In light of new case of alleged illegal wiretapping of journalists in Colombia, president announces investigation

Six years after the 'chuzadas', or illegal wiretapping, of journalists in Colombia scandalized the country, their ghosts reappeared. In recent weeks, information about alleged corruption and abuse within the National Police has been revealed, including the monitoring and unlawful interception of journalists’ communications.

After the scandal that followed these revelations, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced on Dec. 9 the creation of a special commission to investigate what is happening in the police, the magazine Semana reported.

"We will not hesitate to act against any proven case of corruption or abuse we find in the National Police or any other public entity. Here we do not pursue our critics or our opponents. We do not bug or harrass journalists. And if someone is doing that, it is without knowledge or consent of the government and they will face the full weight of the law," Santos said in announcing the Commission, according to newspaper El Espectador.

The Commission report must be delivered within a period not to exceed 90 days.

This latest development was revealed in late November when the journalists Claudia Morales and Vicky Dávila received emails with detailed information showing that their communications were tracked and monitored, according to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP). The monitoring not only included their journalistic work, but also their personal lives.

According to the information given to the journalists, this monitoring was conducted by a group of the Directorate of Police Intelligence (Dipol) "to protect its director, Gen. Rodolfo Palomino," El Espectador reported.

Mail sent to Dávila said that these orders were caused by her journalistic research related to the "fellowship of the ring", a prostitution network within the police and through which they had manipulated members of Congress, politicians, military members and journalists, the newspaper said.

During the exchange of emails with her informant, Dávila learned that other journalists were also on the list of bugged journalists. Names like Jairo Lozano, Slobodan Wilches, Daniel Coronell and Gustavo Álvarez Gardeazábal appeared on the list.

On December 3, the Attorney General's Office announced the start of the investigation "with the hypothesis that the threats, wiretapping and illegal surveillance, of which journalist Vicky Dávila had been the victim of, may be related to a series of notes and journalistic reports involving alleged irregularities within the National Police of the Republic of Colombia," according to the press release.

"In the event that it were to find that there is a relationship between the facts reported by the journalist in the media and the monitoring and interception of which herself, her family and her news team have allegedly suffered, I think that we would be faced with an event which constitutes a serious attack on Colombia's democracy and press freedom," the statement added.

In late October, the FLIP had reported a blockage by police to the pages of FM and Caracol Radio,  media in which Dávila and Morales, respectively, worked.

"It is surprising that espionage activities, instead of stopping, are heightened and those responsible are not known," said FLIP, when they urged authoirites to cease these practices that are not only unconstitutional, but that also “violate freedom of the press, right to privacy and the privilege of keeping journalistic sources a secret.”

This new scandal recalled the case of the 'chuzadas' that erupted in 2009 and that ended in the liquidation of the country's intelligence agency: Administrative Department of Security (DAS for its acronym in Spanish).

As a result of this case, various members of the DAS have been linked to investigations and some have been convicted. The most significant occurred on Feb. 27 when the Supreme Court found guilty the former DAS director María del Pilar Hurtado and former Secretary General of the Presidency in the administration of Álvaro Uribe, Bernardo Moreno Villegas.

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.