Another possible kidnapping of journalists in Colombia; Catalina Botero stresses journalists’ role in dangerous areas

The security situation for the Colombian press seems to be getting worse in the midst of peace negotiations between the government and rebel groups in the country.

In addition to the disappearance of the Spanish-Colombian journalist Salud Hernández-Mora that was announced on May 23rd, at least five journalists who had arrived in the area to investigate the Hernández-Mora case were detained, according to the Foundation for Free Press (FLIP by its initials in Spanish).

Three journalists were freed, but it is suspected that two other reporters were kidnapped by the National Liberation Army (ELN for its initials in Spanish) rebel group.

This was announced by RCN Televisión, the outlet for which the journalist Diego D’Pablos and the cameraman Carlos Melo worked. There has been no communication with them since Monday May 23 in the afternoon after they arrived in the municipality of El Tarra, Catatumbo region, department of Norte de Santander.

The journalist Diego Veloza, correspondent for Caracol TV and one of the three freed journalists, told the Blu Radio station that he was detained by four men who identified themselves as members of the ELN along with a cameraman and journalists from the area, according to RCN.

According to Veloza, despite never seeing the other journalists, the people who detained them did say that they had detained the RCN team, the outlet added.

For Catalina Botero, former Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the situation is very serious taking into consideration the important role that journalists play in conflict zones. She also added that attacks against journalists in conflict zones are a violation of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

“The role of journalists, especially in conflict zones, is fundamental. The press, without a doubt, helps to diminish the cruelty and suffering of the populations that are hit by violence when condemning and alerting what is happening,” Botero said in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. “Given the importance of the work they do, international law orders the protection of journalists who cover these areas. They are protected civilians and any crime against them is a serious violation of IHL.”

Botero added that in this moment it is, furthermore, extremely important to not blame journalists for working in areas that are considered dangerous, but rather the groups who detain them must be held responsible, if they are indeed holding them hostage.

“It can never be said that a journalist who tries to report from these areas and bring these realities to the rest of society is out of bounds. On the contrary, they are fulfilling exactly the extraordinary role that the press has. And any ‘detention’ is nothing short of a kidnapping that violates IHL, the rights of the journalists, and the rights of all society to be informed. It is a crime punishable not just by national laws but by international law as well,” she added.

The FLIP had a similar perspective and demanded the “immediate release and return of the journalists to continue their work without conditions, ensuring the life and integrity of the reporters,” and demanded that the norms of IHL be respected.

The disappearance of the journalists took place in the midst of peace negotiations with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest rebel group in the country, and the announcement of a similar process with the ELN, with the condition—asserted by the president of the country—that they free all of their hostages.

Frank Pearl, government negotiator in the ELN peace process, asked the group to free the journalists if it was holding them.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.