Colombia

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Colombian journalists are still suffering attacks and threats of various types. Two journalists have been killed because of their work: Orlando Sierra Hernández, managing editor of the newspaper La Patria, and Alvaro Alfonso Escobar, of the newspaper El Informador and the weekly La Región, in the state of Magdalena. Seventeen journalists were threatened, seven by members of the paramilitary forces, two by guerrillas of the FARC. The eight remaining were threatened in anonymous leaflets, apparently by the drug trafficking mafia. Nine of these journalists were taken from their homes to Bogota for their own protection. Two left the country. Some of the journalists who were threatened worked in cities where there are guerrilla or paramilitary groups, such as Florencia, Barrancabermeja, Valledupar and Pasto. In this period, Colombian courts acquitted the murderers of journalists Amparo Leonor Jiménez and Guzmán Quintero Torres. In both cases, the prosecution and the public prosecutor's office appealed the decision. In October, Interior Minister Armando Estrada, during a meeting on News and Terrorism, accused the media of helping to consolidate a culture of violence and warned that it "is necessary to regulate the conditions of freedom in which the media operate and analyze their responsibility for the current crisis." Shortly afterward, the National Television Commission presented a proposed agreement to regulate the broadcast of images and statements of the violent groups in public, commercial and regional television. The regulations would prohibit the broadcast of interviews or communiqués from spokesmen of illegal armed groups. It would also prohibit the broadcast of explicit images of human rights violations such as massacres, terrorist attacks and kidnappings. After a widespread protest from the media, President Andrés Pastrana sent a letter to the National Television Commission opposing coercive regulations and favoring a mutual agreement. In November the Colombian Self-Defense Forces issued a communiqué threatening a group of journalists from the state of Nariño, saying that if they did not leave the zone in 48 hours they would be killed. Cristina Castro of TV channel RCN; Germán Arcos, a cameraman of Caracol TV; and Oscar Torres, managing editor of the newspaper Sur were moved to Bogota by the Interior Ministry's Committee to Protect Journalists. Oscar Torres left the country. Alfonso Pardo, a reporter and correspondent of the weekly Voz also was threatened. Commentators in Nariño held a demonstration to protest the threat against their colleagues. In December two men stopped a pickup truck of the regional weekly El Tabloide of the city of Tuluá in the Cauca Valley carrying its legal editor Julio Morales Torres and photographer Armando Yepes. The unidentified men took journalistic material concerning legal events in the towns of Sevilla and Calcedonia. On December 23, journalist Alvaro Alonso Escobar was murdered at his home in Fundación in the state of Magdalena. Escobar, 49, who was shot three times in the head, was correspondent of the newspaper El Informador of Santa Marta, and editor-owner of the weekly Región. Escobar had reported cases of political corruption in Fundación. The former editor of the weekly, Hernando Rangel Moreno, also was killed in March of 1999 after denouncing local politicians and the mayor of El Banco, Magdalena. Former congressman Carlos Oviedo Alfaro, who had escaped from jail months earlier, was arrested. Oviedo Alfaro had been sentenced to 38 years in prison for two homicides, and the national prosecutor's office was investigating him as the suspected mastermind of the murders of journalists Jairo Elías Márquez and Ernesto Acero Cadena in the city of Armenia. In January the Criminal Circuit Court of Valledupar acquitted Jorge Eliécer Espinel Velásquez and Rodolfo Nelson Rosado, accused of killing journalist Guzmán Quintero Torres in September 1999. On January 20, the same court acquitted Libardo Prada Bayona, accused of killing journalist Amparo Leonor Jiménez in August of 1998. In both cases the prosecutors and the public prosecutor's office appealed the judge's decision and the criminal court of Valledupar, where both homicides occurred, is expected to rule on the appeal. On January 30, the managing editor of the newspaper La Patria was shot while with his 19-year-old daughter in front of his newspaper's office. He died 48 hours later, and his death caused was roundly protested by all the media. Seven media outlets began a joint investigation to find the murderer. The suspect, Fernando Soto Zapata, was arrested the same day. The authorities are investigating who is behind the crime and the first indications