Colombian press freedom organization warns about collection of sensitive data belonging to at-risk journalist

The National Protection Unit of Colombia (UNP, for its acronym in Spanish) has collected more than 25,000 records on journalist Claudia Julieta Duque  who was granted a protection scheme by that same entity, as denounced by the Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP).

Jonathan Bock, FLIP executive director, made a complaint on the matter in a letter to the director of the UNP, Alfonso Campo Martínez. In it, FLIP indicates that the records were obtained between February and August 2021 through the GPS installed in the vehicle the UNP granted the journalist as part of her security scheme.

"The monitoring is permanent and detailed, and is sometimes done in 30-second intervals," FLIP said in the letter. These include date, time, address of exact location, direction the vehicle is going, and a location link on Google Maps, it said.

Claudia Julieta Duque (Twitter)

Periodista colombiana Claudia Julieta Duque. (Foto: Twitter)

The data were delivered by the same UNP in the middle of an action of protection (acción de tutela) filed by Duque, the journalist told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).  She added that she filed this request after receiving information that her murder had been ordered and would be carried out using the data collected by the GPS installed in her vehicle.

“That was the first news that I had that the GPS of the armored car that they gave me could carry out that kind of tracking, that is, a type of tracking that is so strong. I was never officially informed, the UNP never officially told me that the GPS would be used to track my movements. Much less was I informed that through GPS they could follow me or things like that,” Duque told LJR. “In the inventory that they give you when they give you the vehicle, the GPS is not even included. In other words, that is information that was never made official, that I was never asked for permission or anything.”

When Duque received information about the criminal plan against her using the GPS data, she informed the Attorney General's Office of Colombia and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) – an organization that granted her precautionary measures in 2009. Because this happened a few days before the total confinement order in Colombia due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the matter remained there, until Colombia gave the IACHR an official response in June 2021.

In the document, which LJR was able to view, Colombia informs the IACHR that the vehicle movement report is a verification tool that is applied to all automobiles that are part of the UNP. According to the document, one of the reasons for doing so is to be able to react to any situation of risk of the protected persons.

"Consequently, the tool is a fundamental part of fulfilling the mission of the UNP and which concerns its creation, administration and regulation by this Entity, in which the beneficiaries place their trust and consequently require the provision of the service," reads the text sent by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia to the IACHR.

“I was very scared of the answer because I had no idea that the UNP at some point had asked me for my consent. Until then, what I thought a GPS would do is that if your vehicle is stolen or something like that, it activates and then they start to look at where the vehicle is. But nobody told me that this was done this way,” Duque said. "It's terrifying and the level of tracking they do to you is chilling."

The journalist sent a right to petition to the UNP requesting detailed information on what had been collected by the GPS. Faced with the silence of the entity, she, together with FLIP, filed an action of protection (acción de tutela) to obtain the information. Although the protection was not approved at first, after Duque challenged the decision, the UNP sent the requested data between September and October 2021.

“They sent me a lot of messy information that took me several days of course to understand. But within the framework of that response and of those files [...] one of them is an Excel document that indicates the movements of the vehicle that I have today from February 3 to August 31 of this year and there are 25,183 reliable records of information,” Duque explained. "It's a terrifying thing, it really is very scary, it really scares you to death.”

“It is something that completely exceeds any possibility that this tracking is to protect you. Besides, I have information, or I had in February [2020], that they were going to kill me from there. When I received this 190-page record a year later, well, I almost died of fright because I said it can't be. In other words, what they can do to me with this information is terrible,” Duque emphasized.

After learning about the data, Duque remembered an intimidating call her family received in February 2021 one day during the monitoring. In it, they reported that the journalist and her daughter had suffered an accident on a highway during a trip that day. Duque said on her Twitter account and to LJR that no one knew about the travel.

FLIP asked the UNP about the purpose of installing this GPS, but said the answer was not clear. According to FLIP, the UNP alluded to a manual on protection measures that establishes that the GPS is used to keep a record of the speed of vehicles assigned for the protection of people and to know if these measures are being used properly.

“However, the information it collects does not allow it to fulfill this purpose. Additionally, in practice it is evident that more information is collected than is strictly necessary to measure speed, that if there is not a correct treatment of personal data, it can generate a risk for the integrity of the protected person,” FLIP wrote.

“At UNP, WE DO NOT CARRY OUT any illegal monitoring or data collection. As an entity of the National Government, we are guarantors of journalistic exercise and protect those who report throughout the country,” the director of the UNP reported on his Twitter account.

A history of persecution

Duque's case is especially sensitive because the journalist was a victim of persecution and psychological torture by the defunct intelligence agency of the country called DAS (Administrative Department of Security). The DAS was liquidated in 2011 as a result of the scandal known as the ‘chuzadas,’ that is, illegal interceptions by the DAS of journalists, politicians, Supreme Court magistrates, among other personalities.

During the closure of the DAS, the prosecutor's office found the document “Manual to threaten,” the existence of which Duque had already denounced. With this document, officials were instructed how to intimidate the journalist with details of where to make the calls, how to speak, how to get to a place to call, among other information.

The crimes against Duque came after her investigation of the murder of Colombian journalist and comedian Jaime Garzón, which occurred in 1999. In her journalistic investigations, Duque linked former DAS officials in the planning and execution of Garzón's murder. Indeed, in 2018, a former deputy director of the DAS was sentenced to 30 years in prison for being the “determiner” of Garzón's murder, and in 2016 the Council of State of Colombia – the highest court that defines the processes involving the State – sentenced the Nation for Garzón’s murder.

In 2001, Duque was abducted and later began the psychological torture. In 2003 and 2004, the journalist reported her crimes to the prosecutor's office, but it was only until 2013 that it issued an assurance measure against some former DAS officials accused of the crime of aggravated psychological torture.

The crime against Duque was classified as against humanity by the Colombian Attorney General's Office in 2017. In October 2018, the journalist presented her case against the Colombian State before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

During all these years, Duque has denounced impunity in her case. In fact, in 2019, the journalist announced that she was suspending her participation in the criminal process in Colombian courts precisely for that reason. Although eight former officials were on trial for the threats, psychological torture and persecution against her, only three have been convicted.

At present, she and her lawyer have challenged the judge due to unjustified delays. For example, the trial against one of the accused ended in November 2017 and there has still not been a sentence.

The journalist has had protection measures from the UNP since 2012 and has gone into exile three times.

"We express our deep concern over the massive and unauthorized collection of highly sensitive data from journalist Claudia Julieta Duque and possibly other reporters," FLIP wrote in its letter.

To conclude, FLIP asked the UNP for a public clarification on these events that includes explaining whether all journalists who have a vehicle as part of their protection have such monitoring and if there was authorization from these people, to deliver the information collected to each protected person and to  report how the information taken by GPS is treated. It also asked to remove the GPS from Duque's vehicle.

LJR asked the director of the UNP for a statement, but as of publication of this article, it had not received a response.