69th General Assembly

Denver, Colorado

October 18 – 22, 2013

This latest period saw an increase in the number of journalists and media workers killed. Two killings were clearly related to the victims’ work. Edison Alberto Molina, an attorney who hosts a program on the community radio station in Puerto Berrío, Antioquia, was killed in mid-September. Later that month, José Darío Arenas, a vendor for Extra newspaper in the municipality of Caicedonia, department of Valle, was also killed. Meanwhile, the motives behind the killings of Alberto Lázaro and José Naudín Gómez remain unclear. Journalists and media outlets outside the capital—e.g., in central Colombia, the Atlantic coastal region, the coffee-growing belt, and the Valle and Cauca regions—continue to be threatened. Impunity is the common denominator in these incidents, as the investigations that the authorities claim to be pursuing rarely yield positive results. The editor and reporters of La Tarde newspaper in Pereira were recently threatened in connection with news items it ran on September 25 about student protests at the local university. Ricardo Calderón, a journalist for Semana magazine, was attacked while driving his car on May 1. Calderón was at a toll plaza when two subjects got out of a vehicle, approached him, called him by name, and fired several shots at him. The journalist managed to extricate his vehicle and escaped unharmed. His car was struck by five bullets. Calderón had written a new installment in a series of investigative articles on the “Tolemaida Resort.” His article exposed the privileges enjoyed by members of the military who are detained at the Tolemaida military base, near Bogotá. A few years earlier, Calderón had been the one who investigated the illegal surveillance and wiretaps by the Administrative Department of Security (DAS). The prosecution ordered an investigation by a special team from the judicial police force of the CTI investigative agency, as well as special security measures for Calderón. Meanwhile, the courts are increasingly being used as a means of intimidation and censorship, and the legislative branch is considering bills that would restrict the dissemination of content. Press freedom organizations such as Andiarios and the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP) decried the excesses committed by the National Police against journalists and media outlets during marches by peasants, farmers, truckers, and other trade unions tied to the rural economy. Among the more troubling incidents were arbitrary detentions, such those of six independent journalists in the department of Valle del Cauca; the excessive force used by officers of the ESMAD anti-riot police force, which in one case seriously injured the right eye of journalist Fred Núñez in the municipality of Tibú, Norte de Santander; and constant attacks on the press in the Bajo Cauca region of Antioquia, which forced 10 local journalists to suspend their work for three days. Meanwhile, a group of demonstrators attacked the facilities of the Córdoba newspaper El Meridiano. The demonstrators threw torches at the newspaper’s offices, while 20 police officers stood by and did nothing to intervene. Competition for advertising among media outlets and low circulation numbers have forced the closure of several newspapers in the past year, such as El Liberal of Popayán (Cauca) and Vanguardia of Valledupar (Cesar), along with their respective tabloids, as well as El Espacio of Bogotá. Other newspapers, meanwhile, have reported financial difficulties, which may mean that even more outlets are on the verge of disappearing. On the positive side, in June the Supreme Court acquitted journalist Luis Agustín González, who had been convicted and sentenced by the Superior Court of Cundinamarca to a prison term and fine for an editorial critical of former governor Leonor Serrano de Camargo in the newspaper Cundinamarca al Día of Fusagasugá. In a development concerning impunity in violent crimes against journalists, the Office of the Attorney General declared the killing of Eustorgio Colmenares Baptista to be a “crime against humanity” one day before the 20-year anniversary of the killing, when the term of limitations was set to expire. In the words of the Office of the Attorney General, “there is sufficient evidence that Colmenares was killed as a result of a systematic pattern against the civilian population in the region,” thereby declaring the criminal case to be exempt from any term of limitations. Colmenares was killed on March 12, 1993, by a commando group of the National Liberation Army (ELN) as he was leaving home with his wife. In November of that year, the IAPA posthumously awarded Colmenares the Press Freedom Award at its 49th General Assembly in Bariloche, Argentina. This year marks the end of the term of limitations for five other 20-year-old homicides of journalists. The term has already expired for the killings of Gerardo Didier Gómez, Carlos Lajud Catalán, Nelson de la Rosa Toscano, and Manuel José Martínez Espinosa. The next to expire is that of Danilo Alfonso Baquero, killed in Tame, Arauca, on December 26, 1993. The two journalists who were killed in connection with their work in the past six months were Edison Alberto Molina and José Darío Arenas. Molina, killed on September 11, was an attorney who hosted a radio program called “Consultorio Jurídico” (Law Clinic), where he would answer listeners’ legal questions. On his program, which aired every Wednesday on the community radio station Puerto Berrío