There has been a remarkable development over this reporting period. Colombia, with the highest number of journalists killed over the last 25 years, faces a new threat to freedom of the press that is not from drug traffickers or illegal armed groups.
Over the past 18 months there has been a notable drop in killings and violence against journalists. For the first time in nine years, none were killed for journalistic activities during this reporting period.
However, lawsuits against journalists were increasingly being used as a form of intimidation, with more than 100 public-interest, criminal and civil actions brought against twelve media outlets, nine reporters and two columnists by retired military officers, government ministers, public servants and private parties.
Among the more significant libel suits were: an action by the Council of State as a plaintiff against Juan Manuel Santos, a journalist with El Tiempo newspaper, after he questioned delays in a ruling and alleged bribe-taking; a suit by Cardinal Alfonso López Trujillo against columnist María Jimena Dussán, of El Tiempo, for an opinion piece about an allegedly close relationship between the current head of the Pontifical Council for the Family at the Vatican and slain drug lord Pablo Escobar; as well as a suit by the minister of communications against three radio journalists in the northeastern state of Santander, for reporting that the minister was alleged to have pressured a media station in her home district to provide illegal funding.
Towards the end of September, a controversial contractor in the city of Cartagena took out a front page ad in El Universal newspaper to serve magazine journalists, Carlos Huertas with Revista Semana and Mauricio Vargas with Revista Cambio, with notice of a libel suit.
El Tiempo alone faced three suits in criminal court brought by retired military officers and a court officer. Public interest suits have been brought each month against the Canal Caracol news program. SOHO magazine was sued five times in two months for publishing a photograph of a crucified model surrounded by twelve famous Colombians dressed as the apostles, alleging the image was blasphemous. The suits by the Council of State and the actual head of the complaints department of the prosecutor's office were cause for particular concern.
A religious group filed 130 actions for protection of constitutional rights against the periodical Cambio over an article entitled, "Religion, Politics and Business."
Civil suits were also filed against the following newspapers: La Tarde, in the town of Pereira; La Crónica, in the town of Quindío, and El Liberal, in the town of Popayán. These joined a suit filed by an official with the prosecutors' office against El Universal newspaper over a story that the official had been involved in a traffic incident while intoxicated. In addition, a court named as defendants seven newspapers in an action to reclaim public areas utilized by newspaper hawkers.
A ten-day contempt sentence was dismissed towards the end of September in the constitutional action filed by an army general against Cambio editor, Mauricio Vargas, and reporter Ricardo Ávila.
In another development, the offices of the Inspector General and Attorney General asked a judge to find Graciela Torres guilty of libel and violation of privacy for showing a video of an actress having sex with her boyfriend.
In the legislative sphere a bill was introduced for the third time by the publisher and former editor of El Colombiano newspaper, Congressman Juan Gómez Martínez, which seeks to criminalize and impose harsher penalties for libel, or publication of "any baseless statements or facts in dispute" by editors, journalists and columnists. Another bill in committee ostensibly aimed at regulating freedom of information access actually restricts it. Five bills would amend a contracting law to allow the government to determine how government bids would be announced.
On the positive side, the new attorney general of Colombia, Mario Iguarán, demonstrated a willingness to pursue unpunished crimes. He recently agreed with the IAPA Rapid Response Unit to reactivate the Human Rights Unit charged with prosecution of crimes against journalists and to promptly report on the results.
Persistent campaigns of public pressure in cases involving work-related killings of 54 journalists over 11 years are starting to yield results for the first time in four years. This last reporting period witnessed renewed evidence-gathering activities in the majority of the cases. However, these efforts have not produced any guilty verdicts for the gunmen or the masterminds. Moreover, it is cause for concern that the overwhelming majority of cases involving journalists pursued at the provincial level, as well as assault cases, continue to be dismissed or face restraining orders.
Despite 28-year sentences handed down against the gunmen in the January 30, 2002, killing of Orlando Sierra, managing editor of La Patria, the masterminds have been prosecuted, even though the judge actually named a legislator from the Caldas department, Ferney Tabasco, as the suspect.
While the number of killings, kidnappings and threats continued to decline during this reporting period, twenty-five journalists reported threats against their lives — five of whom had to flee their homes.
Three journalists were forced into exile, which is a larger number than in previous years. The most significant case involved Daniel Coronel, editor of the news program Noticias Uno, and his wife, anchorwoman María Cristina Uribe, who fled on August 18 after they and their ten-year-old daughter received death threats. The threats were made by former congressman, Carlos Nader Simmonds.
The climate of violence may be diminishing as the result of growing media self-censorship, particularly outside of the capital, as well as judicial harassment.
Among other significant developments:
In March, FARC guerrillas dynamited transmission towers for two local Caquetá stations.
The Committee for the Protection of Journalists of the Colombian Ministry of Interior offered protection to Claudio Gomajoa, a local station director threatened by paramilitaries in the southwestern department of Putumayo, and Angélica Rubiano, reporter for the southwestern Huila department newspaper, La Nación, threatened by the military.
In April, two months after his kidnapping, Hernán Echeverri Arboleda a photographer and part-owner of the regional newspaper, Urabá Hoy, was released and stated that he had been held for ransom. Elsewhere, protection was provided for Jaime Ripoll, employed with a local station in the northern department of Norte de Santander, who received threats for reporting on government corruption, and Gilberto Martínez, news director for Colmundo Radio in the department of Tolima, who was threatened by paramilitary forces.
In May, Daniel Coronel, director for Noticias Uno; Carlos Lozano, editor of the communist weekly, Voz; and Hollman Morris, director of the program “Contravía”, received death threats in the form of funeral wreaths and condolences.
A mayor in the Valle del Cauca southeastern region froze government advertising with the newspaper, Cartago Hoy, and requested that a political commentary program be taken off the air by a local station, in reprisal for reporting on his administration.
On May 25, FARC guerrillas bombed a local Putumayo station's transmission towers that had also been attacked in February.
In June a court in the central department of Cundinamarca named as defendants seven newspapers in an action to reclaim public areas utilized by newspaper hawkers.
On July 13, a local television station manager, Julián Alberto Ochoa Restrepo, was forced to flee Medellín under government protection after an attempt on his life in May for reporting on alleged drug trafficking and paramilitary links to Senator Mario Uribe Escobar.
Fanor Zúñiga, a cameraman with a local news outlet in the Atlantic port city of Buenaventura was also forced to flee the region after receiving threats for refusing to broadcast videos sent by the FARC. In response to a request by the Colombian Foundation for Press Freedoms (FLIP), the Committee for the Protection of Journalists has offered Zúñiga protection.
In August, El Tiempo reported that the case file for the 1991 killing by two soldiers of Henry Rojas Monje, their correspondent in the eastern department Arauca, had disappeared from the Council of State.
In September FARC guerrillas dynamited transmission towers belonging to two local Cauca stations.
At the end of the September, a major contractor in the coastal city of Cartagena announced in a front-page advertisement in El Universal newspaper that he had filed a criminal action for libel against magazinejournalists, Carlos Huertas with Semana, and Mauricio Vargaswith Cambio, claiming they had tarnished his good name.