Los Angeles Times journalists, reporter Ruth Morris and photographer Scott Dalton, who were kidnapped there by guerrillas of the left-wing National Liberation Army (ELN) on 21 January.
A humanitarian committee, to which the guerrillas have said they will hand over the journalists, has been prevented from reaching the area where they are being held because of military operations in the oil-rich northeastern department.
"The committee must be allowed in as soon as possible," said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard. "The longer their release takes and the more difficult it is, the more it will discourage journalists from reporting on the fighting. This would be a serious matter because a war without witnesses is open to the worst abuses, of which civilians are always the first victims."
He condemned the kidnapping as a "serious violation" of press freedom and said he was "shocked" by President Alvaro Uribe’s implication on 31 January that would not order a pause in the fighting to allow the journalists to get out. Fighting was going on in the area between the army and guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The humanitarian committee, of civil society representatives, was trying to get to the town of Tame, where the journalists were.
Ménard said the ELN’s statement that the kidnapping had been a "mistake" by a group of guerrillas who had "not realised the seriousness of what they were doing" was "preposterous and insulting." He noted the ELN had kidnapped more than 20 journalists over the past five years, mostly to force the media to denounce abuses by the army and the paramilitary forces in the war. Reporters Without Borders has put ELN military chief Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista on its worldwide list of "predators of press freedom."
President Uribe said on 31 January he would take no decision in the matter that undermined the morale of the army, implying that the fighting would go on. He accused the ELN of trying to give the impression to international opinion that it respected human rights by saying it would free the journalists, while in fact it regularly kidnapped ordinary Colombians.
Ménard said freeing the journalists "would fool nobody about the ELN’s human rights violations" and called on the Colombian government to fulfil its main duty to protect civilians. "If the journalists are wounded or killed by army gunfire, the president will not be able to wash his hands of the matter by blaming the ELN or blaming carelessness by the journalists, who are bravely trying to report on what is happening in Arauca."
"Who will report on the abuses against the population by the armed groups, especially the ELN, if journalists no longer dare to go there?" he asked.
The two journalists had gone to the area to report on the deployment of 60 US Special Forces officially training Colombian army units. An ELN spokesman said the pair had been detained near Tame on 21 January because they had gone into the ELN-controlled area without permission. Arauca is the scene of fierce fighting between all four parties in the Colombian civil war - the army, the ELN, the FARC and the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).
A report on the situation ("Arauca: News in Danger") last 20 December by five organisations, including Reporters Without Borders, detailed the threats, harassment and obstruction of journalists by the guerrillas and paramilitaries and the army’s constant control of news put out by the local media. The report is online at www.rsf.org