Violence continues to be a major obstacle to press freedom in Colombia. Five journalists were murdered, two because of what they wrote or said, and three for reasons still unknown. Nine were kidnapped including five foreign correspondents. Three left the country out of fear of reprisals, and 64 reported threats to the interior ministry’s Commission for the Protection of Journalists. The violence has not been directed solely at journalists. It has also been directed at media outlets, especially in Cúcuta and Valledupar, where four bombings occurred. Free speech and press freedom have been directly impacted by a number of developments in the legal and judicial arena. In contrast to the hemisphere-wide trend toward the decriminalization of libel, Colombia’s Congress is about to consider a bill sponsored by journalist and Congressman Juan Gómez Martínez that would expand the prison terms for crimes in this category to others such as making unfounded statements. The government, for its part, is working on a bill to step up the fight against terrorism. The fear is that press freedom would be curtailed, although President Alvaro Uribe has given assurances that there would be no restrictions and disavowed a bill that had been leaked to the press. Under the bill, anyone who “through print, radio or television media or virtual information systems discloses information that might hamper the effectiveness of military or police operations, endanger the lives of law enforcement personnel or private individuals, or otherwise disturb the peace or damage public morale by bettering the enemy’s position or image or abetting terrorist activities to increase their impact, shall be incarcerated for eight (8) to twelve (12) years without prejudice to suspension of the relevant media outlet.” On a more positive note, on December 27 President Uribe objected to the Journalists Law adopted by Congress in that it violates labor law and curtails freedom of expression. The law distinguishes between professional journalists and others, and only recognizes as journalists those registered with the Ministry of Labor as earning their living in such capacity. Nevertheless, the bill’s congressional sponsor reintroduced it in recent days. After signing the Declaration of Chapultepec on January 22, President Uribe also made a commitment to an IAPA international delegation not to enact any laws restricting the freedom of the press. During that mission Interior Minister Fernando Londoño warned the IAPA that journalists should exercise great care in military conflict zones in order to avoid risk. That same day, the kidnappings of several foreign correspondents were reported. The National Liberation Army (ELN) kidnapped Los Angeles Times journalists Ruth Morris and Scott Dalton, who were freed 11 days later under pressure from national and international organizations. In the meantime paramilitary forces released U.S. reporters Robert Young Pelton, Marta Wedeven and Megan Smaker, who had been kidnapped in the jungles of Chocó near the border with Panama while on assignment for Discovery Channel. Regarding coverage in the conflict zones, on November 25 the Constitutional Court ruled that measures restricting entry by journalists and non-governmental organizations into the special rehabilitation zones were unconstitutional. Gimbler Perdomo Zamora, news director and owner of radio station Panorama Stereo, the only local station in the town of Gigante, El Huila, was murdered on Sunday, December 1. Stopped by two men and a woman, Perdomo was shot six times and his wife injured. Perdomo was known locally for his solidarity campaigns and public criticism of bad government. According to journalists at El Huila’s newspaper, his motorcycle had been burned under circumstances attributed to law enforcement personnel while he was covering an agricultural strike in July 2001 after criticizing the municipal government on a number of occasions. José Eli Escalante, a correspondent for radio station La Voz del Cinaruco in La Esmeralda, Arauca, was murdered on October 28, 2002, when a gunman shot him twice just a few yards from his home. According to the station’s news director, Escalante had been doing community journalism, but in her opinion “Escalante’s murder was unrelated to his work as a journalist.” Escalante was known in La Esmeralda as a community leader in an area of intense armed conflict. He was elected councilman for Arauquita in 2000, but the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) tried through threats to get him to resign. Oscar Salazar, manager and owner of station Radio Sevilla in Sevilla, Valle del Cauca, was murdered on March 9. A well-known local political figure, Salazar also hosted a Saturday news and opinion program, working during the week at a Cali law firm. In one of his last news broadcasts he cast doubt on local politicians who “were not keeping their promises to the people.” Journalist Agustín de Jesús Rodríguez, program director of community radio station Fantasía Stereo in the town of Palestina, Caldas, was murdered on March 22. Regarding crimes against journalists, the Bogotá Seventh Court of Special Jurisdiction, which had refused to hear the case of the murder of journalist and humorist Jaime Garzón on August 13, 1999, was forced to accept the Supreme Court’s ruling that Garzón’s murder was a terrorist act associated with his work as journalist, and comply with its order for a new trial. Further affronts to press freedom are described in the remainder of this report. A group of journalists from the newspaper El Colombiano were detained by United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary near Medellín, and warned that they needed permits to enter the area. The journalists were freed 24 hours later. Radio and television reporters Javier Orlando Mantilla and Edison Figueroa Benítez were assaulted by police at Bucaramanga airport. The cameraman was beaten and the journalist forced to sign a warning notice, in which he agreed to tell the radio station the next day that it had all been a misunderstanding. Journalist Iván Darío Cardozo Arias was forced to leave the country after receiving a series of death threats. Cardozo had published a list of lawyers and officers of the court allegedly involved in theft at a government agency. Humberto Briñez, a correspondent for RCN Televisión in Valle del Cauca, was also forced to leave the country after receiving death threats first from FARC guerrillas and later from police following a documentary on the police’s inability to cope with the guerrillas’ kidnapping of several Cali members of Congress last year. In December the FARC prevented a correspondent from the newspaper Llano Siete Días from entering the town of Puerto Lleras in the Llanos Orientales Region. The journalist attempted to report on public order there. On December 9 journalist