Stéreo, Molina would also denounce cases of administrative corruption, according to the FLIP. This organization learned that rocks had been thrown at Molina’s office 15 days before the killing, and that he had received threatening phone calls as a result of his denouncements. The authorities offered a reward of 20 million Colombian pesos for information leading to the capture of the perpetrators. José Darío Arenas was killed on September 28 as a result of multiple gunshot wounds. Arenas, the lone vendor for the tabloid newspaper Extra in Quindío, in the municipality of Caicedonia, Valle del Cauca, as he was selling the newspaper in the streets of Quindío. The newspaper’s lead story that day was about irregularities at the local jail involving the authorities of the National Correctional Institute (INPEC). Soon after the killing, one of the sources consulted for the story received a phone call in which the caller said that “the first one just went down.” This is why the killing is thought to be related to the publication of the story. Andrés Mauricio Osorio, who reports on legal matters for the newspaper, said that Arenas was a source for the story and had also helped locate other sources and secure photographs for it. One of his friends said that Arenas had apparently been warned that “you all better not run that story or else there will be problems.” The motives behind the killings of two other journalists—Alberto Lázaro del Valle and José Naudín Gómez—remain unknown. Lázaro del Valle, a well-known on-air host and director of the Planeta radio station in Cali, was killed on May 10 by two assailants who shot him as he was leaving the station in the northern Cali, according to a report by the Cali metropolitan police. He died at approximately 9:00 that evening at the Los Remedios clinic, located a few blocks from the site of the attack. He had worked for 30 years as a radio host at various stations in Cali. For most of his career he worked at radio stations that catered to young audiences. José Naudín Gómez, station manager of Radio Guadalajara in Buga, Valle del Cauca, was killed on July 29. A witness reported that Gómez, 63, was shot by two assailants as he was waiting for someone to open the door to let him into the radio station’s building in downtown Buga. Gómez, a businessman, had started leasing the radio station in 2004, and a few years later he assumed an active role in its programming through a morning show called “El Oyente Opina” (Listeners Weigh In), where he would open up the airwaves for listeners’ viewpoints and critiques of the municipal government. Radio Guadalajara is an affiliate of Caracol Radio and rebroadcasts some of its programming. It also produces two news programs of its own. It is not yet known whether the killing was related to his work as a journalist. Neither the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP) nor his family was aware of any threats against him. On the legal front, several bills that included restrictions on freedom of information were tabled or withdrawn by their sponsors. The following initiatives were voided: House Bill 167 of 2012, which would have established an “Electoral Code” with restrictions on the dissemination of political and electoral news, survey results, and electoral propaganda; House Bill 53 of 2012, which would have required media outlets to broadly disseminate the government’s parks policy; Senate Bill 246 of 2012, which would have required media outlets to provide coverage on developments in women’s soccer; House Bill 202 of 2012, which would have established a “Police Code” authorizing the police to classify news stories and censor those not deemed suitable for children under 18. A special bill to regulate the right to request information (House Bill 227 of 2012; Senate Bill 65) was approved in the final round of debate on June 13. This bill contains provisions that contradict the newly passed Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information, in such matters as confidentiality and procedures for accessing information. Because it falls under a special category of legislation, the bill is now before the Constitutional Court for review. Senate Bill 23/13, or House Bill 256/2013—which would amend the Correctional Code—was approved in the second round of debate in the House of Representatives. This bill would restrict journalists’ ability to interview people held in correctional facilities in Colombia, a measure seen as a form of censorship that would serverely hinder investigative journalim. This provision was eliminated before the third round of debate. The bill is currently pending before the Senate. Other legislative initiatives that would restrict the dissemination of content are in the works, such as: Senate Bill 243/2013, or House Bill 052/2012, which would establish a system for monitoring the media in each department of Colombia in order to prevent news items, trends, or ad campaigns that foster or contribute to any form of discrimination or abuse against girls and women, for the purpose of helping to erradicate these phenomena. Senate Bill 079 of 2013—which is similar to another bill that was considered and withdrawn in the previous legislative session—would ban television, print, radio, and online media outlets from running classifieds, propaganda, programs, contests or any other item that explicitly or implicitly suggests the offering of sexual services, or any item directly related to such services, under penalty of a fine equivalent to 10 to 100 times the monthly minimum