Investigative reporting and in-depth coverage of the civil conflict again fell victim to fear in the country's most troubled areas, where threats and intimidation forced at least seven provincial journalists to flee their homes. The climate of intimidation is the legacy of years of murderous attacks on journalists. With 39 journalists killed since 1992, Colombia ranks as the fourth deadliest country in the world for the press, according to the CPJ analysis "Deadly News," published in September.

Two provincial reporters were murdered in retaliation for their work in 2006, and CPJ is investigating the circumstances surrounding a third slaying. The number of journalist murders has declined in the past three years, sparking a debate over whether government actions have slowed the killings or, as press organizations affirm, widespread self-censorship has taken hold instead.

Colombian reporters said self-censorship continued to be pervasive in vast areas of the country where state protection was minimal and the presence of illegal armed groups high. Recent reports by local and international organizations, including CPJ's 2005 account "Untold Stories," found that threats and attacks from all sides in the ongoing civil war had caused the press to seriously restrict coverage of armed conflict, human rights abuses, organized crime, drug trafficking, and corruption.

With coverage of important issues often limited, a CPJ delegation traveled to Colombia before the May 28 presidential election to meet with President Álvaro Uribe Vélez and outline its concerns. The delegation, led by CPJ's Joel Simon and Carlos Lauría, urged the president to make a statement about threats against the press.

Uribe, who was later re-elected in a landslide, told the delegation that he supported the work of provincial journalists and that any government official who impedes their reporting "is committing a crime against democracy." The Colombian president said that while his administration dislikes media outlets interviewing guerrilla and paramilitary fighters, it respects their right to do so. Provincial officials and military commanders have long denounced journalists who use non-official sources, often linking the reporters to the illegal armed groups. CPJ research shows that these "links" are sometimes followed by violent attacks.

Twice in 2006, shadowy organizations tried to connect prominent journalists to one side in Colombia's civil war. In March, a group issued a video that sought to tie independent television reporter Hollman Morris to the leftist guerrilla group FARC. In June, a separate group sent e-mails accusing the press freedom group Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa and other civil-society groups of having ties to guerrillas. The accusations were made by two previously unknown organizations, Frente Social por la Paz and Frente Democrático Colombia Libre.

In his meeting with CPJ, Uribe also expressed support for journalists who report on corruption, and said that violence against journalists remains a major concern of his administration. "What concerns me is that they keep killing journalists. This hurts me personally, and it hurts Colombia."

Colombian journalists considered Uribe's statement an important acknowledgment of the need to cover all sides of the conflict and said it could set the tone for a long and difficult battle against intimidation and self-censorship. "A statement by a president who has accumulated so much power like Uribe could serve as an umbrella to protect provincial journalists who work under threat, but the government has to do much more to ensure safety for the press," said Jineth Bedoya, a reporter who covers security issues for the national daily El Tiempo.

For its part, the government has touted the effectiveness of its press protection program. Over the past three years, more than 300 journalists have taken part in the program, which offers training in self-defense and provides armored cars, bulletproof vests, cellular phones, and bodyguards to threatened journalists. History shows that the protective measures are needed.

In "Deadly News," CPJ reported that murder goes virtually unpunished in conflict-ridden countries, where police and judicial systems are typically dysfunctional. Impunity reigns in Colombia, where none of the 39 journalist slayings since 1992 have been fully solved, CPJ found. In the few cases where some convictions were obtained, masterminds were not brought to justice.

Despite his statement in support of the press, Uribe reacted strongly to press criticism of his administration. In April, when the Bogotá newsweekly Semana reported allegations of paramilitary infiltration of the country's intelligence service, Uribe accused Director Alejandro Santos of being "dishonest" and said the magazine was "harming" Colombian democratic institutions.

But it is provincial journalists who face the gravest risk: At least seven local reporters left their homes in 2006 after being threatened with death. The case of Jenny Manrique, a reporter for the Bucaramanga-based daily Vanguardia Liberal, was particularly alarming. Manrique fled Bucaramanga after receiving anonymous telephone death threats stemming from her reports on abuses by right-wing paramilitary forces. In March, when the phone threats followed her to her parents' home in Bogotá, she fled the country.