María Méndez was wounded along with a councilman and two Florencia members of Congress, when they were attacked by gunmen while leaving the town’s community center. Also on December 9 in Cúcuta, northern Santander, a bomb containing over 30 pounds of amonal explosive went off in the Caracol Radio and Radio Reloj transmission facility, putting Radio Reloj off the air. The FARC blamed the attack on “the media’s support for the Uribe administration and the military.” One month earlier another bomb had exploded in front of the RCN Radio facilities in Cúcuta, leaving four dead. Six days later the police defused a bomb at the offices of the newspaper La Opinión. ELN guerrillas claimed responsibility for the attacks. On December 15 RCN Televisión Cameraman Carlos Chamorro and host Iván Darío Solano of radio station La Súper Estación de Villavicencio were wounded when a grenade was thrown in the El Castillo bullfighting arena in Meta. On December 16 a grenade exploded at the RCN Radio offices in Valledupar, Cesar. The explosion caused minor damage to the building. Authorities blamed FARC for the attack. On January 17 soldiers from a military garrison in the capital city of Arauca detained El Tiempo journalist Jorge Meléndez and Danilo Sarmiento, a photographer working for the newspaper. They took Sarmiento´s digital camera and destroyed the photos he had taken. These events occurred while 60 United States Special Forces troops were arriving in Arauca to conduct counter-insurgency training. Sarmiento was forced into a vehicle and driven to a B2 military intelligence office. There, he was forced to explain himself to two United States soldiers and a representative of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, who warned him that no photographs were to be taken of United States military personnel. Two journalists from the newspaper Vanguardia Liberal were locked in a cell at the Valledupar National Penitentiary while reporting on a hunger strike by 32 inmates. Their digital photographs were erased on orders from the major in charge of the prison. Press photographer John Wilson Vizcaíno of the newspaper El Tiempo reported high-handed behavior by Bogotá metropolitan police while covering demonstrations at the Corabastos supply center on January 29. He was detained by police who confiscated his digital camera. On January 30 President Uribe had these words for Colombia’s diplomatic corps on the subject of journalists: “It is frustrating that a journalist can get to a terrorist in his hideout, but the government cannot. It is frustrating that a journalist reports on a terrorist act before it is committed, but the government gets surprised.” The next day he had this to say at a military base: “Journalists are going to have to help the Colombian people by reining themselves in, not being reckless, and understanding that the Colombian people’s right to regain their safety comes first and takes precedence over getting the scoop.” El Tiempo ran an editorial rejecting the president’s insinuation that the press favors terrorists. In an interview with journalist Jorge Gestoso of CNN en Español a few days later, President Uribe said he was uncomfortable with some of the interviewer’s questions and declined to go on with the portion of the interview intended for the English-speaking audience. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Jorge Lesmes tried to require journalists covering the Ministry of Defense to submit a request for admittance 24 hours in advance. The measure was met with protests and replaced with a press pass system. Ramón Eduardo Martínez of Canal RCN was forced to leave Cúcuta in early February after receiving death threats. The journalist was kidnapped for 48 hours with his team of reporters on January 26 by the FARC in Arauca. The guerrillas threatened the reporters, warning them to stop working for Canal RCN or face the consequences. Press photographer Herminio Ruíz of the weekly newspaper El Espectador was beaten by police while covering the terrorist attack at Club El Nogal in northern Bogotá, which left 33 dead and 157 injured. Eduardo Mastrascuza Cano, a community radio commentator in the department of Bolívar, was kidnapped on February 10 by unidentified persons for reasons unknown. On March 4 prosecutors decided not to proceed with the complaint filed against Editor Mauricio Vargas of the magazine Cambio by former Uribe advisor Pedro Juan Moreno, since no false statements had been made in the story that gave rise to the complaint. The president of the Colombian Press Photographers Circle, Gladys Barajas, left the country on Wednesday, March 5, after reporting death threats. The Circle had reported several such instances of police harassment of journalists. RCN Radio news director Pedro Cárdenas was rescued March 12 after being forced from his home in Honda, Tolima, the same day by armed men who appeared to be AUC paramilitary. Cárdenas had left the area two years earlier under threats from paramilitary forces, whom he had accused of selective killings. He had made reference to those events in his radio broadcast the day of the aborted kidnapping. On March 14 sources at the public prosecutor’s office revealed that FARC terrorists had been planning to use journalist Soraya Yanine, daughter of a retired army general, to bring explosives in her car to Canal RCN, where she worked, or to the Ministry of Defense from which she often reported. According to the authorities, the FARC were going to pressure her by kidnapping one of her children. The journalist is currently with her family under government protection. On March 16 the television news show “Hora Cero” went off the air due to financial difficulties. The advertising slump has caused other television news shows to shut down in the past three years. Luis Eduardo Alfonso, an assistant correspondent for El Tiempo and journalist for radio station Emisora Meridiano 70, was murdered on March 18. Two gunmen on a motorcycle shot him three times in the head following an argument at the station’s front door as he was arriving for his 5 a.m. broadcast. The murder occurred while Alfonso was supposedly under the protection of the interior ministry’s Commission for the Protection of Journalists after receiving death threats. Efraín Varela, news director at the same station, had been murdered on June 28, 2002. FARC guerrillas dynamited a transmission tower in southern Colombia, leaving the department of Putumayo with no television signal. On March 19 Rodrigo Avila Osorio received a death threat after attending the funeral of Canal Caracol’s correspondent in Arauca, Luis Eduardo Alonso. The anonymous message: “Leave the region or you die next.” Like Alonso, Avila is in the interior ministry’s Commission for the Protection of Journalists program. One can only hope he does not meet the same fate as his fellow journalist.