Press freedom violations took an even heavier toll in 2002: five journalists or media assistants were killed; around 60 were kidnapped, threatened or physically attacked; more than 20 were forced to leave their region or the country; and eight attacks or attempted attacks by means of explosives were reported.
This deterioration was due above all to an upsurge in a decades-old war with many actors, all of them interested in controlling the news. They included the army, the paramilitary United Self-Defence Groups of Colombia (AUC) with Carlos Castaño still as their main leader, the guerrilla of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) led by Manuel Marulanda, and the guerrilla of the National Liberation Army (ELN) led by Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista. After peace negotiations between President Pastrana’s government and the FARC were broken off in February, the FARC launched a vast offensive throughout the country, with many bomb attacks and attacks directly targeted at politicians.
The 2002 elections brought Álvaro Uribe to the presidency. His slogan of "a firm hand and big heart" foreshadowed a tougher attitude in the fight against the armed groups that quickly materialised. On 12 August, just five days after he was sworn in, a state of exception was decreed to almost universal satisfaction. This allowed the authorities to govern by decree for three consecutive periods of 90 days. A month later, a decree introduced "consolidation and rehabilitation zones" under military control and with restricted access for the foreign press. For the first time the Colombian government emerged as a direct threat to press freedom in a country in which it already had many enemies. The constitutional court fortunately ruled a few weeks later that these restrictions were unconstitutional. For the first time senior government leaders - outgoing President Andrés Pastrana and then the new vice-president, Pacho Santos, both former journalists - said the press could not remain "neutral" in the fight against the armed groups.
More than ever, press freedom seemed to be threatened in the big cities as well as the remoter provinces. Attacks were targeted against the offices of the major news organisations in Bogotá, which were accused by the guerrillas of being part of the oligarchy. In Bogotá, Cali and Medellín, news organisations received communiques from both the AUC and FARC in which journalists were declared to be "military targets" because their coverage was perceived to benefit the adversary.
The vice was even tighter on the press in the provinces, where the war with the rebels was more intense. Both in the northern departments of Arauca and Norte de Santander and the southern ones of Nariño and Caquetá, the offices of the small news media were bombarded with communiques from the different armed groups threatening them with reprisals if they did not use their statements or if they used those of their foes. Three attacks targeting the news media took place within a month at the end of the year in Cúcuta, the capital of Norte de Santander. In these regions, the abuses of the armed groups were compounded by pressure from the regular army. "The military doesn’t like us interviewing the guerrillas," said a journalist in Arauca. Many news media in Arauca department no longer dared to carry the communiques of civil society organisations denouncing human rights abuses for fear of reprisals by the authorities. Many resigned themselves to just using the army’s official communiques.
In addition to the war, pressure came from politicians accused of corruption or links with drug traffickers. Radio Riomar director Fabio Ortiz in Barranquilla, for example, was told he was "talking too much" and had to leave town after accusing the departmental government of embezzlement. During the election campaign, death threats were made against journalists who referred to Álvaro Uribe’s alleged tolerance of drug traffickers in Medellín when he was local civil aviation director and then mayor.
The reason for the continuing violence against the press in Colombia was the impunity enjoyed by its perpetrators. "Nothing is investigated in Colombia, least of all the death of a journalist," a reporter was told. The perpetrators were convicted in two murder cases in 2002, but their acquittal in two other cases raised doubts about the workings of the justice system. In the case of Jaime Garzón, a leading journalist killed in 1999, a judge said investigators had ignored certain leads. An independent enquiry carried out by Reporters Without Borders showed that a security service deliberately misled the prosecutor’s office investigators.
Colombia’s decision, reported in September, to use the exemption allowed under article 124 when it ratified the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court (ICC) deprived Colombians of a new weapon against the almost universal impunity prevailing in their country. This article allows a country to declare that the court has no jurisdiction over war crimes committed in its territory for the first seven years of the court’s existence. Yet more than half the crimes committed in Colombia are war crimes.
In view of the repeated violations of press freedom committed by the armed groups they lead, Carlos Castaño, Manuel Marulanda and Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista are on the Reporters Without Borders worldwide list of predators of press freedom.
Three journalists killed
Orlando Sierra Hernández, deputy managing editor of the regional daily La Patria in Manizales (in the central department of Caldas) was gunned down outside the newspaper on 30 January 2002. Shot twice in the head, he died two days later. Sierra’s murder was thought to be linked with the tough line he took on corruption among local politicians and officials in Caldas, of which Manizales is the capital. An investigation by seven Colombian newspapers and magazines, published on 3 March, supported this hypothesis. The alleged hit man, Luis Fernando Soto Zapata, who was arrested on the day of the shooting, confessed in April but claimed he mistook Sierra for the person suspected of killing his cousin a year earlier. Prosecutors said Soto’s two-hour wait for Sierra outside the newspaper disproved this. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison on 8 May. A warrant was issued in May for the arrest of Luis Arley Ortiz, also detained on the day of the shooting but released after questioning. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ortiz was suspected of being the liaison between the hit men and the instigator. Francisco Antonio Quintero Tabares, the alleged head of the gang of hit men, was also questioned.
A TV crew with RCN Televisión came under fire on 11 April on the outskirts of Cali (in the southwestern department of Valle) on 11 April while covering army and police operations following the abduction of 12 parliamentarians by FARC guerrillas. Although they had tried to ensure they were clearly identified as journalists, an army helicopter fired on their vehicle, killing their driver Walter López. As the crew left the vehicle to seek cover, cameraman Héctor Sandoval was also fatally hit. Luz Estella Arroya, RCN correspondent in Cali, and two print journalists who were with the TV crew, one from the weekly Semana and one from the daily El Tiempo, were unhurt. The army announced an enquiry into the incident but its findings were never released. Armed forces commander in chief Gen. Jorge Mora Rangel voiced his regret for the two deaths but said the journalists should not have risked their lives by putting themselves in the middle of a firefight.
Efraín Alberto Varela Noriega, owner and director of Meridiano 70, a radio station based in Arauca, capital of the northeastern department of the same name, was gunned down on 28 June on the road from Arauca to Caño Limón as he was returning home from a class at the National University. Witnesses said Félix Cruz Bata, a paramilitary chief known as "Comandante Tolima," was among those who carried out the killing. Although there was an army presence less than a kilometre away, the army did not respond with any specific action and no serious investigation was ever carried out. The regional military commander claimed in late November that Cruz Bata was killed in combat but the local civilian authorities were never able to confirm this. Cruz Bata’s arrival in the area at the head of an armed group a week before the murder had been condemned by Varela, an outspoken journalist who criticized guerrillas, paramilitaries, army and civilian authorities alike. The programme he presented, "Let’s talk politics," had many listeners in Arauca department and he was viewed as an exemplary campaigning journalist. After his death, Meridiano 70’s new management decided to limit the news bulletins to the reading of official communiques, almost all of which came from the 18th army brigade. Local journalists said his murder transformed the way journalism was practised in the department.
Three other journalists were killed in 2002 but at the end of the year it was still not possible to say whether their deaths were linked to their work as journalists.
Marco Antonio Ayala Cárdenas, a photographer with the daily El Caleño, was killed on 23 January by six shots to the head fired by two men on a motorcycle as he was picking up developed film from a laboratory near the newspaper. He had worked for El Caleño for four years, normally covering sports and society. But for the past few weeks he had been helping out at the legal affairs section. His editors said he had just been contacted by the wife of a criminal who wanted a copy of a photo published in the newspaper in December in which she had by chance appeared next to her husband.
Mario Prada Díaz was kidnapped from his home in Sabana de Torres (in the northern department of Santander) on the evening of 11 July and was found dead, with four bullet wounds in the head, the next day outside the city. He was the founder and editor of the monthly Horizonte Sabanero, recently renamed Horizonte del Magdalena Medio, which covered social and cultural affairs in the departments of Santander and César. The local police chief said the motive for the killing was unknown. Neither the authorities nor his family were aware of any threats being made against him. In an editorial in the magazine’s last issue, he had referred to irregularities in the municipal government.
Gimbler Perdomo Zamora, journalist and owner of the only local radio station, Panorama FM 89.3 Estereo, was gunned down in Gigante (in the southern department of Huila), as he was leaving an Internet café with his wife. Witnesses said two men and a woman fired at him six times before fleeing. The motive for the killing was not known. Perdomo presented a morning news programme in which he just gave the headlines from the national and local press as well as news taken from the Internet. He also presented a phone-in programme. Before setting up the station in 1999, Perdomo had been a Liberal Party municipal councillor. Both the authorities and his family said he had received no direct threats. His family stressed that he had always been careful in the way he handled news about the war with the guerrillas.
Two media assistants killed
Walter López was killed on 11 April 2002 as he was driving a RCN Televisión crew that was covering army and police operations on the outskirts of Cali (in the south-western department of Valle) following the abduction of 12 parliamentarians by FARC guerrillas (see section "Three journalists killed").
Elizabeth Obando, the person in charge of distributing the daily El Nuevo Día in Roncesvalles (in the eastern department of Tolima) was shot twice in the head on 11 July by a group of unidentified armed men who had stopped her bus and made her get out. She died from her injuries two days later in hospital. The killing apparently had its origin in a dispute between Obando and "Donald," the chief of the FARC’s "21st Front," after the newspaper ran an article on 21 September 2001 criticising the FARC’s practices in the region. On 3 March 2002, Obando had told El Nuevo Día’s management that the FARC had threatened to target her if she did not stop distributing the newspaper in Roncesvalles. Distribution had been temporarily suspended as a result of this threat.
New information on journalists killed before 2002
Carlos Alberto Oviedo, a former parliamentarian suspected of instigating the murders of journalists Jairo Elias Márquez and Ernesto Acero Cadena, was arrested on 1 January 2002 at a New Year party in a hotel in Armenia (in the western department of Quindio). Already sentenced to 39 years imprisonment for a double murder, Oviedo had escaped from house arrest in September 2001. Both Acero (a journalist with El Informador Socioeconómico, gunned down in December 1995) and Márquez (owner of the bimonthly El Marqués, killed on 20 November 1997) had implicated Oviedo in corruption.
The investigation into the 13 August 1999 murder of Jaime Garzón, journalist and satirist with Radionet and Caracol TV, was closed on 2 January 2002. The investigating magistrate in charge of the case, Eduardo Meza, concluded that AUC paramilitary leader Carlos Castaño ordered the killing, Juan Pablo Ortiz Agudelo fired the shots from a motorcycle pillion and Edilberto Antonio Sierra Ayala drove the motorcycle. Ortiz was arrested in January 2000, Sierra was arrested in September 2001, and a warrant for Castaño’s arrest was issued in June 2000. The motive for the murder was supposed to have been Garzón’s participation in negotiations to obtain the release of persons kidnapped by the FARC guerrillas. Castaño allegedly saw this as playing into the hands of the guerrillas. He also supposedly thought that Garzón received money in exchange for these services. After the investigation was declared to have been completed, the case was sent to the judge of the seventh special court of Bogotá.
An independent enquiry carried out by Reporters Without Borders and Damocles Network established at the end of October that the investigators were manipulated by the Administrative Department for Security (DAS), an intelligence service under the president’s authority. The enquiry showed that four of the prosecution testimonies provided to the investigators by the DAS were false. The most important of these witnesses, Maria Amparo Arroyave Mantilla, disappeared after the contradictions in her testimony were pointed out by the accused and the lawyers for the victim’s family. The judge of the seventh special court of Bogotá on 8 November accused the prosecutor’s office of failing to properly follow up certain leads that could have accounted for Garzón’s killing. Reports in the Colombian press mentioned testimonies implicating the military that were ignored by the investigators. According to these reports, sectors of the army supposedly reached an agreement with Castaño, the AUC leader, to eliminate Garzón, and the murder was carried out by La Terraza, a gang of hit men based in Medellín.
Jorge Eliécer Espinal Velásquez and Rodolfo Nelson Rosado Hernández, accused of the 16 September 1999 killing of El Pilón editor Guzmán Quintero Torres, were acquitted by a judge on 23 January on the grounds of insufficient evidence. The prosecutor appealed against the judge’s decision. Quintero’s daily had carried reports on killings and human rights abuses by the Colombian army.
After originally being acquitted, Libardo Prada Bayona was convicted and sentenced on appeal by a court in Valledupar (in the northern department of César) on 20 June to 37 years and eight months in prison for the 1998 murder of TV reporter Leonor Amparo Jiménez Pallares. He was also ordered to pay damages to Jiménez’s family and was stripped of his civic rights for 13 years. A correspondent for Canal A’s news programme "En Vivo," Jiménez was murdered on 11 August 1998 after she had covered the eviction of 170 families from property owned by Carlos Arturo Marulanda, then Colombia’s ambassador to the European Union.
Former soldiers Gregorio Castillo García and Orlando Sánchez Calderón were sentenced on 26 July to 19 years in prison for the 1999 double murder of TV journalists Luis Alberto Rincón and Alberto Sánchez Tovar. They were arrested on the testimony of a paramilitary’s wife who said the two journalists were killed because they were suspected of collaborating with the guerrillas. Sánchez, owner of the production company Producciones Colombiana Ltda, and freelance cameraman Rincón were killed on 28 November 1999 as they were about to cover municipal elections in El Playón (in the northern department of Santander).
A court in the northern city of Barranquilla on 2 October acquitted Alfredo de Jesús Liévano Alcocer of the 1993 murder of journalist Carlos Lajud Catalán. The prosecutor appealed against the acquittal on 11 October. When the investigation ended five months earlier, charges were dropped against the murder’s suspected instigator, former Barranquilla mayor Bernardo de Hoyos Montoya, who was elected senator in July 2002. The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) submitted the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Lajud, who was killed on 19 March 1999 in Barranquilla, was a sports commentator with radio Emisoras ABC who also investigated corruption cases.
One journalist imprisoned
One journalist was imprisoned in 2002, but at the end of the year it was not possible to say whether his detention was linked to his work as a journalist.
Adonai Sánchez Romero of Radio Super in Bogotá was arrested by DAS agents at the offices of the radio station on 25 July 2002 on suspicion of complicity in the abduction of businessman Richard Boulton, who had been set free 10 days earlier. The evidence against Sánchez, who is blind, consisted of a recording of a telephone conversation between him and a presumed FARC guerrilla chief in which they allegedly use coded language to discuss the payment of a ransom for the businessman’s release. Sánchez’s editors said he had contacted the guerrillas in order to obtain an interview and they stressed that there was no proof that the person he was talking to in the recording was the FARC guerrilla chief named in the accusation. They also pointed out that responsibility for the kidnapping was claimed by Carlos Castaño, the chief of the paramilitary AUC, not by the guerrillas. Sánchez’s lawyer requested his release.
Six journalists and media assistants kidnapped
Mauricio Amaya and Diego Burgos, drivers with the television channel Caracol TV, were stopped and abducted by dissident members of the ELN guerrilla group on 6 May 2002 in the town of Santa Cecilia, on the border between the western departments of Chocó and Risaralda. The guerrillas said the kidnapping was justified by the fact that the oligarchy owned the news media. They released them two days later, but kept the vehicles and all the equipment.
