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Efigenia Vásquez was deadly hurt while exercising her right to freedom of expression as a journalist in Purace, Cauca (southern Colombia). The Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) considers the hypothesis that Vasquez’ death was due to a “multiple charge projectile” shot by an agent of the riot police ESMAD.

On October 8, the 31 years old journalist was covering and taking part of a protest held by members from the Kokonuko indigenous group. The protest was intended to claim communal property over an area in power of businessman Diego Angulo, owner of the touristic complex “Aguas Tibias”.

At 4 PM, the Kokonuko group blocked the entrance to “Aguas Tibias” where ESMAD officers were placed. ESMAD officers confronted the demonstrators, causing their retreat to the higher mountains. 40 natives, including Vasquez, were hurt, affirmed to FLIP Governor Isneldo Avirama.

From 18 to 20 October, FLIP representatives went to the Kokonuko area in Purace, Cauca. FLIP held conversations with members of the indigenous group present at the time of the events as well as with persons with close relationship to the query being developed by the Prosecutor’s office and with Vasquez’ family. FLIP queried about the facts and about the general conditions for freedom of expression of the Kokonuko group.

Cauca is a silenced zone. A significant part of the territory does not have any media producing local information. Among its 42 municipalities, 24 have no media, 16 have some local information and just two of them, Popayán and Santander de Quilichao, have a minimum amount of variety. Among the 75 media existing in Cauca, only 22 have informative or news centered programs.

Renacer Kokonuko 90.7 FM operates in this context of silence. It is the only media existing in Purace and it is located in a small house inside the indigenous area. It only counts with the minimal equipment required to broadcast. It’s broadcast power is 250 kw, which only allows it to cover 10 round kilometers. For this reason, around 40% of Purace’s people are not being able to access the station’s signal. The majority of the nine persons working at the station are peasants dedicated to farming as their main activity. They work on their free time as volunteers at Renacer.

Part of the station’s content are related to self-government. In its 15 years of existence, Renacer has built up enough capacity to inform about confrontations with authorities. “The indigenous council demands us to be present in order to gather evidences of what is going on”, says Emildre Avirama, who works at Renacer. Regarding these subjects, the radio station provides orientation to Purace’s people on how to act. “When confrontations arise, our colleagues say to us ¡Tell everyone that the community is needed in the place! Says Avirama.

On 13 June, the community was preparing a protest in order to demand the government to award property over the “Aguas Tibias” area. However, according to ex gobernor Fabio Avirama, at 5 am ESMAD surrounded the radio station and attempted to come into it. Journalist Jesus Melengue was there. “They wanted to shut down communications: damage the equipment in order to prevent broadcasting”. Melengue alerted the other members of the community, who reached the area. “The attack against our communicators was prevented hanks to the community’s bravery”, said Avirama to FLIP.

On 12 july, during a new wave of confrontations, electricity went out in Renacer Kokonuko for several hours. The latter impeded the communicators to inform about the protest. According to the communicators, there is no doubt that this was executed by the Police. “It is not appropriate to them that we spread reality”, says Emildre Hol Avirama.

On July, FLIP attempted, without response, to contact ESMAD in order to obtain their version on the facts. Last week, FLIP went to the police office in Popayan to inquire about these facts. Until now, no officer has acceded to talk to FLIP.

Two days after Vasquez’ death, a community member, whose name is reserved, was taking care of the station when a van and a motorcycle came. The journalist was asked to tell the name of the people working at Renacer. She demanded the persons to identify themselves and to explain their motives. The persons only insisted in demanding the communicators’ names. Since the journalist gave no response and did not open the door, the persons left claiming that they would return. Until now, they did not come back.

Since being a teenager, Efigenia was interested in communication. For that reason, starting at 17, she was invited to take part in capacity building events regarding self-communication and journalism. With the passing of time, Efigenia got to make part of the communications team at the Regional Indigenous Council of Cauca (CRIC) and to participate in Renacer Kokonuko. She contributed to the “Amanecer Indigena” and to the “minga” shows, dedicated to cultural subjects.

Efigenia took part of workshops held by the Deutsche Welle as well as in self-communication seminars in other parts of the country. She also was present in different international scenarios with indigenous journalists in Latin America.

Efigenia, when not cultivating strawberries, contributed to the radio station. However, since two years ago, she reduced her participation in Renacer. Her mother Ilda Astudillo says that Efigenia was in charge of her three sons since she got separated from her couple. Therefore, assisting to the radio station was hard.

The authorities still recognized Efigenia as a communicator and member of Renacer. According to Emildre Avirama, “her role in the radio station cannot be unrecognized”. Sitting in a plastic chair in her daughter’s house, Ilda Astudillo tells FLIP that “Efigenia was thinking on coming back to the radio station… but it wasn’t possible”.

On that Eighth of october Efigenia Vasquez went to the mobilization with her fellow community members in order to demand the communal property over the area belonging to Angulo. Emildre Avirama claims that Indigenous council ordered to cover the mobilization and its developments. Vasquez had the duty to contribute in documenting the facts: “she had the same task as us: to record” says Avirama.

FLIP had video confirmation that, around 4 pm and after the demonstrations started, ESMAD left “Aguas Tibias” and faced the community in an area inside indigenous territory.

Edward Avirama, coordinator of the Kokonuko indigenous guard, the demonstrators ran away in fear of the guns being used by ESMAD: “The community was throwing rocks from above the mountain and gunshots were heard”. Avirama tells that the situation escalated because the gunshots could come from firearms being used against the community.

