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Amid a national strike and widespread protests that have roiled cities across Colombia in recent weeks, journalists covering the events have been subjected to violence and intimidation in incidents that span the country. 

Since the unrest began in late April, FLIP has documented at least 159 separate assaults on 184 journalists, and it isn’t restricted to the actions of one side. These include violent assaults on members of the press by government forces and protestors alike. The attacks mark a serious uptick in violence against the press in Colombia; FLIP documented similar numbers—150 attacks against 182 journalists—over the course of the three years preceding this latest round of unrest. 

Santiago Amaya, a journalism student and reporter for Revista Solsticio was covering a protest on May 1, in Duitama, in northeastern Colombia, when he was encircled by half a dozen uniformed police who subjected him to torture and arbitrary detention, and threatened him with extrajudicial execution. Police officers took his backpack, looked through and selectively deleted his photos, and stole the sim card from his cell phone. Then they beat him on his arms and back and bloodied his nose with a baton, simulated a lynching on him, threw him in a prison cell, told him his profession—journalism—was worthless and that he was going to die. Finally, they released him in a rural area, telling him simply to "run."

On May 12, in the town of Popayán, in western Colombia, Kevin Acosta, a reporter for the digital medium Red Alterna, was taking video of a uniformed police officer beating a young protestor when Acosta was surrounded by six police officers, thrown to the ground and beaten across his head, arms and chest as police tried to take away his cell phone. Throughout the incident—as well as a previous attack by the riot control squad of the Colombian National Police—Acosta was clearly identified as a journalist with a press vest, helmet and visible press credentials. Also in Popayán, journalist Óscar Solarte reported being pelted with rocks by hooded demonstrators, while similarly-attired protestors repeatedly tried to take journalist Juan Ortega’s phone after he recorded video of protestors throwing stones at City Hall. Elsewhere reporters have been severely injured in direct attacks on the press from government forces, like in the rural town of Sibaté, where on the early morning of May 6, riot police shot directly at reporters who were clearly identified as members of the press with helmets and press credentials. Though two journalists were injured in the attack the ambulance they called for never arrived. The entire incident was broadcast live. 

The above represent a tiny segment of the 145 assaults on reporters covering these demonstrations since they began. 

The Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) condemns attacks on the press in the strongest possible terms and calls on leaders in government and the protest movement to publicly disavow attacks against the press and express zero tolerance for the practice. Sadly, though police are responsible for roughly half of the assaults on journalists covering the protest movement, the national government has yet to issue any public condemnation on acts of violence against the press and local authorities have been largely silent as well. 

Meanwhile, troubling developments behind the scenes suggests government officials are working to curtail press freedom further. Local and national authorities have repeatedly refused to release official information related to the protest movement, law enforcement activities, and the victims of violence. At the same time that the government has refused to grant the press access to official information, it has embarked on a troubling, anti-democratic campaign to silence and discredit non-official sources of information. On May 6, top brass in the Colombian military and police released a new initiative aimed at combating what it called “digital terrorism”—the spread of false and fake information masquerading as news reports and government pronouncements. In response to the initiative, some journalists have informed FLIP that they plan to self-censor in order to avoid being monitored, blocked or worse by the authorities. While fake news and false reports are a real problem, the way to combat them is not through state-sponsored censorship, but through a robust and free press able to report openly on consequential people and events. 

Elsewhere in government, officials have allegedly been caught on tape discussing strategies for pressuring the cash-strapped media to spin reports in favor of the ruling party by dangling lucrative advertising contracts, a strategy the Duque government has employed in the past.

Requests 

Amid ongoing demonstrations, FLIP reiterates the following requests:

  1. We demand that President Duque and the Minister of the Interior publicly reject violence against the press and send a clear message of zero tolerance for the members of the government forces involved in said aggressions.
    In addition, we call on the Duque government not to use the campaigns against disinformation as a tool to stigmatize the press and criminalize the dissemination of information. FLIP reiterates that authorities and public figures must not encourage censorship. Where complaints against the press exist, their duty is to channel them through the proper constitutional means that exist to express disagreements.
  2. We invite leadership of the national strike to send a message of support for the work of journalists, disavow attacks on the press, and to express any disagreements with the media in a respectful manner that does not threaten press freedom.

