Report to the Midyear Meeting
April 4 – 7, 2014
The climate of violence against the press continues. According to the Foundation for Press Freedom (Flip) in the first two months of 2014 there were 22 violations of the press that left 32 victims. There is concern that in several cases those responsible for these attacks are government agents, converted into obstructers of information and the practice of journalism, especially during popular protests.
It is noted that the level of threats to journalists is not lessening. A total of 90 reporters are facing extraordinary risks according to the State Protection Unit, which has produced measures for their protection.
As regards justice being done in crimes against journalists impunity continues to be the rule. This is demonstrated in the case of La Patria managing editor and columnist Orlando Sierra and another five cases that became subject to statutes of limitations in recent months, and 152 crimes against journalists continue to go unpunished.
The violence against journalists does not cease in the El Valle and Cauca provinces in southwestern Colombia. In Buenaventura city on February 19 the murder by hitmen occurred of cameraman Yonni Steven Caicedo. The 21-year-old man had worked as a cameraman for local television programs until he had to leave town on the recommendation of the National Police after being threatened and detained while covering a murder seven months ago in the Buenaventura Commune 12 neighborhood. After spending that time outside Caicedo returned to the city early this year. It has not been established if his murder was due to his work as a journalist.
A major advance was the enactment in March of Law 1712 of 2014 by President Juan Manuel Santos "by means of which there is created the Law on Transparency and the Right of Access to National Public Information and other regulations are delivered." This law originated in a bill by several organizations, based on recommendations and standards accepted by Colombia's Constitutional Court.
The law requires public entities, officials and public servants to provide in a clear, timely and expeditious manner information about the administrative and financial organizations, the services they provide and contracts they perform. It specifies that documents and pieces of information are confidential when concerning matters of international relations, security and national defense. It establishes what citizens can do when they are denied information and requires officials to explain why they are refusing information.
In the Constitutional Court there is under review Law No. 31 of 2012 of the Senate, 227 of the Lower House, on the Right to Petition, which contains some regulations implying a setback in light of the contents of the enacted Law on Access to Public Information.
Also positive was the creation of the National Analysis and Context Unit by the Colombian Attorney General's Office, which will enable dealing with crimes against journalists. It will have as its objective bringing together diverse investigations in various judicial offices and reconstructing developments within the framework of memory. While this unit, operational since October 2013, has no results to date it is expected that it will be provided with the necessary human resources and funds.
Other relevant developments in this period:
The acquittal by a court of the first instance of Ferney Tapasco, alleged mastermind of the murder of Orlando Sierra in Manizales, after lengthy 11-year-old proceedings, raised protests among groups defending freedom of expression, such as Andiarios and Flip, and news media around the country.
On December 24, 2013 a judge in Pereira (Risaralda province) recorded the acquittal of Tapasco, Henry Calle and brothers Fabio and Jorge López Escobar, who were linked to the alleged mastermind of the January 30, 2002 murder of Orlando Sierra, managing editor of the Manizales newspaper La Patria.
The perpetrator of the murder, Luis Fernando Soto, arrested after the crime, was sentenced to 19 years in prison, although he served only five and was released, being shot and killed some months later in a clash with police in Cali. Nine witnesses were murdered in various scenarios. The slowness of the legal entities in moving ahead with these proceedings meant that important evidence was lost, such as that which had been able to be linked to the alleged mastermind.
Buenaventura, a Colombian port located on the Pacific coast in Valle del Cauca province, has been facing for some time a serious lack of security due to the war between gangs heir to the paramilitaries known as Urabeños and Rastrojos that are fighting for control of the illicit drug trade. In 2013 the Urabeños came into the city, setting off clashes with a local faction of the Los Rastrojos gang known as La Empresa, who controlled the territory.
The Urabeños have been responsible for threats to two journalists in that city. On February 8 while reporters were carrying out a coverage they were approached by a man identifying himself as a member of that criminal gang, who asked them to erase the news material they had in their camera.
The journalists resisted and left the area with the intention of publishing the news. However, and despite the fact that the local authorities had been warned, the journalists did not get any protection, and that is why the story was not published.
On February 21, also in Valle del Cauca, in the town of Tuluá, five journalists conducting the program "Cuentos verdes" (Green Tales) of the Telepacífico television channel, were intercepted by two masked men who identified themselves as members of the FARC guerrillas. They threatened with firearms and then set fire to their equipment and the cars in which they had been traveling, dousing them with gasoline.
