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Colombia’s War on Journalists

by ALVARO ANGARITA

In 2002, journalists were involved in 111 incidents related to the Colombian internal armed conflict. Such incidents have caused the Press Freedom Foundation to declare that Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for practising journalism.

According to information delivered to the Press Freedom Foundation (a Colombian NGO known as FLIP — its Spanish acronym) by the Colombian Ombudsman’s Office, the many attacks suffered by journalists show a disturbing state of affairs.

Of the total infractions recorded, 75 were threats, 12 were kidnappings, 10 were attempted murders, 8 were murders, 3 were assaults, and 3 were obstructions in the exercise of profession committed by the Army.

DISTURBING REPORT

“Media for Peace”, a Non-Government Organisation of Journalists, released an investigation on the 25th of June titled, “The War: A Threat to the Press”. The report, put together by journalist Patricia Gomez, includes 126 interviews with journalists from nine cities (Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Monteria, Sincelejo, Past, Florencia, Valledupar and Barrancabermeja), as well as surveys of 120 journalists and reporters, from a base of 240 professionals who cover the country’s armed conflict.

According to Media for Peace, one of the factors causing the threats, hostility and murder of journalists is the employment system used by the mass media owners, which keeps journalists, with some exceptions, in a very vulnerable position and a cycle of low income. In order to avoid this situation, many journalists and reporters choose instead to show bias toward local political bosses, to compromise the truth, to lie or to sensationalise news in order to obtain payments.

Objectivity is lost in such an environment, drowning journalists in a system of lying and placing them in an unsafe situation. They become trapped in the conflict, which could lead to their exile or death. Finally, in many cases, journalists are sent to cover events in war zones in an irresponsible way, without being provided safety measures, thereby placing them in grave danger.

NO GUARANTEES FOR JOURNALISTS

According to the FLIP, Efrain Varela, owner/director of radio station Meridiano 70, who was also acting as a human rights lawyer, was murdered in Arauca on the 28th of June, 2002. The body of Mario Prada Diaz, founder and director of the newspaper Horizonte Sabanero, was discovered on the 12th of June.

RCN Cameraman Hector Sandoval and driver Walter Lopez died on April 12, as a result of gunfire from a military helicopter. RCN TV journalist Luz Estela Arroyave, along with Semana Magazine photographer, were forced to take cover in a ditch to avoid being hit. A few days later, Ms Arroyave was forced to flee the country owing to threats.

The above mentioned cases are added to a wave of death threats against media commentators and reporters, which has intensified over the course of this year. These events have been classified by the Ombudsman’s Office as serious infractions of International Humanitarian Law.

THIRTY THREE JOURNALISTS MURDERED

Since 1995, 33 journalists have been murdered in Colombia. Two of these cases occurred during a combat situation. Ten of them came as a result of their professional activities. The causes of the rest are yet to be established.

The Press Freedom Foundation advises journalists on dangerous missions that they should take steps to not be targeted by the conflicting sides, in order to minimise their risk. These include use of appropriate equipment for carrying out the assignment, training that makes them aware of the risks being faced, as well as guidelines about how to deal with armed groups and how to correctly handle the information being publicised about the conflict.

In relation to the latter of these measures, Media for Peace published a dictionary of terms a few years ago that assists in reporting using appropriate terminology. International Humanitarian Law has also outlined steps, such as identification or tags to distinguish journalists on dangerous assignments.

The Ombudsman requested the National Public Prosecutor to launch an investigation into the current cases, in order to urge national and international organizations that defend freedom of expression to establish a watchdog body that would register and monitor crimes committed against journalists. Such a body would follow the criminal investigation procedure and spur prosecutors and judges into action.

ALVARO ANGARITA writes for VOZ and Anncol.

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