Colombian Army spied on journalists, Semana magazine reveals

A report in Colombia’s Semana magazine alleging that more than two dozen national and international journalists were spied on by Army intelligence officials has led to uproar and calls for further investigations.

“Between February and the first days of December [2019], the activities of more than 130 citizens were the target of what the military called ‘profiles’ and ‘special works,’” Semana wrote in the special report, “Las carpetas secretas” (The secret folders), published on May 1.

A special investigation from Semana magazine alleges espionage against journalists by the Colombian Army.(Screenshot)

A special investigation from Semana magazine alleges espionage against journalists by the Colombian Army.(Screenshot)

“In those missions, using computer tools and software, they carried out searches and massively and indiscriminately collected all the information possible about their objectives to prepare military intelligence reports,” Semana reported.

Profiles of the journalists were created that included personal information on family, friends, sources, deduced political leanings, places visited and more, according to the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP, for its acronym in Spanish).

Among those allegedly targeted were U.S. journalists Nick Casey (The New York Times), Juan Forero (The Wall Street Journal) and John Otis (NPR). In Colombia, targets allegedly included María Alejandra Villamizar (Noticias Caracol) and journalists from the sites Rutas del Conflicto and La Liga Contra el Silencio.

These recent allegations come after a January 2020 report in Semana that Retired Army Commander Nicacio Martínez retired the previous December in relation to allegations of illegal espionage of journalists and other public figures. Following that report, the Supreme Court delegation of the Prosecutor General’s Office “opened an investigation for the crimes of unlawful violation of communications and unlawful use of transmitting or receiving equipment, among other crimes,” as El Tiempo reported.

Prosecutor General Francisco Barbosa said the new allegations revealed by Semana will be added to the investigations, the publication added.

Barbosa also said Martínez would be summoned for questioning regarding the alleged espionage, as DW reported.

Through his lawyer, Martínez denied giving orders for intelligence operations against journalists. The statement read, "I do not know if the events narrated by Semana Magazine in several of its publications have happened at another level in a hidden way. If I had known, I would have been the first to denounce. The only thing I am sure of is that if some act was committed in that sense it was not carried out by the Army as an institution, much less endorsed by its commander.”

“While I was Commander of the National Army, I never perceived or treated the media as enemies of the State or the Armed Forces,” the statement added.

The FLIP alleged that although the minister of defense, prosecutor general and current military leadership knew of the profiling and monitoring allegations since at least since January 2020, the Ministry of Defense only announced measures to be taken hours before the publication of the May 1 Semana report. One of those measures was the firing of 11 officials. It also said the Supreme Court had evidence of the monitoring since December 2019, but there were no advances in the investigation.

“We emphatically reject that in Colombia the profiling and surveillance practices of journalists by state intelligence agencies remain and are intensified,” the FLIP wrote. “These actions violate the obligations of the Colombian State regarding freedom of the press, are characteristic of authoritarian regimes and put in question the right to an informed society and the guarantees for the free exercise of journalism in the country.”

Following the publication of Semana’s most recent report, condemnation and calls for investigation also came from international and regional press freedom organizations.

“The new investigation on this operation adds deeply alarming details on how the program by the Colombian military put both local and international reporters and their sources at risk,” said Natalie Southwick, Central and South America Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “The government of President Iván Duque must take swift action to identify those responsible and ensure they face appropriate consequences.”

The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) condemned any espionage against journalists.

Roberto Rock, president of the IAPA Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, pointed out that "illegal interceptions and espionage are not new practices in the region, we have already seen it in many countries, among them in Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela."

IAPA president Christopher Barnes said the profiling acts “corrode the necessary trust between sources and journalists.”

Journalists who were the alleged victims of profiling by the Army wrote a letter demanding answers from the government, as reported by El Espectador. They asked who gave orders for the alleged profiling and monitoring, whether journalists were threats to national security, who had access to the alleged files, and whether the president, ministry of defense or high authorities knew of the alleged acts. They also asked for guarantees to continue their work without profiling, spying or stigmatization.

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