Ramón Vásquez Ruiz and Nidia Álvarez Mariño of the daily Hoy Diario del Magdalena were kidnapped on 16 May near Santa Marta (in the northern department of Magdalena) with their driver Vladimir Revolledo Cuisman and six other persons by FARC guerrillas, who took them as hostages to protect their retreat. They released Álvarez unconditionally the next day, but initially demanded a ransom and the publication of a communique for the release of Vásquez and Revolledo. They finally also freed them unconditionally on 24 and 28 May.
Iván Noguera and Héctor Fabio Zamora of the daily El Tiempo and their driver Henry Gómez were kidnapped on 6 August in the mountainous Mistrató district (in the western department of Risaralda) by presumed FARC members, who criticised their reporting and, in particular, the use of the term "terrorists" to refer to the guerrillas. They released them the next day, but kept their vehicle and equipment.
Four journalists physically attacked
Rebeca Jaramillo and Breitner Bravo of the local TV channel Notimar were shot and wounded on 15 July 2002 in Buenaventura (in the southwestern department of Valle) by two men on a motorcycle. Police initially said they thought a personal quarrel was the motive. But Bravo’s colleagues said he had received threats from the AUC paramilitaries. The TV station had also received threats from local shopkeepers after carrying reports about stolen goods being sold in the town.
Fernando Vera, manager of the local news radio station El Clarín, and Jorge Carvalho, former manager of the radio station Todelar, were wounded when a bomb went off on 23 July in a Medellín café known for being frequented by journalists and politicians. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed a former congressman and injured eight other people. Initial indications suggested that FARC guerrillas were behind the bombing.
Ricardo Chamorro, a photographer with the daily El Caleño, was manhandled by members of the trade union federation Sintraemcali while covering clashes between unionists and police in Cali on 1 October. After taking photographs of the union’s president, he was attacked by masked men who confiscated his film.
45 journalists threatened
Gonzálo Guillén, a stringer for the Miami-based newspaper El Nuevo Herald, was accused of "disinformation" by the AUC paramilitaries on 12 January 2002, five days afer he reported that the AUC was press-ganging minors into its ranks. In August, Guillén suspected that a car was following his son.
Flavio Restrepo Gómez of the daily La Pátria, based in Manizales (in the central department of Caldas), received a call on 30 January telling him he was on a list of five persons who were going to be murdered. Restrepo had been covering corruption cases in which those implicated included two senators. The city’s police chief on 7 February confirmed the existence of a plan to kill him. Restrepo left Manizales on 18 February but the threats continued so he left Colombia for Canada.
Claudia Gurisatti of RCN Televisión fled Colombia for the United States for the second time in just over a year on 5 February because of threats apparently coming from the FARC guerrillas. She first went into exile in January 2001 after prosecutors warned her of a suspected FARC plan to kill her. After two months in Miami, she returned to Bogotá and was assigned bodyguards. New threats prompted her decision to leave again.
Alfonso Pardo of the weekly Voz, the mouthpiece of the Colombian Communist Party, received threatening telephone calls on 5 February that allegedly came from three army NCOs. Three months before, in November 2001, he had received threats from AUC paramilitaries who gave him and three other journalists based in the southwestern department of Nariño two days to leave the region. Living in an undisclosed location, Pardo continued to criticise the paramilitary presence in Nariño.
Mauricio Bayona, a sports journalist with the daily El Tiempo, left the country for several months at the start of April after receiving threats at his home and his parents’ home for the past year. He had written about the presumed links between soccer and the major drug cartel based in the north of the department of Valle.
