The murder of journalist Luis Eduardo Alfonso while he was supposedly receiving government protection on 18 March in the eastern city of Arauca is the subject of an energetic joint condemnation by the Bogotá-based Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), the Peruvian-based Press and Society Institute (IPYS) and Reporters Without Borders.
The three organisations urged President Álvaro Uribe Vélez and interior and justice minister Fernando Londoño Hoyos, who heads the Journalists’ Protection Programme, to ensure that journalists who are meant to benefit from this programme are effectively protected.
"Luis Eduardo Alfonso’s murder represents a failure for this programme, and we therefore call for a prompt and thorough review of the way it is run," the three organisations said. "The Colombian authorities have a duty to ensure that journalists are safe so that society’s right to be informed is respected."
The three organisations also called on director of public prosecutions Luis Camilo Osorio to speed up investigations into attacks against the press and urged attorney general Edgardo Maya to ensure that every effort is made to identify and punish any negligence on the part of the officials who were in charge of protecting Alfonso.
A joint fact-finding mission by Reporters Without Borders, FLIP, IPYS, the Antonio Nariño Project and the rapid reaction unit of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) at the end of 2002 had highlighted the vulnerability of journalists in Arauca department and the inadequate response of the government agencies tasked with protecting their work, as required by article 72 of the constitution. In a report entitled "Arauca: news in danger," this joint mission had warned that journalists in Arauca lacked the basic security measures for covering the armed conflict. Since its publication, guerrilla groups in Arauca department have kidnapped seven journalists, two of them working for foreign media.
Alfonso’s work as a journalist, and his death
Aged 33, Alfonso was gunned down at the entrance to radio Meridiano 70 in the city of Arauca at 4:40 a.m. on 18 March. According to testimonies obtained by FLIP and IPYS, two men on a motorcycle fired three shots at Alfonso as he was waiting for a security guard to open the radio station’s door. His body was found at some distance from a diary he had been carrying on his person, suggesting that he had begun to run away from his assailants. Some sources claimed to have heard an argument before the shots.
Alfonso was the joint editor of the news programme "Actualidad Informativa" which was broadcast from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from noon to 2 p.m. He was also a correspondent for the daily El Tiempo and acted as a press consultant for congressman Adalberto Jaimes.
According to Miguel Ángel Rojas, the news programme’s other editor, Alfonso specialised in covering public order and municipal government irregularities. Station manager Mabel Varela had warned him several times to be careful because of the temerity of his allegations, especially as his name appeared on several lists of persons threatened by armed groups operating in the area.
Alfonso had replaced Efraín Varela, who was gunned down on 28 June 2002 in a killing blamed on a paramilitary group. Varela and Alfonso were first threatened on 9 September 2001 in an e-mail message in which the paramilitary United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC) warned them that the AUC’s arrival in the region meant that they had become "military targets." On 2 July 2002, four days after Varela’s murder, Alfonso and three other journalist fled the region fearing that an attack against them was imminent.
On 4 July, he wrote to the interior ministry’s human rights department reporting the danger to which he was exposed. The same day, he also filed a complaint with the public prosecutor’s office in Bogotá detailing the reasons he feared for his life, especially the murder of Varela, with whom he had worked since October 2000.
The Administrative Department for Security (DAS) carried out an assessment on 26 August to evaluate the degree of risk he was running in Bogotá, and concluded that the level of risk was low.
On 25 September, Alfonso’s case was examined by the journalists’ Risks Assessment and Regulation Committee (CRER), a body made up of various press freedom NGOs that is headed by the interior ministry. In view of the seriousness of the facts reported by Alfonso, the committee asked the police for a new assessment of the security in the Arauca region. According to the minutes of the meeting, the committee requested that "the authorities be notified of his presence in Arauca in order to give him the necessary protection."
Alfonso’s case came before the CRER again on 26 October. This time, the committee decided to "ask the National Police to verify that he was still benefiting from security measures - police patrols." This request was repeated on 11 December when a second assessment put the level of risk at medium-low: "It was recommended that the police should again be asked to give him periodic escorting."
When the FLIP and IPYS spoke with the chief of police in Arauca, Col. Luis Alcides Morales, immediately after Alfonso’s death, he said he was aware of Alfonso’s risk situation "just like that of about 300 other persons who are threatened in Aracua" and that the police could not "give each one of them an escort."
Three days before his death, Alfonso told the IPYS that the protection he had received had been limited to occasional visits by police patrols which were now suspended.
Meanwhile, the complaint Alfonso filed with the public prosecutor’s office in Bogotá, which was given case number 635977, was still at the preliminary stage of investigation along with 35 other threats against journalists, an IPYS study established. Some of these cases have been in the preliminary stage of investigation since 1999.
The report "Arauca: news in danger" is available at the following websites: