In the course of reporting on Colombia’s violent and complicated internal conflict, journalist Hollman Morris was accused of being an “accomplice to terror” and endured threats and harassment.
But in the recent rectification from former President Álvaro Uribe, Morris sees “a message that freedom of expression cannot be stepped on.” Further, he told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas that the rectification signifies that “irresponsible accusations from presidential power affect and have serious implications against institutions…but above all, against the lives of people.”
At the Supreme Court on July 29, former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe rectified previous statements he made linking Morris to terrorism.
“Dr. Hollman Morris has shown me today that he is not part of, and had not made an apology for terrorism; I believe it and if I said it, I rectify it,” Uribe said. “Why did I say it? Because Hollman Morris’ words and actions in relation to my government, my colleagues, my family and myself and his alignment with detractors made me think that which I rectify today.”
The Tweet from Uribe reads: I have agreed to reconcile with Dr. Hollman Morris, thanks to the patriotic inspiration of Judge Fernández.
In a 2014 Senate committee meeting, Uribe referred to news outlets Canal Capital and Telesur as “servile instruments of terrorism”, according to El Espectador. Uribe, a former president, was a senator of the Democratic Party at the time and continues in that post today.
Morris, who was director of Bogota’s public television broadcaster Canal Capital at the time, subsequently sued Uribe for defamation (injuria y calumnia). But, along with Uribe’s recent rectification, he and Morris signed an agreement to prevent the start of formal court proceedings initiated by that suit.
“I accepted the rectification from former President Uribe. It was not easy after what I experienced because of his remarks, but the embrace of people, the extended hands of people that value this act, fills me with satisfaction, not looking to the past, only looking to the future of the next generations and the present in which we have to construct the new country of Peace,” Morris told the Knight Center.
The journalist said the judge, Eugenio Fernández Carlier, "made the clarion call saying that the complaint could be resolved through dialogue." Morris described the almost four-hour-long conversation as "hard but peaceful."
The former director of Canal Capital told the Knight Center, “I acted for the journalists and workers of the channel, explaining to them the seriousness of the accusations at the time, and today, I tell them with satisfaction that this gesture of rectification is also for them.”
Aside from affecting the “good name” of the public television channel, Morris said Uribe’s accusations affected employee’s lives in the way of threats, being called out on the street, cancellation of leases and bullying on social networks.
“It is worth remembering that throughout the history of Colombia, mired in a long internal armed conflict, these types of remarks precede the killing of people and there, I insist, on the severity of the accusations taking into account the influence and power of former President Uribe,” Morris said.
“The gesture, the rectification, is a message that a free press is respected, that the political critic is respected and that these kinds of accusations will not go unpunished, as they have done so much evil to Colombia,” Morris said.
Morris has a long history with Uribe and his administration.
Starting in 2003, Morris directed and hosted television news program Contravía (Countercurrent), which briefly left the air to due to funding issues and threats. The program focused on human rights issues and the ongoing internal conflict in Colombia.
The program “uncovered links between paramilitary leaders and high officials in Colombian politics and finance,” according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Morris has received threats over the years for his reporting and has had to leave the country temporarily because of them. Some of the threats accused him of being linked to guerrillas or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC for its acronym in Spanish).
For example, in 2007, Morris left Colombia after receiving an email that called him “an anti-patriot, a member of the guerrillas, and a tattletale,” the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported at the time. The freedom of expression organization said the email announced he had won a raffle for a coffin.
Accusations of links to terrorism also came from high-ranking government officials.
In February 2009, Morris and two journalists interviewed hostages held by the FARC that were about to be released. Morris said that he previously planned to be in southeastern Colombia to interview the FARC about kidnappings in the country and that he did not plan to be at the rescue operation, according to a letter that CPJ and Human Rights Watch sent to Uribe. After the hostages were released, they said they had been coerced by the FARC to give statements. CPJ reported that Morris said he would not publish the coerced statements.
Yet, following the event, Colombian Vice President Francisco Santos Calderón said Morris acted without “objectivity and impartiality”, Minister of Defense Juan Manuel Santos (the current president of Colombia) said Morris was “close to the guerrillas,” and Uribe said he was an “accomplice to terror,” according to CPJ.
Morris told CPJ that email threats followed.
Additionally, Morris was one of the journalists targeted for several years by illegal wire tapping at the hands of the government during Uribe’s time as president.
In November 2009, Morris filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on behalf of himself and his family. The commission reported that Morris said he and his family were victims of threats harassment, illegal surveillance and public stigmatization from the Colombian State, particularly the now-defunct Administrative Security Department (DAS for its initials in Spanish). That petition finally was admitted in January 2016.
In 2011, Morris was temporarily blocked from accepting a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University because the U.S. government denied his visa under the “terrorist activities” section of the Patriot Act, The Washington Post reported. Journalists and human rights organizations from around the world rallied to his side and the U.S. government eventually changed its decision.
At a 2013 forum acknowledging the history of violations against freedoms of expression and of the press, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos recognized Morris’ journalistic work. Newspaper El Espectador reported that Morris saw Santos’ support as the beginning of a “symbolic reparation.”
Hollman left Canal Capital as director in 2014 and became a councilman for the city of Bogota in 2015.
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.