  3. The Attorney General of the Nation announced that it will investigate the ESMAD agents for the violence deployed against the press in Sibaté, Cundinamarca, on May 6. This investigation should be extended to all attacks against the press in which members of the security forces have participated.
    We also request the attorney general to urgently and publicly call upon all officials to fulfill their duty to release information to the press in a timely manner, and initiate disciplinary investigations against those who do not.  

  1. We ask local authorities to provide a public and satisfactory explanation of events that resulted in bodily injury to members of the press who were covering  demonstrations. In particular, we insist on a timely response to the request made a few days ago to the mayors of Cali, Bogotá, Medellín, Popayán and Sibaté, where serious acts of violence have been observed against journalists covering protests.

 

  • On World Press Freedom Day (May 3), FLIP and ARTÍCULO 19 México, unite to curb judicial harassment of journalists and human rights defenders.

  • In the framework of this date, FLIP and ARTÍCULO 19 México, with support from Justice for Journalists, present the report: Laws of Silence, Judicial Harassment to Freedom of Speech in Mexico and Colombia. 

  • Judicial persecution and harassment are the abuse of judicial mechanisms to censor and intimidate persons who disclose information of public interest, whether for their journalistic work and/or for the defense of human rights.

Read the report here

Judicial harassment is a form of aggression involving legal actions against journalists or whistleblowers who investigate and report, for the most part, on corruption and irregularities in State entities. Some of these actions are usually civil lawsuits, criminal charges, administrative proceedings, or constitutional actions (in the case of Colombia). 

Such lawsuits are often supported in the defense of goodwill, honor, and privacy of public officers and individuals with public exposure. The judicial processes that are undertaken are aimed at intimidating journalists, affecting them emotionally and economically, and discouraging their investigative work. 

FLIP and ARTÍCULO 19 have noticed an increase in judicial harassment cases in recent years. For both organizations, it is very worrying that both Colombian and Mexican legislation have regulations that allow judicial harassment, and that many judges and officers of the judicial apparatus issue judgments against journalists completely opposed to international standards of freedom of speech. 

Therefore, in judicial harassment, the victim is not only the journalist or whistleblower, but also the society that sees its rights repressed. The rights to receive information and freedom of the press and of expression of all citizens are being oppressed.

 

The Report

Laws of Silence is a report that offers a parallel look at cases and conditions of judicial harassment in Mexico and Colombia. The authors discuss laws that facilitate judicial harassment in both countries, and the patterns of State behavior in the face of this form of aggression against the press. They also feature cases of journalists and human rights defenders who have faced excessive and arbitrary judicial proceedings, and explain the different damages suffered by victims of judicial harassment: Economic, labor, emotional, and even physical, because often, lawsuits come together with threats and attacks on the integrity of journalists.

 

The Figures

Judicial harassment is not a new strategy of silencing. It has been used worldwide against social organizations, but there now seems to be a boom in the use of this mechanism against the press. Between 2018 and 2020, FLIP recorded 140 cases of judicial harassment of journalists in Colombia. In the same period, ARTÍCULO 19 recorded 81 cases. 

FLIP began recording cases of judicial harassment in Colombia in 2017, when 14 cases were counted. In 2018 there were 38. 66 in 2019, and finally 36 in 2020. 

According to ARTÍCULO 19’s records, only one case was recorded in Mexico in 2015. For 2016, there were 13. Again, 13 in 2017. 21 in 2018. 21 in 2019, and finally a rise to 39 in 2020. 

 

The Cases

The Laws of Silence report presents eight cases of journalists and human rights defenders from both countries, including those of Colombian journalists Gonzalo Guillén, Juan Pablo Barrientos, Edison Lucio Torres, and Sergio Mesa. 

In this systematization of cases, the authors were able to see some similar patterns, such as the fact that the plaintiffs or censors are almost always State officers or public personalities, such as politicians and influential religious figures. 

It is alarming that in Colombia and Mexico the judicial apparatus is provided for the service of private and individual interests. Judicial harassment punishes the messenger, the complainant, and thus the right of everyone to receive information and for the freedom of speech. 

 

 

On Monday, March 15, the public hearing in the case of Jineth Bedoya Lima began at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. At issue before the court is the State’s responsibility for threats against Jineth Bedoya, as well as her kidnapping, torture and rape in May 2000. During the hearing, the National Agency for Legal Defense of Colombia, represented by Camilo Gómez, alleged that the majority of the Court’s judges are not impartial in the case, and announced that it will present a request for recusal against five of the six judges due to an alleged lack of procedural guarantees. The State decided to leave the hearing, and the State’s witness did not appear to testify before the Court.

