In May, 12 journalists have been attacked or threatened in Colombia, which is one of the most dangerous Latin American countries for media professionals.
The fragility of press freedom in Colombia has once again become evident.
In April 2012, while filming an anti-drug operation in Colombia, French journalist Roméo Langlois was kidnapped by members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), who held him for more than a month. (Eitan Abramovich/AFP)
In May, 12 journalists have been attacked or threatened. So far this year, 33 have been threatened, according to the National Protection Unit (UNP) of Colombia’s Ministry of the Interior, which is protecting 90 journalists.
Colombia ranks 129th among 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ ranking of press freedom, making it one of the most dangerous places for journalists in Latin America.
“In the search for truth, people step on each other’s feet and say things that a lot of people don’t like and are unwilling to tolerate,” said Óscar Sevillano of Corporación Nuevo Arco Iris, a research center specializing in armed conflict, peace and the post-conflict period. “It’s hard to practice the profession without running into risks, especially in a country with an ongoing conflict, such as Colombia.”
Among those who most recently received threats is Ricardo Calderón, Semana magazine’s public order editor. Calderón’s truck was shot five times on May 1 as he drove on the highway between Ibagué and Bogotá in southern Colombia.
Calderón, who was unharmed in the attack, recently published two reports on the privileges enjoyed by some soldiers convicted of human rights violations who were being held at the Tolemaida Military Prison in the department of Tolima.
On May 7, a letter signed by the Anti-Land Restitution Army was sent to several media outlets in Valledupar in the department of Cesar. The statement targeted eight journalists and gave them 24 hours to leave the city.
he eight journalists have covered the land restitution process the government has carried out in different parts of Colombia.
“The threats are disturbing and frightening, but we have to continue to carry out our work and report the truth,” said Óscar Arzuaga, a legal reporter for Radio Guatapurí who is on the list.
On May 14, the UNP uncovered an alleged plot to kill journalists León Valencia and Gonzalo Guillén and political analyst Ariel Ávila. They have been placed under UNP protection.
UNP Director Andrés Villamizar said the alleged mastermind is in Bogotá preparing for the attacks.
In mid-2011, Valencia, one of the journalists targeted by hit men, provided several Colombian institutions with his extensive investigation into the influence of illegal groups in gubernatorial and mayoral elections.
“This is an investigation that was carried out by 67 researchers in 80 municipalities and 23 departments [that resulted in] a list of 126 mayoral and gubernatorial candidates who may win elections through the support of criminal groups or guerrilla forces,” Valencia wrote on May 20 in his column for Semana titled “We will stay the course,” referring to his decision to continue his work despite being threatened.
Colombia has been a dangerous place to practice journalism since the 1980s. Officials have documented the murders of 140 journalists between 1977 and 2012, according to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP). Of that total, 62 cases have gone unpunished, a 44.5% rate of impunity.
In 1986, the murder of Guillermo Cano, then-director of the newspaper El Espectador who reported important findings regarding the drug trade, left a profound negative impact on press freedom in Colombia.
The annual “UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize” is awarded each year in his honor. This year, it was presented to Reeyot Alemu of Ethiopia.
Another emblematic incident was the murder 13 years ago of journalist and humorist Jaime Garzón, who denounced paramilitary organizations and their relationships with certain political entities.
“The aim is not to multiply the protection schemes provided to journalists but instead carry out an effective legal investigation through which we can overcome these threats,” said FLIP Founder Ignacio Gómez, an investigative journalist who has become one of Colombia’s most threatened journalists in recent history. “The reaction from some quarters against the peace process (that the Colombian government is carrying out with the FARC in Havana) also leads to these types of cases.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, who also is a journalist and served as the director of the Inter American Press Association, offered a reward of up to $50 million Colombian pesos (US$26,950) for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for threatening the eight journalists in Valledupar.
Santos named Gen. Rodríguez Peralta the director of Protection and Specialized Services for the National Police, and Peralta will travel to Valledupar to investigate who’s behind the threats.
“[My administration is] fully committed to getting to the bottom of any matter that goes against the fundamental right of Colombians to be well-informed,” Santos said during the National Forum on the Freedom of the Press held in Bogotá on May 14.