Minutes after the gunshots were heard, Efigenia Vasquez fell to the ground: “that was the moment in which I asked for help to my colleague and we saw that she was badly hurt”, says Avirama. The guard members requested an ambulance to transfer the communicator to a medical center, but the vehicle never arrived. According to Avirama, the driver said that he was not allowed to enter the zone.

The emergency forced the community to look for a vehicle to transfer Vasquez to a health center. However, community members claim that the officers intimidated the driver: “ESMAD was located in part of the road and pointed the gun to discourage him from picking her”, says a native present the day of the facts.

A few hours after the confrontation, Efigenia Vasquez died while receiving treatment at San José de Popayán’s Hospital. According to forensics, her death was caused by the multiple wounds caused by the projectiles in her chest. Efigenia could have died due to pellets fired from a fire gun, such as a shotgun or to an shrapnel artifact’s explosion.

Two days after, Police Major General William Salamanca declared to Popayan media that the wounds received by Vásquez were not caused by ESMAD. “Pellet, artifacts and guns of this kind (unconventional) are not used by the Police”, said the Major General. “In my opinion, the indigenous are the ones to blame, those who came with her faces covered and using unconventional firearms are the ones who could have caused the journalist’s disease”, he concluded.

On 25 October, FLIP received a communication from the Colonel Pompy Arubal Pinzon Commander of Popayan´s Police. The communication reaffirmed the declarations given by General Salamanca and added that “The mentioned lady (Vásquez) was not undertaking communicative duties (...) au contraire, she had an active role in the different indigenous demonstrations”.

This version is not accepted by the indigenous authorities. “They have attacked us with ´recalzadas´”, says Edward Avirama referring to the multiple charge ammunition allegedly used by ESMAD. “The government can claim that they are just using gases, but we can affirm that they are making recalzadas”, says Avirama.

FLIP confirmed through sources close to the general prosecutor’s enquiry that there are three hypothesis for the case. First, Efigenia could have died due to a shrapnel explosive launched by either one of the parts in conflict. Second, Efigenia could have died due to a projectile coming from ESMAD. The third hypothesis points to Efigenia dying due to “friendly fire” when demonstrators unintentionally triggered an explosive and causing the deadly wounds.

FLIP had access to a one minute 20 video from the events. This material, part of the prosecutor’s enquiry, shows a general view of the confrontation until an explosion occurs. Afterwards, the camera focuses on a ESMAD member that points and shoots his grenade launcher towards an indigenous group. Efigenia was among those persons. The camera shows a person, apparently Efigenia, who is then aided by other natives.

The forensics report states that the anatomic trajectory of the wounds comes from the front to the back. This would help to conclude that the impact came from in front of her and that the projectile never came out of her body. Moreover, when Efigenia fell wounded, the Police was at approximately 56 meters from the natives. The autopsy showed that Efigenia’s wounds had no traces of gunpowder. This would show that there was more than one and a half meter of distance between the gun and the journalist’s body.

10 september 2015, when Flor Alba Nuñez was killed by gunmen in Pitalito Huila, was the last time in which a journalist was killed by reasons related to their journalistic work.

FLIP condemns the murder of Efigenia Vásquez while doing journalistic duties during the confrontations of October 8. This crime is also an attack against the Kokonuko’s freedom of expression and information.

FLIP encourages the General Prosecutor’s office to make a diligent enquiry to determine who caused Efigenia’s dead. Moreover, FLIP encourages that same office to determine if Efigenia’s killer acted following orders. FLIP also invites the Police and the indigenous authorities in Cauca to publicly condemn the use of nonconventional weapons by their members.

FLIP demands the Procurator to, based on FLIP statistics, establish monitoring measures and criteria based on attacks by ESMAD against the press. Such a duty should be done to seek an improvement of ESMAD use of force according to international standards.

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Background

ESMAD has been a repeated aggressor of the press, especially during public demonstrations. Throughout the year, FLIP has registered six cases in which ESMAD agents attacks and stigmatizes journalists. On August, during a mining strike in Northeast Antioquia, officers accused a journalist of revolting. Moreover, the officers attempted to take the journalist’s camera (http://bit.ly/2h6Gxxd). On 15 August, Alexei Castaño of Caracol Radio and Red+ Noticias was attacked with tear gas by members of ESMAD during protests at Doña Juana´s landfill (http://bit.ly/2zAVMVG). On mid-july, during confrontations between peasants and public forzes in Meta, Heliana Montoya from Red de Medios Alternativos – Agencia Colombiana de Prensa Popular (REMA-Acpp) was attacked and detained by riot police (http://bit.ly/2h7pE5v). On May,  Pedro Garcia of El Turbión was seriously injured due to a bullet impact during Nasa indigenous group demonstrations in Cauca (http://bit.ly/2yP4p22).

In the years after she was abducted and brutally assaulted while reporting on violence at a maximum-security prison, award-winning journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima has fought tirelessly to bring the issue of sexual violence against women into the public consciousness.

Today, 25 May, marks 17 years since Jineth Bedoya Lima fell victim to a series of grave acts. 

Journalist Jineth Bedoya has had to give over 11 accounts of her abduction, torture and sexual assault at the hands of Colombian paramilitaries. On 1 March, she must testify again. IFEX and FLIP are calling on the Colombian Attorney General’s Office, the IACHR and the judge overseeing the trial to ensure that this time, justice is served.

The Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) rejects the physical and verbal attacks that have been committed against several journalists during demonstrations of conveyors' strike in different regions of the country.

The FLIP condemns the attack suffered by Jhon Jaire Jacome and Juan Pablo Bayona in the region of Norte de Santander. The attack on the reporters' vehicle occured while they were covering confrontations between smugglers and public forces. 

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