Fewer journalists were killed in Colombia in 2004 but the press freedom situation remained very bad. Armed groups, as well as corrupt politicians and druglords, continued their efforts to silence journalists.

Even good news has a bitter taste in Colombia. With only one journalist and one media assistant killed, 2004 counted as a good year for defenders of press freedom in a country where an official average of five journalists are murdered each year.

The two presumed killers of journalist and satirist Jaime Garzón, who were simply scapegoats, were acquitted. But this counted as good news too, as an injustice was at least repaired even if impunity continued.

Otherwise nothing really changed for the better in the hemisphere's most dangerous country for journalists. In fact it became even more perilous during the year, as shown by the 4 February murder of Oscar Alberto Polanco Herrera, presenter of the news programme "Notas de dirección" on the TV station CNC Noticias, in Cartago (300 km. west of Bogotá), after he criticised the town's mayor, who was being investigated for his relationship with a drug-trafficker. The killing showed the ever closer and more complex ties between the enemies of press freedom (corrupt politicians, druglords and armed groups) and the growing risk in exposing their crimes.

A sometimes alarming situation

Press freedom is under great threat in some provinces. Reporters Without Borders – with the Colombian Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), the Press and Society Institute (IPYS) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) – went on a fact-finding mission in April to Barrancabermeja (300 km. north of Bogotá).

Violence there by the paramilitary United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), who arrived in the region in 2000, has replaced that of the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The AUC was suspected in the April 2003 killing of José Emeterio Rivas, of the radio station Calor Estereo, who had criticised links between the city government and AUC-controlled businesses. An AUC commander warned journalists in 2002 that he was now "looking after the city's good reputation" and that journalists should "speak well of the city and not talk about dead people."

The fact-finding mission found evidence of other more subtle pressure on the media such as threats by army officers and the withholding of official advertising to silence criticism.

As a result, local news was reduced to a trickle. After journalist Luis Alberto Castaño was threatened in Líbano (Tolima province), where he presented the town's last radio news programme, on the community radio station Cafe 93.5, he fled the region and the town was left without news. He had accused the AUC of carrying out a string of murders. He left under a government programme to protect journalists, but his departure was seen as a victory for the enemies of press freedom.

Colombians can increasingly only count on the national media to get informed, but these outlets do not escape violence and pressure either. Several journalists on the Bogotá weekly Semana found their phone calls were being tapped. They received threats after the magazine said the AUC had been infiltrated by drug-traffickers and after it printed sensitive material about negotiations between the AUC and the government. Other media did not rally to Semana's defence and such lack of solidarity in the face of the enemy is a serious flaw in the Colombian media.

Negotiations fail

After the failure of talks between the government of President Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) and the FARC, President Alvaro Uribe Vélez opened talks with the AUC, but they seem to have broken down. Demobilisation was announced of only about 3,400 AUC troops out of an estimated total of 20,000 and only a third of the 900 fighters demobilised in 2003 were true paramilitaries, the rest being hastily-recruited petty criminals. Some of the AUC negotiators appeared to be drug-traffickers hoping to profit from the amnesty involved in the peace process.

The predators of press freedom – drug barons and the leaders of the country's three armed groups – still walk free. They include FARC leader Manuel Marulanda, the Guevarist National Liberation Army (ELN) commander Nicolas Rodríguez Bautista, and (after the mysterious disappearance in 2004 of Carlos Castaño) new AUC chief Salvatore Mancuso. These men and their troops are sometimes in the pay of corrupt politicians and drug traffickers anxious to suppress news about their own activities.

In 2004...

  • 1 journalist was killed
  • 1 media assistant was killed
  • 3 journalists were kidnapped
  • 2 arrested
  • 28 physically attacked
  • and 25 threatened

Personal account

"My daughter became the main target"

Freelance journalist Claudia Julieta Duque has been investigating the August 1999 murder in Bogotá of journalist and satirist Jaime Garzón for several years. She has found government bodies are blocking the official murder enquiry and, for the second time in three years, she was forced to leave the country last December after getting threats.

In the archives of the José Alvear Restrepo lawyers' collective that I work with is a case file about me. Since 2001, I've been repeatedly threatened because of the investigation I'm doing into Jaime Garzón's murder.

The collective and I have proved the official murder enquiry is being obstructed by the state intelligence service, the DAS, which is under the authority of the president himself. The obstruction, accepted by the prosecutor-general's office, has slowed down the enquiry for more than four years now.

At the end of the March 2004 trial of Garzón's suspected killers, the court ordered an investigation of the DAS officials who had worked on the case. When I began to get threats in 2001, only two people thought there was a cover-up going on – I and Alirio Uribe, the lawyer for the Garzón family and for Reporters Without Borders.

I was kidnapped in a taxi on 23 July 2001. From then until the first time I fled abroad two months later, on 30 September, the only progress made in the case was the arrest of a man called "Toño," suspected of being the driver of the motorbike the killer had used in the murder.

For more than three months, I noted the numbers of various cars that were following me. One of them belonged to the DAS. Others were taxis that had false plates that belonged to lorries, buses or private cars. Others were registered with addresses such as the Nariño Presidential Palace, the presidential guard and the military hospital. The prosecutor's office ignored all this, saying the vehicles were "normal" and ending its enquiry into the murder.

When I returned to Colombia in 2002, I resumed my investigation and even helped make a documentary about the case in August 2003 for the TV programme "Contravía" and won a prize for it. Once more I was constantly followed and again I noted down the vehicle numbers, which again proved to be false ones.

Strangers phoned me up and threatened to attack my daughter. Then, on 17 November this year, a man rang the number I'd been assigned as part of the government's programme to protect threatened journalists. Two days earlier, the authorities had given me a bulletproof car and warned me that now I was protected, my daughter had become the main target.

So I chose exile once again after vainly fighting to get a serious enquiry set up. This is the heavy price you have to pay in Colombia to fight against impunity.

December 2004


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