Juan Carlos Giraldo of RCN TV and Julia Navarrete of Caracol Televisión each received a copy of a "death announcement" on 1 and 4 March giving their names and those of five other journalists who, like them, covered the prosecutor’s office. The announcement, signed by a hitherto unknown "Death Command," said they had been declared "military targets" and had 72 hours to leave the country. The other five were Marilyn López of the TV news programme "Noticias Uno" on Canal Uno, José Antonio Jiménez, a reporter who used to be with the news programme "TV Hoy," Jairo Lozano of the daily El Tiempo, Hernando Marroquín of Radio Caracol and Jairo Naranjo of RCN Radio. The journalists did not know where the threat came from or what had motivated it. But they had in common the fact that they had all covered an investigation carried out by the prosecutor’s office into the supposed links between a drug trafficker and members of the army and political class. Jiménez and one other journalist went into exile. A third went abroad but returned after a few weeks. He said that since his return he had been escorted by a bodyguard and his editors had assigned him to a less sensitive beat.
It was reported on 5 March that Luis Alfonso Altamar, a contributor to several news media and head of his own television channel, and María Luisa Murillo, a correspondent for the daily El Tiempo, wanted to leave San Vicente del Caguán (in the southern department of Caquetá) because they feared reprisals from the paramilitaries. San Vicente del Caguán is the largest town in the territory that was ceded to the FARC guerrillas in 1998 and was then reoccupied by the army after peace talks collapsed at the end of February 2002.
Fernando Garavito of the daily El Espectador left Colombia for the United States on 21 March in the face of growing threats in the previous few weeks. In his articles, he had criticised human rights violations by the AUC paramilitaries and the tolerance toward drug traffickers allegedly shown in the past by then presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe. In a communique on 19 February, the AUC had accused Garavito of having "a poisoned mind."
Carlos Enrique López Castro, editor of the magazine De Interés, based in Andes (in the northwestern department of Antioquia), received a fax on 27 March which claimed to come from the AUC paramilitaries and which named him and his family as "military targets" because of an article criticising the paramilitary presence. He left the country.
Carlos Lozano Guillén, director of the weekly Voz, the mouthpiece of the Colombian Communist Party, reported on 9 April that he had repeatedly received threats. He thereafter left the country for three months with the Spanish embassy’s help. A political activist as well as journalist, he had been a member of a commission that was given the job of recommending how to combat the paramilitaries and defuse tension. The commission had been set up as part of the peace process between the government and FARC that collapsed in February.
Daniel Coronell, the editor of the TV news programme "Noticias Uno" on Canal Uno, received four death threats on 22 and 23 April after broadcasting a report about the alleged links between then presidential candidate Álvaro Uribe and drug traffickers. Anonymous phone callers also threatened to kill his daughter. The programme’s head of investigative reporting, Ignacio Gómez, also received threats before the programme was broadcast although, in his view, they could have been linked to other sensitive subjects he was working on.
Miller Aranzales of the local radio station Ecos del Caguán left San Vicente del Caguán (in the southern department of Caquetá) in May after a friend warned him that paramilitaries were planning to kill him. According to IPYS, Aranzales had been threatened by the FARC guerrillas when they occupied the area as part of the government’s peace process. Nonetheless, after the collapse of the peace talks and the return of the army, the paramilitaries suspected Aranzales of being a FARC sympathiser.
Carlos Pulgarín, a former journalist with the daily El Tiempo and professor of journalism at La Sabana university in Bogotá, was threatened on 8 May by two men who had alreadythreatened him in the past. Pulgarín had been forced to leave Colombia twice since 1999 as a result of a kidnapping attempt and threats by members of the army or paramilitaries. He left the country again a few days later.
Edgar Buitrago Rico, editor of the magazine Valle 2000, based in Cali (in the southwestern department of Valle), filed a complaint on 10 May after receiving threats. His magazine had just published several reports on alleged corruption in the Cali municipal government. José Douglas Lasso, a reporter with the magazine, was also threatened by two strangers who said they would kill his colleagues if they did not stop their reports.
An anonymous caller threatened to kill Fabio Ortiz, director of radio Riomar in Barranquilla, on 24 May for "talking too much." Two days later, a stranger in the street threatened to kill him if he did not leave the area. Ortiz, who had reported on alleged embezzlement by the departmental government, left the city a few days later.