Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office investigates public TV channel, accuses it of promoting protests

By Alejandro Martínez

The Attorney General's Office of Colombia has opened a preliminary investigation against Bogotá's public TV channel, Canal Capital, related to its coverage of the protests summoned by Bogotá's mayor Gustavo Petro Urrego, the channel said in a press release.

The investigation comes after the country's powerful Attorney General, Alejandro Ordóñez, ordered in December the removal of Petro Urrego from his office -- as well as barring him from working as a public servant for 15 years -- for alleged serious administrative failures when implementing changes to Bogotá's trash recollection system last year. Petro Urrego has accused Ordóñez of issuing the order to push a political agenda and called on his supporters to demonstrate in the streets to protests his removal.

In a letter sent in mid-February and republished by Canal Capital, the Attorney General's Office notified the channel of the investigation against it for "alleged irregularities committed by Canal Capital when it broadcasted impartial (sic) transmissions 'against the Prosecutor's Office' and encouraged protests, making inappropriate use of public resources toward that goal."

The Attorney General's Office asked the channel for its original programming schedule for the days and times when Petro Urrego announced the sanctions against him and when the protests took place, as well a video copies of the transmissions that were actually broadcasted.

In another letter addressed to Canal Capital's director Hollman Morris, the disciplinary department of Bogotá's municipal prosecutor's office also requested the number of segments and the video copies of the transmissions Canal Capital broadcasted as part of its coverage of the protests to consider disciplinary actions against the channel.

Ordóñez ordered Petro Urrego's removal from office in December of last year. In January, an appeals court ratified the order, but it is currently under temporary suspension. Petro Urrego has sued the Colombian government before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for what he has called political persecution against him.

Morris runs Canal Capital since 2012, year in which Petro Urrego invited him to take charge of the channel. Morris, a renowned journalist who received Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship in 2010, returned to Colombia to take the job with Canal Capital after having left the country for almost a year following threats against him from the government of former President Álvaro Uribe and paramilitary groups.

In its press release, Canal Capital said it notified international organizations -- like the Organization of American States' Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, and Reporters Without Borders -- about the investigation.

Canal Capital also quoted Colombia's Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), which said it wasn't the Attorney General's Office to investigate media content.

"If the motive for the investigation is alleged impartiality, solving this issue falls under Constitutional jurisdiction. Likewise, one must point out that by promoting an investigation regarding contents that involve the office itself, the Attorney General's Office is acting as judge and jury," FLIP told Canal Capital.

The channel asked that the investigation respects freedom of expression and the right to information, and added that it will continue to cover the protests.

"Canal Capital will continue to provide journalistic coverage of the protests, pronouncements that have to do with the alleged removal of the mayor of Bogotá, as well as the daily activities of the city, knowing that our duty is to inform, and to that goal we will use all the resources at our disposal to maintain a well-informed society," it said.

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.