For the Colombian State, the questions and comments made by the judges, including Judge Elizabeth Odio Benito, President of the Court, revealed bias in favor of Jineth Bedoya. As her legal representatives, we, CEJIL and FLIP, state unequivocally that the comments from the judges were dignifying and appropriate, as they had just heard the courageous testimony from a survivor of grave human rights violations; the comments did not in any way prejudge the State’s responsibility in the case.  

In fact, it is the job and the obligation of judges to question witnesses about facts germane to the case—this includes context, which helps the judges to understand the scope of violations and the measures that could constitute reparation for the victim. In her testimony, Jineth Bedoya answered questions related to the object of her declaration, as pre-approved by the Court. This included: her work as a journalist and the journalistic investigations she carried out in and prior to 2000, the risks she faced as a result, her requests for protection and the State response to this situation. Likewise, she narrated the events of May 25, 2000 and the impact that these events have had on her life ever since.

In her testimony, Jineth stated that National Police officers suggested that she interview paramilitary leaders at La Modelo prison in order to mitigate the threats against her as a result of her investigative journalism. She stated that this interview was a “trap” that led to her kidnapping, torture, and rape. She also described how the perpetrators stated to her that their acts were a “lesson” or “punishment” for her journalism. She described multiple pieces of evidence of the responsibility of State agents for her kidnapping, which have been ignored in the prosecutor’s investigation; in contrast, she described how she was revictimized in the course of the investigation, being called twelve times to make statements describing the torture and rape to which she was subjected. The State’s representative recognized this revictimization at the public hearing.

As organizations that represent Jineth Bedoya, we denounce the State’s attitude in this case, which demonstrates the State’s indifference to the victims of sexual violence during Colombia’s armed conflict and denies dignified spaces for access to justice. Colombia’s decision to leave the public hearing is unprecedented and gives cause for concern about its commitment to justice for human rights violations and its eventual compliance with the decision of the Court.

Moreover, we denounce this action as part of a strategy to delegitimize the Inter-American Court and create new obstacles in this process, which continues to punish Jineth Bedoya for making her voice heard. This is a new attempt to silence her.

As legal representatives, we call on Colombia to reappear at the scheduled hearing, in compliance with its international human rights obligations and in accordance with the Court’s order. Appearance at the hearing will contribute to the dignity and redress that this international legal process can provide, regardless of the eventual content of the decision.

Monday, 08 February 2021 18:07

The Voices that Colombia Lost in 2020

Journalists Abelardo Liz and Felipe Guevara were murdered during 2020. Their cases exposed the crude violence that journalists continue to face, both by law enforcement Personnel and by criminal gangs.

 

Abelardo: The death that Indigenous Peoples Mourn and Show the Indolence of the State

Abelardo, in a tragic coincidence, died on August 13, the day of the anniversary of the killing of Jaime Garzón. The indigenous journalist was in Corinto, Cauca, covering an eviction by the police and the army. During the confrontations, he was wounded by a firearm. Law enforcement personnel claimed that the bullet came from illegal groups that had also fired; however, the indigenous community denies that there had been clashes with the guerrillas that day.

 

Neither Ivan Duque, nor any authority spoke on the subject. Six months later, the case has progressed extraordinarily little, and the responses of the Prosecutor's Office and the Army on the progress of the investigation are insufficient. There is no guarantee that this is being carried out in a serious and impartial manner.

 

If you want to read the full report about the murder of this indigenous journalist, and how this seriously affects a community, go to page 7 of our PDF magazine named Páginas para la libertad de expresión.

The Journalist of the Neighborhoods of Cali

Felipe was only 27 years old when he was killed at Mariano Ramos neighborhood in Cali, Valle del Cauca. He worked as a judicial journalist at Q’hubo newspaper, the most widely read popular newspaper in the city. He was shot outside his home on December 21st and died in intensive care on December 23rd.

 

Despite the repeated threats that Felipe had received in the past, the first reaction of the Cali Police Commander was to deny the hypothesis that the murder was related to his journalistic work. At the beginning of January 2021, one of the alleged perpetrators was captured, a 16-year-old boy who denied charges of aggravated homicide and the manufacture, trafficking, and carrying of firearms.

