Reporters Under Fire in Colombia

September 25, 2007

Forty years of civil war have taken a heavy toll on Colombia’s press corps. In the last decade alone, at least 30 journalists have lost their lives while attempting to carry out their work. All the warring factions in the conflict—leftist guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary forces, the Colombian Armed Forces and organized crime—have chosen to target journalists. In Bogotá and other cities, journalists are certainly targeted, but those working in the country’s interior often face the greatest risks.

The absence of the state in vast areas of the country has left the media vulnerable to attacks from the illegal armed groups. Journalists trying to report on controversial issues, such as drug trafficking, political corruption and the civil conflict, are threatened, harassed, attacked, kidnapped or killed. According to research conducted by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based international press freedom organization, at least four journalists were killed in direct reprisal for their work in 2003. CPJ is still investigating the deaths of two others, whose murders may have been professionally related. All of these assassinations occurred in Colombia’s lawless interior.

The climate of fear has made accurate news coverage a growing casualty of the conflict. Under constant threat from rebels or paramilitaries and fearing for their lives, journalists are oftentimes forced to present a particular side of the conflict, showing the respective armed group in a favorable light. In other instances, journalists are prevented from covering the war at all because of threats and harassment. Provincial journalists are all too aware of the consequences of what they write or broadcast, resulting in widespread self-censorship. In places like Caquetá, Valledupar, Barrancabermeja and Cúcuta, where armed groups are fighting for control over territory, violence frequently inhibits coverage of sensitive issues. In Valledupar and Cúcuta, for example, paramilitaries have forbidden journalists to print the names of people killed in the conflict. The two strategies—influencing coverage and repressing coverage—are indicative of the war being waged by the armed groups for control over any information that might sway public opinion.

The northeastern Arauca department on the border with Venezuela is one of Colombia’s hottest war zones with leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitaries fighting for control of vast oil-rich plains.

In June 2002, alleged paramilitary gunmen killed the owner of Arauca City’s Radio Meridiano-70, Efraín Varela Noriega. Only days earlier, Varela had alerted listeners to the presence of paramilitary fighters in the region. Following the murder, Luis Eduardo Alfonso Parada, 33, one of the station’s news hosts and a freelance reporter for Colombia’s most widely read daily, El Tiempo, fled to the relative safety of Bogotá. In the capital, the Interior Ministry’s protection program provided the reporter with $320 to support himself until he returned to Arauca six weeks later.

Despite President Alvaro Uribe’s attempts to reassert state authority in the region, the armed groups continued to perpetrate violence against journalists. In November 2002, Alfonso was one of some 100 names that appeared on a paramilitary death list distributed in Arauca City. The militia group threatened to kill anyone on the list who didn’t “reform.” Four months later on March 18, 2003, Alfonso was gunned down by two men outside his office. According to his colleagues, Alfonso was critical of all the armed groups, but particularly the paramilitary United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Later that month, 14 journalists fled their homes and sought refuge in Bogotá after learning their names were also on death lists. They returned three months later, but are too afraid to report on the conflict.

Guerrillas and paramilitaries routinely establish checkpoints in many regions of the country. These roadblocks hinder the movement of journalists and make them vulnerable to attacks and harassment. On August 22, 2003, Juan Carlos Benavides Arévalo, a 29-year-old host for the community radio station Manantial Estéreo in the town of Sibundoy, Putumayo department, was shot dead. Guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) opened fire when the driver of his vehicle decided to elude a rebel checkpoint near the town of Puerto Caicedo, Putumayo. Jaime Conrado Juajibioy Cuarán, 24, who worked with Benavides at the station, was seriously injured in the attack.

It is not only the armed groups that are targeting journalists in Colombia’s interior. Violent attacks have also occurred as a result of corrupt public officials, drug traffickers and organized criminals attempting to prevent the media from exposing their activities. This appeared to be the case last April when Guillermo Bravo Vega, a 65-year-old investigative journalist with the regional Radio Alpevisión, was assassinated. An unidentified gunman shot the journalist in the southern town of Neiva, Huila department, before escaping on the back of a motorcycle driven by another unknown individual. Bravo directed the morning television program “Hechos y cifras,” or Facts and Figures, and was known for his investigative reporting. He frequently accused municipal and departmental government officials of mishandling public funds.

One month later, unidentified gunmen murdered Jaime Rengifo Revero, host of a weekly program on Radio Olímpica, in the northern town of Maicao, La Guajira department. Rengifo frequently accused local politicians of corruption and criticized the armed forces for failing to bring security to the region.

Colombia’s justice system has proven incapable of solving any of these murders, thus contributing to a climate of fear and intimidation among members of the press. The hostile environment and impunity surrounding these crimes led six journalists to flee the country in 2003 and caused many others to take threats more seriously. In order to provide journalists with a useful tool for protecting themselves while covering the civil war, a Colombian press organization, Freedom of the Press Foundation, recently published a security manual titled “Self-Protection of Journalists.” This guide includes scenarios that Colombian journalists are likely to confront, especially in the most dangerous regions, and suggestions on how to handle risky situations.

It does not appear likely that working conditions for the Colombian media will improve in the near future as the Uribe administration is seemingly uninterested in protecting journalists, especially those working in the country’s conflict zones. Consequently, the armed groups will likely continue threatening, attacking, killing and censoring the press.

Carlos Lauría is the Americas Program Coordinator of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Tags: Colombia, civil war, journalists, media, violence

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