On February 11 in Cauca province an editor and owner of the media outlet Proclama del Cauca (which due to its criticism of a number of matters has been the object of threats) was attacked with firearms but managed to escape as he was traveling on the road from Cali to the town of Santander de Quilichao. Police told him that motorcycle thefts were common in that area and they had no staff to conduct a search.
Also in the country's Caribbean coastal area action by criminal gangs – a mutation of paramilitary groups – has put at risk court coverage by the media. These armed gangs, present in cities such as Santa María, Riochacha, Barranquilla and Valledupar have threatened journalists and newspaper executives, who denounced this to the Colombian Attorney General's Office. In addition, media and press associations have called for disciplinary action against some officials and judicial officers in Guajira and Magdalena who are preventing coverage of corruption.
In this period it was learned of illegal interceptions of several Colombian and foreign journalists sent to cover the country's peace process. According to Flip figures there are understood to be more than 2,600 journalists, between FARC spokesmen in Colombia's La Habana area and dozens of journalists who were infiltrated. This supposes an additional risk for journalists covering the peace process, by minimizing the guarantees they rely on to do their work.
On January 30 a group of armed men demanded that the employees of El Tiempo handling distribution of the paper in Puerto López sell them the entire edition, including the subscription copies. This happened after the newspaper published on its front page that a judge had ordered the house arrest rather than imprisonment of Hernán Darío Giraldo, a.k.a. Cesarín, sentenced to 22 years for murder and acting in concert to break the law.
The same situation occurred during the following two days. Men on motorcycles and in pickup trucks got involved in purchasing and interfering with distribution of the newspaper Llano 7 Días, owned by El Tiempo.
On January 20 there was enactment of Law 1709 of 2014 which sets out the new Penitentiary Code, from which was withdrawn in the last debate in Congress a stipulation very much criticized by media and journalists which would have prohibited the interviewing of people who were detained and not yet convicted.
In the draft bill for the Police Code, which will be presented in the next legislative session by the federal government, there are included contents that violate freedom of information. In Article 53 prohibited are: using cameras or video devices of any kind i n places where people's right to privacy may be violated; taking photos or video of people or their belongings in activities of a private, personal or family nature and disseminating them by any medium for profit or non-profit without express consent, except with legal justification; making public private images of a person without his or her consent, except with legal justification. Article 60 establishes behavior that affects the integrity of male and female children and adolescents, such as allowing them or inducing them to use telecommunications, publications and documents to access pornographic material or with content classified as being for those 18 years and older, among other things.
There continues to be the use and abuse of criminal laws as an instrument of pressure upon journalists. Although there does not exist consolidated information on defamation lawsuits, nor a body that consolidates such information, it is estimated that there were some 20 such lawsuits in the last year, many of them filed by officials or public figures who felt affected by pieces of information. The majority of these actions do not prosper, but the proceedings give rise to self-censorship, as well as time and money invested in defense.
On December 2, 2013 the Cali Judicial Circuit High Court ordered Casa Editorial El Tiempo S.A., the company publishing El Tiempo, to erase and eliminate "from its Web site all negative information about Leydi Hernández Caballero (who acted as plaintiff) regarding the criminal investigation into treatment of persons and being in concert to break the law. This sentence ignored the ruling made by the Constitutional Court that, in resolving a similar case (Sentence T-401 of 2013) it was considered inappropriate to order the newspaper El Tiempo to eliminate the content of its Web site.
Regarding solidarity with the press of Venezuela more than 20 Latin American newspapers belonging to Andiarios, the Grupo de Diarios de América (GDA) and Periódicos Asociados Latinoamericanos (PAL) have since March 6 been publishing a special page headlined "We are All Venezuela, Without Press Freedom There Is No Democracy," containing special news issued by the Venezuelan newspapers themselves.
Within that strategy it was decided to send 52 tons of newsprint from the Andiarios members newspapers to some Venezuelan papers, such as El Nacional, El Impulso and El Nuevo País, among others.
In early April the managing editor of the newspaper Vanguardia Liberal and the head of its investigative unit, Diana Giraldo, received anonymous telephoned death threats. This attempt at intimidation came amid a campaign carried out on social media to discredit the newspaper and its journalists. Giraldo said that these actions could be linked to a column published under the headline "Alcalde Pastorcito" (Little Shepherd Mayor), in which it was said that from the city mayor¹s office a Facebook account was sued to give precise instructions to attack columnists, editorial stances and information critical of the mayor.