Reporters Without Borders today roundly condemned new death threats against 16 journalists in the northeastern department of Arauca and voiced its concern at the declared inability of the police to protect them as long as they remain in the area. An oil-producing region with both guerrilla and paramilitary groups, Arauca is one of the parts of the country that were declared special zones under army control in September 2002.
"We call on the Colombian government to ensure the security of the threatened journalists in Arauca department and we are disturbed by the decision of the authorities to evacuate them to Bogotá," Reporters Without Borders said. "Such a decision is positive inasmuch as it signals the authorities are taking action, but the result will be to deprive a war zone of valuable witnesses and the absence of journalists could open the door to the gravest abuses," the organisation warned.
A report entitled "Arauca: news in danger," issued on 20 December by five organisations including Reporters Without Borders, the Bogotá-based Foundation for Press and Freedom (FLIP) and the Lima-based Press and Society Institute (IPYS), details the threats, harassment and obstacles which the news media and journalists must face in Arauca. Available at www.rsf.com, the report deals with actions against the press by guerrillas, paramilitaries and the army. Since its publication, armed groups have abducted seven journalists in Arauca (two of them working for foreign news media) and killed an eighth.
On 28 March, two lists with a total of 24 names of journalists working in Arauca department were given to Rodrigo Ávila, the Arauca correspondent of the radio and TV broadcaster Caracol, who himself appeared on one of the lists. Both lists indicated that the named journalists were considered "military targets" and risked death if they did not leave the region.
The first list, issued by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist guerrilla group, named eight journalists. The second list, believed to come from the United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC), a far-right paramilitary group, had the names of eight journalists together with those of two others who were already killed in the region. They are Efrain Varela, who was killed on 28 June 2002, and Luis Eduardo Alfonso, killed on 18 March 2003.
The journalists named on the lists met the same day as the lists were delivered and formally requested police protection and the intervention of the interior ministry, which has a programme for the protection of journalists. Ávila said the local police replied that they lacked the necessary resources to offer them protection in the region. It was therefore proposed that the threatened journalists should leave Arauca and go to Bogotá on 31 March.
President Álvaro Uribe signed a decree on 10 September 2002 creating "special rehabilitation and consolidation zones" in the regions where illegal armed groups are well established and there is fierce fighting. Arauca department is one of these 14 special zones which have been put under the control of a military commander. This measures were taken under the state of exception decreed by President Uribe on 12 August with the aim of stepping up the fight against the Marxist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries.