Inter-American Court condemns Colombia for 1998 murder of journalist Nelson Carvajal Carvajal

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR Court) found the Colombian State responsible for the 1998 murder of journalist Nelson Carvajal Carvajal, and for a failure to guarantee the victim’s right to freedom of expression.

In a ruling from March 13, 2018, published on June 6, the Court determined that Colombia is also guilty of not offering the judicial guarantees to investigate the crime, as well as of not protecting Carvajal’s relatives, according to a statement from the Court.

For the Court, the killing of Carvajal was caused by his journalistic work. “The Court finds that the murder of Nelson Carvajal Carvajal falls within a generalized context of impunity for the killings of journalists that occurred at the time of the events in this case in Colombia,” according to the ruling.

The ruling adds that “the inadequate investigation of Nelson Carvajal’s murder by the Colombian authorities constitutes, in itself, a violation of the obligation to guarantee the right to life of Nelson Carvajal.”

Judith Carvajal Carvajal before the Inter-American Court.

Judith Carvajal Carvajal, sister of the murdered journalist, during the audience before the court on Aug. 22, 2017. (Photo: Inter-American Court).

The Court also considered that the journalist’s relatives’ rights to free movement were violated since some had to leave the area and some even left the country after receiving threats.

Carvajal, 37, was shot seven times as he was leaving a school for a station in the municipality of Pitalito, department of Huila, on April 16, 1998. At that time, the journalist was the director of the news program Momento Regional and of the radio magazine programs Mirador de la Semana and Amanecer en el Campo from Emisora Radio Sur in Pitalito, according to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP).

The journalist was recognized for his denunciations of local corruption and its alleged relationship with some armed actors, according to FLIP. Although he never made formal accusations before authorities, Carvajal did tell his friends that he received threats and managed to schedule an appointment with the Municipal Ombudsman, according to the project Impunidad from IPYS and Unesco.

Although the Colombian authorities began investigations into this crime and one of the hypotheses even ended in a lawsuit against a local businessman, a former councilor and another man, everything culminated in the acquittal of those implicated in April 2001, the Court added.

In that sense, and after 20 years of his crime remaining in impunity, the Court determined that Colombia "is, to a large extent, responsible for the extraordinary delay in the investigation and the legal processes for the murder of Carvajal Carvajal," the release said.

For the FLIP of Colombia, the decision of the Inter-American Court opens a door to achieve justice in the crimes against journalists on the continent, according to a statement published on June 7.

“For FLIP, this ruling represents an advance in the effective guarantee of the right to freedom of expression in Latin America and the Caribbean, since it recognizes the phenomenon of violence against the press and widespread impunity in these attacks,” according to the statement. “Additionally, it develops criteria that guide the investigation, prosecution and punishment of homicides against journalists as measures that States must follow to fulfill their role of counteracting violence against freedom of expression.”

Nelson Carvajal Carvajal's case at the project Impunidad

Nelson Carvajal Carvajal's case at the project Impunidad from IPYS and Unesco. (Screenshot).

The case of Nelson Carvajal Carvajal was presented to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on Oct. 22, 2015, considering that there was no "serious, diligent, and timely" investigation by the State to determine what happened in the journalist’s murder, and in a context in which threats and harassment also targeted the journalist's relative.

During a August 22, 2017 public hearing, the Inter-American Court heard from the relatives of the journalist, experts presented by the IACHR, as well as the allegations from the Colombian State.

In its ruling, the Court determined reparation measures for the violation of the human rights of the journalist and his family. In addition to financial compensation, the Court ordered Colombia to continue investigating the crime and provide results within a reasonable time.

Likewise, it must hold a public act in which it recognizes its responsibility in the events of this case, and guarantee the return of the journalist's relatives to their places of residence if they wish.

According to FLIP, this is the first case in which an international court condemns a State for the murder of a person because of their journalistic work.

The decisions of the Inter-American Court are binding on the part of the member states of the OAS that have accepted its jurisdiction.