Report to the 70th General Assembly

Santiago, Chile

October 17 – 21, 2014

In this period there has been an increase in attacks on journalists, with a murder, that of Luis Cervantes, in apparent reprisal for his work in the media. More than 80 journalists are under government protection.

Cervantes, a host of community radio station Morena FM, was shot to death by hit men on August 12 in Tarazá, Antioquia. Several days earlier the government had withdrawn his protection. This decision has given rise to great controversy and is being investigated by the Control Bodies. The National Protection Unit (UNP), an agency responsible for providing safety measures, made the decision on the basis of a study it made on the risk that the journalist faced. However, Cervantes, who had returned to his home town, warned the authorities 15 days before he was murdered that he had received threats, this time by a person identifying himself as "Morroco," who warned him to get out of Tarazá "within two hours." He was killed 20 days after his protection was lifted.

According to the Office of Ombudsman more than 90 journalists have been the victims of threats so far this year, more than double the number of last year. In late September threatened were eight reporters in Cali and Buenaventura by the "Los Urabeños" criminal gang. Those threatened, most of whom cover legal matters, work for El País, Q'hubo, Caracol Radio, El Tiempo, Más Pacífico and a Buenaventura community radio station. The threat was made in a pamphlet delcaring " ...via the issuing of this communiqué he or she who fails to obey the order to be silent about what 'Los Urabeños' are doing will be put down and are going to be blasted away (sic)." They were all told their whereabouts were known and they had 24 hours to leave Cali and Buenaventura.

Also in September, in Bajo Cauca and Montería several journalists received threats. The "black list" was published in a pamphlet attributed to "Los Rastrojos." Among those threatened were journalists Leiderman Ortiz Berrio, who works in the Caucasia municipality, Antioquia province, and Edgar Astudillo, a reporter in the town of Montería, Córdoba. Both do investigative and denunciation work and have in the past been attacked. They currently are under protection.

On April 1 journalist Diana Giraldo, managing editor of the Bucaramanga, Santander province, newspaper Vanguardia Liberal, reported on telephoned death threats. These threats come within a context of continual discrediting of published reports critical of the current mayor of Bucaramanga, Luis Francisco Bohórquez.

In northern Santander journalist Cristian Herrera of the Cúcuta newspaper Q'hubo also reported having received in July a pamphlet from the "Los Rastrojos" gang in which he was accused of having links with the subversive organization ELN and was declared a military target. He covers legal affairs for the newspaper.

On September 2 unidentified assailants shot at the home of Amalfi Rosales, correspondent of "Noticias Uno" of the newspaper Al Día and of El Heraldo in Barancas, La Guajira province, smashing windows there. For more than a year he had received threats understood to be connected to denunciations of former governor Kiko Gómez, imprisoned for links to the paramilitaries.

On August 22 two computers belonging to a journalist were set on fire at his home in Bogotá. They contained information about an investigation into an armed conflict and forced disappearance.

Three El Tiempo journalists in various parts of the country have received threatening messages.

The Cali newspaper El País reported that on September 27 a group of reporters with the paper were intimidated and had their journalistic material stolen in Palmira, Valle del Cauca. They were investigating at a business there trafficking in wild birds when their video camera was seized and they were threatened by several people. Although the situation was taken care of by local authorities their material could not be recovered.

Regarding the emblematic case of the January 2002 murder of the managing editor of the Manizales newspaper La Patria, Orlando Sierra, surprising was the removal of Attorney General Luis Alberto Reyes, although in statements to that newspaper Colombian Deputy Attorney General Jorge Fernando Perdomo denied there had been any change. Subsequently, in response to a formal request by the paper, it was learned of a decision to replace Reyes. Awaited is a ruling by the Manizales High Court on an appeal that the Public Prosecutor's Office filed for the acquittal in lower court of Ferney Tapasco on a charge of being the mastermind of the murder and the conviction of brothers Hernando and Fabio López Escobar, former political representatives of Tapasco, also linked to Sierra's murder.

On the legal front, actions have been taken that have an impact on the work of journalists.

Senate Bill No. 034 of 2014 "by which are established regulations for participation in judicial conclusions," substitutes the announcements in newspapers (regarding the holding of such events) requiring their publication on a judiciary Web site. This means that people with no access to the Internet will not learn of these actions, creating financial consequences for newspapers.

Bill No. 124 of 2014 whose objective is "to prohibit in search engines that the function of concluding be activated when reference is made of any kind that goes against the honor, intimacy, human dignity and good name of Internet users and non-users" could give rise to strong restrictions to freedom of information.

Moving ahead in the Constitutional Court is the question of constitutionality of the Bill for Statutory Law No. 065 of the Senate – 227 of 2012 of the Chamber "through which is regulated the Fundamental Right to Petition and is substituted a title of the Code of Administrative Procedure and of the Administratively Litigious." The Colombian Attorney General is requesting that there be declared contrary to the Constitution the regulation that permits the right to petition presented by journalists. He argues that to give priority to the requests of journalists violates the principle of equality and that "it is not reasonable that the legislator may establish more favorable conditions for certain subjects by virtue of their profession."

A bill before the Senate that seeks to regulate official advertising proposes in its Article 4 to restrict such advertising during the six months prior to each election. This could be an important restriction considering the fact that elections are held at least every two years and there are electoral processes or prior consultations of the parties to choose their candidates.

In Bill No. 096 of 2014 in the Chamber "through which is regulated the commercialization, distribution, advertising and promotion of electronic systems of administration of e-nicotine and e-cigarettes" in its Article 4 it is proposed to prohibit their advertised promotion, even when it has not been determined that they are harmful, especially the nicotine-free e-cigarettes.

On the legal front notable is the June 25 ruling by the Supreme Court confirming the conviction by the Cali High Court of Gonzalo Hernán López on a charge of defamation. In the space devoted to readers' comments on the newspaper El País's Web site López made assertions and criticized a former female employee of the Emcali company. The newspaper was not linked to the proceedings.

Under review in the Constitutional Court is an action against the newspaper El Tiempo over its publication on its Web site of a report about legal proceedings concerning white slavery in which was said to be involved Claudia Leidy Hernández Caballero. The proceedings being prescribed in her favor she called on the newspaper to withdrawal the contents reporting on her links to the matter and filed a cease and desist order against the paper. The Cali Court ruled in her favor, ordering the withdrawal of the contents. Several months ago the Constitutional Court had indicated that there was no place for the elimination of contents as that implied a restriction of press freedom and what should be done was correction or updating of the information.

On May 1 news photographer Esteban Vanegas and other journalists with El Colombiano and Q'hubo of Medellín were beaten by police officers during a march that ended up in riots taking part in which were workers, students and some hooded persons. The police officers handcuffed and justified the detention of Vanegas on the grounds that he had attacked authorities, which he and other witnesses denied. He was freed 12 hours later and the chief of police apologized.