Attorney General’s Office of Colombia is accused of intimidating journalists during investigation of whistleblower

In a decision that defenders of the freedoms of the press and expression have not hesitated to classify as a violation of these rights, the Colombian Attorney General's Office announced it has an open investigation against journalist Diana Díaz Soto and that on Nov. 18, it would charge her for the crime of "use of matter submitted to secrecy or confidentiality." In the framework of this investigation, the Attorney General’s Office also asked the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP, for its acronym in Spanish) for information about its sources.

The Attorney General’s Office published a statement on Oct. 19 saying that there is a complaint against Díaz made by the then-director of the Colombian public media system (RCTV), Juan Pablo Bieri. Bieri filed the complaint after an audio recording was made of a meeting during which he is heard looking for ways to censor fellow journalist Santiago Rivas in 2019.

The dispute with Rivas occurred after he appeared in another media outlet criticizing the government bill to regulate communications that was finally approved in June 2019. At the time, Rivas was the host of 'Los Puros Criollos,' one of the most successful programs of Señal Colombia, a public media outlet that is part of RCTV.

For Bieri, according to the audio recording, Rivas's criticism constituted “biting the hand of the one who feeds him,” that is, the government.

Díaz, who at that time was the director of Señal Colombia, is accused of seeking out FLIP to publish the audio recording of that meeting. The audio recording was published by La Liga Contra el Silencio with the support of FLIP and La Pulla.

After the audio was released, Bieri resigned from the management of RCTV. However, he is currently an advisor to President Iván Duque, according to the video column La Mesa de Centro.

On Oct. 19, FLIP reported that the Attorney General’s Office had ordered an inspection of its facilities and requested access to its entry records as well as to its security cameras "in order to establish the entry of Diana Marcela Díaz Soto.”

"There is no precedent in the history of FLIP where a State institution so flagrantly asked us to violate the confidentiality of the source and provide information entrusted to us by our benefactors," FLIP wrote on its Twitter account and in an open letter to the Attorney General’s Office signed by the executive director of FLIP, Jonathan Bock.

In its statement, the Attorney General’s Office said it would not inspect the facilities because FLIP said it did not have the records.

This assertion was denied by FLIP, which said the organization refused to allow the inspection. It added that the Attorney General’s Office never informed it that it officially withdrew the inspection.

In its statement, the Attorney General’s Office asked "prudence of all organizations that monitor press freedom so that misinterpretations are not allowed with the investigations that are being pursued in the entity, since the principles of impartiality and objectivity govern criminal proceedings."

For FLIP, "this can be interpreted as a reproach to the discussions that have taken place around this case and could generate more censorship among journalists and defenders," as it posted to Twitter.

Criticism against the Attorney General, Francisco Barbosa, also focuses on his alleged proximity to President Duque, and accuses him of conducting investigations that benefit people close to the government.

The Attorney General’s decision has been criticized by various individuals and organizations. José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, wrote on his Twitter account: "Prosecutor Barbosa: These charges are a serious error and violate international standards on the protection of whistleblowers.”

Catalina Botero, former special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the IACHR, wrote a thread on her Twitter account about the situation in which, among other issues, she points out that the recording is protected by the right to freedom of expression because it is registering

“However, @FiscaliaCol in its actions, has not taken into account human rights standards and has made decisions that not only affect the rights of the civil servant but also essential principles of a democratic system. One of those decisions is scandalous,” she wrote.

Regarding the decision to request data from FLIP, Botero wrote: “People go to human rights organizations when they feel they are at risk, that they need protection or support, and many times they consider that the threat comes from State agents. This confidentiality is as important as the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.”

In an Oct. 19 editorial entitled "A shameful act of intimidation," the newspaper El Espectador criticized the Attorney General’s Office’s actions both for its case against Díaz and for the possibility of conducting an inspection at FLIP. “How is it that the judicial entities could review who visits organizations that defend human rights? Does it also happen with journalists? What about the right to use anonymous sources? Isn't the Attorney General’s Office aware of the perverse message it sends?"

“What the Attorney General’s Office intended to do is an act of intimidation. Worse still, the entire process against Díaz Toro [sic] has questionable roots. Even if she did disclose a matter under confidentiality, something that several jurists question, what she did was show the bad practices of a public official who wanted to impose censorship on RTVC. Colombians had the right to know that they were being misled by Bieri, that the freedom of the public media system was at risk. Is that what the Attorney General is after? To judge a person who —if it was she who leaked the information— strengthened democracy?" the editorial reads.

"We insist: everything related to this case is shameful, both for the Government of Iván Duque and for the Attorney Generals’ Office of its anointed, Francisco Barbosa."