ELN releases Dutch journalists being held in Colombia's Catatumbo

By Silvia Higuera and Teresa Mioli

Updated (June 26): The Colombian and Dutch governments have confirmed the release of two Dutch journalists being held by the National Liberation Army (ELN for its acronym in Spanish) in northeast Colombia.

Late Friday night, June 23, the Colombian Ombudsman's Office posted photos on Twitter of the journalists with members of the office and members of the ELN. It said the journalists had been handed over by the ELN to a commission from the Ombudsman's Office in a rural area of the Catatumbo region.

Deutsche Welle reported that Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders confirmed the news on June 24 and said the journalists "are doing pretty well considering the circumstances."

Prior to these official statements, Radio Nacional Patria Libre, the official radio station of the ELN, posted on Twitter Friday afternoon that the journalists had been freed. However, a few hours later, the radio station wrote that it had not been able to corroborate the news of their release. It apologized and said that the journalists were in "perfect conditions and in a short time there will be a positive outcome."

On June 24, the ELN released an official statement about the journalists. It said that when the two men were found and taken in El Tarra, the group had increased its control operations in the area due to "the great threat of war voiced by the government of Juan Manuel Santos against the Catatumbo area." It accused the national government of repressive actions in the region that have caused increase in human rights violations.

One of the detained journalists, Derk Johannes Bolt, told Caracol Radio that the pair initially thought they were being robbed. Bolt said they were transferred frequently, including a stay in the jungle to evade the Army.

"It was very hard, but the people that captured us were very kind treated us with a lot of respect; almost like friends," Bolt said, according to Caracol Radio. The journalist said the two were physically and psychologically well.

Bolt said they would not continue their journalistic work in the region.

"We never thought this could happen because no one ever told us that we could not pass. It was a lesson and a big mistake in these 25 years of work," Bolt said.

Original (June 23): After being detained for six days, two Dutch journalists were released on June 23 by the Colombian National Liberation Army (ELN for its acronym in Spanish), according to Radio Nacional Patria Libre, the official radio station of the ELN.

The Tweet read: “We report that the two foreigners captured by the ELN in the Catatumbo were released in perfect conditions.”

However, the whereabouts of the journalists are not publicly known. BBC Mundo reported that the Dutch embassy in Colombia said it could not confirm the news of the journalists’ release. The mayor of El Tarra told the international outlet the same.

BLU Radio reported that authorities confirmed the journalists would go to a medical mission for a health checkup.

Journalist Derk Johannes Bolt and camera operator Eugenio Ernest Marie Follender were taken on June 17 in the municipality of El Tarra in the department of Norte de Santander. The duo works for the Dutch program “Spoorloos,” and were producing a report about “biological families of Colombian children adopted by Europeans,” according to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP).

Although an ombudsman for the municipality of Tibú, also in Norte de Santander, reported that the journalists were being held by the group, it was not until June 21 that the ELN confirmed it.

Through its Twitter account, the group said on June 22 that the journalists were in "good health" and that they would be released, but did not specify the date.

That same day, the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) of Colombia indicated that an operation had been put in place for their release. However, it was only until this Friday, June 23 that they were freed.

The FLIP also demanded the immediate release of the communicators and noted that ELN members "once again used 'preventive retention' to mask their violation of press freedom."

A group of journalists gathered in Cúcuta, capital of Norte de Santander, on June 22 to demand the release of their Dutch colleagues, while the #LibérenlosYa (Release Them Now) hashtag was being used on social networks. A similar event took place in Plaza Bolívar in central Bogotá, the country's capital.

Colombian journalist Herbin Hoyos, known for his program Las Voces del Secuestro (The Voices of Kidnapping) made an invitation through his Twitter account to go to the area where the journalists were kidnapped and demand their immediate release.

The abduction of these journalists was considered a setback for the negotiating table that the Government is carrying out with this group in Quito, Ecuador. Especially because the government has demanded, as a condition to continue in this process, that the guerrillas renounce this practice that is against International Humanitarian Law, El Espectador reported.

Humberto de la Calle, former vice president of Colombia and chief negotiator for the Colombian government in the peace process with the FARC, said on Twitter, “The release of the Dutch journalists is a gesture in the right direction. The ELN should abandon this practice forever.”

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.

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