wage. The bill would also require media outlets to conduct campaigns and provide coverage on the rights of people working in prostitution. The judicial system, meanwhile, is being used in efforts to silence the media, and many of these cases have been brought by public officials. These cases include both criminal defamation charges and civil claims for hefty damages, such as the case brought by Leonor Serrano de Camargo, former governor of Cundinamarca, for a 2008 editorial in Colombia Democrática, a newspaper in Fusagasugá. The Superior Court of Cundinamarca convicted Luis Agustín González, editor of the newspaper, and sentenced him to serve 18 months and 18 days in prison and to pay a fine of 17.77 times the monthly minimum wage. The court also declared him ineligible to assume the rights and duties of a public official. Supreme Court acquitted him in July 2013, holding that while some of his words had harmed the reputation and good name of Serrano de Camargo, he was criticizing her performance as a holder of public office. In civil courts, newspapers and other media outlets often face claims for substantial damages for having run news items on criminal or administrative investigations into corruption or organized crime, items that are based on public information. Although most of these lawsuits are unsuccessful, they divert time and resources from the work of journalists. Requests for judicial protection have been on the rise. Court injunctions are sought not only for the correction of reporting errors or misstatements, but increasingly for the removal of articles from newspapers’ online editions when the claimants feel these articles infringe on their honor, dignity, privacy, or reputation. In other important developments: On May 6, in Valledupar, Cesar department, journalists’ organizations spoke out against a flyer that threatened eight local journalists: “All residents of Valledupar are notified that the following journalists (snitches) are hereby declared to be military targets and have 24 hours to leave the city.” The threatening statement, signed by the Anti-Land Restitution Army, singled out journalists Herlency Gutiérrez (RCN Radio), Jaime José Daza (Maravilla Stereo), Damaris Rojas (Al Día newspaper in Valledupar), Renier Asprilla (El Heraldo), Katia Ospino (Noticias UNO and CM&), Óscar Arzuaga (“La Tribuna del Cesar,” on Radio Guatapuri), Ubaldo Anaya Flórez (RPT Noticias), and Martín Mendoza (Caracol Televisión, and legal affairs reporter for El Pilón newspaper). On June 28, Juan Pablo Barrientos, producer of the daily news program “Teleantioquia Noticias” on the channel by the same name, said he was called into a meeting with Selene Botero, station director of Teleantioquia, and Sergio Valencia, secretary of communications for the Antioquia departmental government. Barrientos was told at this meeting that Antioquia legislator Adolfo León Palacio and former legislator Julián Bedoya had met with Botero to play for her some recordings in which Barrientos “was railing against the legislature at meetings of the editorial board, over the failure of legislators to attend sessions, over the cancellation of debates to watch a soccer match—in short, you were talking about them as if they were brazen scoundrels.” After learning about this incident, Barrientos submitted his resignation. Political scientist and journalist León Valencia and his research colleagues at Fundación Arco Iris (the Rainbow Foundation) were forced to flee the country in mid-2013 after the Colombian government announced that their lives were in danger. According to Valencia, the threats stem from the 2011 publication of La lista negra de Arco Iris (The Rainbow Blacklist), a book that linked 127 Colombian politicians to illegal armed groups. Valencia told the Spanish newspaper El País that the investigation is being revived two years later and is being used by prosecutors to press charges against a number of politicians named in the book, who are still in office. Claudia López, a political analyst and a former columnist for El Tiempo, also left the country due to death threats in late September. López told the newspaper El Espectador that “strong evidence indicates that the death threats against us are coming from La Guajira.” López has made harsh statements about the governor of La Guajira, Juan Francisco Gómez Cerchar, since he launched his gubernatorial election campaign as part of the Radical Change movement; she has also spoken out against criminal groups in the region. Cecilia Orozco Tascón, news director for Televisión Noticias Uno, and Ramiro Bejarano, both of whom work as columnists for El Espectador, sent a letter in March to President Juan Manuel Santos and the attorney general, expressing their concern over the fact that intelligence officers for the National Police had received instructions to perform illegal wiretaps on their phone lines and to otherwise look into their private lives. The two journalists, who in their columns have expressed harsh criticism of Sandra Morelli, the Colombian comptroller general, asked for an investigation into this matter. On October 8, the Supreme Court decided not to investigate Jorge Noguera, former director of the now-defunct DAS, for illegal wiretaps of phone calls of journalists, politicians, and opposition leaders, and for the improper use of special equipment, on the grounds that the term of limitations has expired for these offenses. Nogueras will still stand trial for other crimes related to illegal wiretaps, known in Colombia as “chuzadas.”