 

This murder seriously affects freedom of the press. After these events, some reporters may prefer to move away from certain areas, and to pull other items off the agenda.

 

To read the full story about this journalist, read page 15 of Páginas para la libertad de expresión PDF magazine.

 

Here you can view the entire magazine, or you can download it to your device.

Monday, 08 February 2021 17:05

Journalism is not the Enemy

The Colombian State has again aimed its weapons, resources, and intimidation capacity against journalists. This situation is growing during the economic emergency due to the pandemic affecting the media industry.

An alarming espionage operation, the abuse of police force against the press during demonstrations, and the disdainful and stigmatizing attitude of higher-level officials happen with such a glaring and reiteration, deems it as not impossible to assume it as a message in which the press is understood as opposition, in which there is no tolerance toward critical thinking.

In 2020, the deterioration of the media and of the state of freedom of expression in the country deepened.  Violence against the press occurs with the same systematicity and permissiveness as in past decades, during Colombia's darkest years.   In medium-sized cities such as Puerto Libertador in Córdoba or in capitals such as Arauca, there is no possibility of practicing journalism freely. Dozens of municipalities can be added to these two examples, where reporters must calculate each news before it is published and do their work with the permanent feeling that they will be threatened at some point.

 

In the last four years, eight journalists have been killed in the country and 618 threats have been reported; it is the second deadliest country on the continent after Mexico. During the year of the pandemic, despite general confinement, 193 journalists were threatened, 10% more than  in 2019.  Two journalists were killed:  Abelardo Liz and Felipe Guevara.  This happens while billions of Colombian pesos are invested in a protection mechanism that has unfortunately lost effectiveness and fails without legitimacy, pending on the promised re-engineering plan.

This atmosphere has enclosed the press into self-censorship. This is admitted by media owners, directors, and reporters alike.  Of course, they do so in a confidential manner. Most of the time, society, which relies on the press to be informed, is not aware of the existence of such self-censorship, or may not know on its prevalence level among journalists. Nonetheless, the price we pay as a society is extremely high, since in a democratic system it is essential that citizens can exercise their right to information on any subject.

Journalism in Colombia is a patient with comorbidities, and the pandemic threatens to send him to intensive care. Despite this, the government ignored the red flags that the journalism sector has waived with force. For President Duque, priorities are in other matters. For example, to install a new paradigm, to normalize his information bubble, and forge a misleading direct dialog with the citizenry. He has spent at least twenty-six billion Colombian pesos on prioritizing his institutional communication and treats it as if it were superior to the plurality that journalism offers. This aggressive strategy strengthens the risk of unprecedented propaganda practices in the country.

In the first weeks of 2021, some signs were given that the Government will finally adopt economic measures for the sector, otherwise the survival of many media, plurality and the future of professional journalism could be jeopardized. 

The dozens of journalists who were followed and spied understand that they are the enemies for the State. The same is assumed by community media reporters and indigenous journalists, who mourn on each murdering of one of their peers.  So do citizens who dare to ask. The only opportunity for this Government to prove them wrong is to investigate and to let the victims know the truth, as it has consistently promised. But it does not do it, and questions remain: Who shoots? Who makes the threats? Who gave the order for the profiling?

Download the magazine here


 

Friday, 05 February 2021 17:58

Illegal Profilings: One year of Silences

It has been a year since Semana Magazine revealed that the Army used its intelligence resources to surveil and profile more than thirty national and international journalists. The folders contained personal, work, family, friends, and colleagues data. After the report of Semana, we came to know on other fourteen cases at FLIP. Despite the stir the news caused, today is little we know about the contents of those folders.

 

In addition, there is a lack of consensus between the Attorney General’s Office and the Office of the Prosecutor on the list and the number of persons included, since the former identified 29 persons and the members of four organizations and one media outlet as victims; while the Office of the Prosecutor assured that only twenty people had been the victims. Nor is it known what the filing of charges were made by the Attorney General's Office toward the thirteen military personnel who would have made illegal use of the Army's computer intelligence to carry out these surveillance.

 

At FLIP, we had access to the testimonies of some of the journalists who were victims of these illegal profiling, to know the individual and collective impact that these actions of intimidation and stigmatization generated on journalistic work.

 

Find out what is known about this case on page 9 of Páginas para la libertad de expresión PDF. You can view or dowload here.

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