Killed in 2006 in Colombia

Gustavo Rojas Gabalo, Radio Panzenú, March 20, 2006, Montería

Rojas, 56, host of "El Show de El Gaba" on Radio Panzenú, was shot by unidentified gunmen on February 4 in the northwestern city of Montería, Córdoba province. He died on March 20 from complications at a hospital in Medellín, capital of the central Antioquia province.

Two men aboard a motorcycle approached Rojas as he opened his car outside a liquor store he owned in Montería. Witnesses said one of the assailants got off the motorcycle, argued with Rojas, and shot him twice at close range, the local press reported. One bullet shattered Rojas' collarbone, while the other caused severe head injuries.

Rojas underwent repeated surgery for head injuries in Montería, his physician, Jesús Jímenez Isaza, told CPJ. On March 18, Rojas was moved to the Salucoop Clinic in Medellín to receive specialized medical attention, his daughter Erly Rojas said.

Known as "El Gaba," Rojas had been on the air for more than 30 years. His popular "El Show de El Gaba" featured music, news, and commentary that often focused on government corruption. He had earned a regional reputation for voicing listeners' social and political concerns.

In April, local police arrested four men in connection with the murder. Luis Armando Díaz Berrocal, the local prosecutor in charge of the case, told CPJ that two were paramilitary fighters. The four denied involvement in the slaying, he said. Díaz said that Rojas' journalism – especially his criticism of local officials and paramilitary forces – was considered a strong motive. Local reporters also told CPJ that they believe his tough commentary had sparked retaliation.

Atilano Segundo Pérez Barrios, Radio Vigía de Todelar, August 22, 2006, Cartagena

Pérez, 52, host of the weekly program "El Diario de Marialabaja," was killed by an unidentified assailant who forced his way into the journalist's Cartagena apartment at around 9 p.m. and shot him twice in the abdomen, a family member told CPJ. The assailant then fled on the back of a motorcycle. Pérez was pronounced dead at the Hospital Universitario del Caribe.

Local journalists said Pérez had been consistently critical of local paramilitary activity. He leased a one-hour, Sunday-morning time slot from Radio Vigía de Todelar for his program, "El Diario de Marialabaja," Station Manager Doris Jiménez told CPJ. The show focused on news from Pérez's hometown of Marialabaja, 37 miles (60 kilometers) south of Cartagena.

Ricardo Carriazo, the local prosecutor in charge of the case, told CPJ that Pérez had fled his hometown because of work-related threats. Authorities believed the murder was linked to Pérez's comments on local paramilitary activities, although they had not conclusively ruled out other motives, Carriazo said.

Jairo Baena, president of a local journalists union, told CPJ that Pérez often denounced government corruption and paramilitary influence in Marialabaja. In his last show, on August 20, he accused the five candidates for mayor of Marialabaja of being financed by right-wing paramilitary groups, the local press reported. The family member told CPJ that Pérez had received recent death threats.

Pérez had been a member of the Marialabaja town council and a deputy in the Bolívar provincial assembly a decade earlier, but he was no longer involved in politics, the Cartagena-based daily El Universal reported. Pérez, while not a lawyer, also provided assistance in legal cases related to the public transportation system, according to the local press freedom group Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa.

Investigators identified two men with links to local paramilitary groups as the likely perpetrators, provincial police Cmdr. Luís Angulo told CPJ. Police found the two men dead a few days after the murder, he said.

Milton Fabián Sánchez, Yumbo Estéreo, August 9, 2006, Yumbo (motive unconfirmed)

Sánchez, 38, a host on local radio station Yumbo Estéreo, was shot three times by a masked assailant outside his home in Yumbo, in southwestern Valle del Cauca province, at around 9:45 p.m., colleague Leonardo Orozco told CPJ. Witnesses said the assailant had been waiting in the bushes behind Sánchez's home, he said. Sánchez was taken to a local hospital and then to Valle University Hospital in the provincial capital, Cali, before dying at around midnight, Orozco said.

Sánchez was host of three weekly programs. "Notas de Gestión" and "La Personería," were civic education programs funded by the local government. The third, "Mesa Redonda," was a community-based opinion program, Orozco told CPJ.

During "Mesa Redonda" broadcasts, Orozco said, Sánchez sometimes criticized the performance of the local government. Sánchez once had been spokesman for the local mayor, according to the mayor's press office. Orozco said that Sánchez had not mentioned getting threats.

Cali Police Cmdr. José Roberto León told CPJ that a joint investigation with the Cali state prosecutor had been opened. There were no concrete leads, he said.

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