point to a coalition of local politicians whom Sierra had strongly criticized in his columns. Also on January 30, the FARC exploded a car bomb with 30 kilos of dynamite behind the office of Caracol Noticias in Bogota. A week earlier, a guerrilla group had asked the government to take away the licenses of media outlets that "promote the paramilitary forces." In February, Claudia Gurisatti, director of the opinion program "La Noche" of Canal RCN, left the country again. The channel announced that she had to leave for her own safety because threats against her had increased. Gurisatti had left the country on January 30 of last year for the same reason. In that case the human rights unit of the prosecutor's office ordered the arrest of three supposed member of the FARC for committing the crime in May of 2001 and they remain in jail. The national prosecutor's office rejected a request to keep open the investigative stage in the case of the murder of Jaime Garzón until there is no new evidence. The prosecutor's office had closed the first stage of the legal process and is now going forward with the stage of judging the case's merit. It is expected to charge the hit men who have been captured and charge paramilitary forces with being behind the murder, ruling out the possible participation of active duty military men in the crime. The FARC kidnapped Christian Miller, a correspondent of the Los Angeles Times in the district of El Currillo near the border between the states of Putumayo and Caquetá. He was freed after 24 hours. Following a request from presidential candidate Horacio Serpa, the government asked the OAS to send a commission to monitor campaign news, saying: "The widespread readership of the privately owned media poses a threat to maintaining the objectivity of the electorate if the media do not strictly comply with their duty to present news of the political campaigns impartially and fairly. Additional oversight would promote an effective balance of news." When negotiations with the FARC were broken off, journalists Efraín Jiménez of RCN Radio; freelancer Alfonso Altamar and Maria Luisa Murillo, correspondent of El Tiempo, who were working in the neutral zone expressed fear for what might happen to them in the new situation. In December of last year, the journalists were detained by a paramilitary unit as they were going to Bogota to meet with the press freedom rapporteur of the OAS. The Committee to Protect Journalists provided protective measures for them. During the week after the breakdown of talks with the FARC, the Colombian army prevented local and foreign journalists from entering the former neutral zone where negotiations between the government and the FARC had been conducted. The commander of the XII Military Brigade argued that the measure was to guarantee their security because the air force was bombing targets in the zone. The FARC kidnapped Arnulfo Sánchez, 65, owner of radio station Ecos de Comeima, in Tolima for ransom. At the end of February the FARC attacked communications facilities in Pitalito, Huila, affecting the broadcast networks of the local station. In Acevedo, also in Huila, transmission equipment was stolen from community radio station Onda Zero. The next day, Divier Alexander López, a journalist connected to the station, left the region because he feared for his safety. The station stopped broadcasting. In March several media outlets received a communiqué threatening seven journalists with death: Carlos Giraldo of RCN; Julia Navarrete of Caracol; Marilín López of NTC; José Antonio Jiménez, of TV Hoy; Jairo Lozano of El Tiempo; Hernando Marroquín of Caracol Radio; and Jairo Naranjo of RCN Radio. The communiqué said, "You have 72 hours to flee the country. If you do not comply, you and your families will be military targets. We are watching you and we know where you live. Death Command." The Committee to Protect Journalists and the human rights director of the police took on the case and approved police escorts for the journalists. Within 24 hours, Mauricio Bayona, sports reporter for the newspaper El Tiempo, received repeated death threats after publishing columns against the management of professional soccer. All these threats came from the drug trafficking mafia. In conclusion, while the armed conflict in Colombia is still a source of mounting affronts to press freedom, significantly in recent months drug trafficking (as suggested by these most recent threats) and, especially, political corruption have been contributing alarmingly to violence, intimidation and self-censorship. Both murders of journalists in the line of duty over the past six months are tied to political revelations in their respective towns.

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