Jineth Bedoya Lima is likely one of the most award-winning Colombian journalists. Both her 20-year journalistic career and her activism to end violence against women, to which she has dedicated herself in recent years, have been recognized by national and international organizations.
Bedoya Lima has been given the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF), the International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. Department of State and the International Press Freedom Award in Canada. And, in 2016, the Organization of Ibero-American Journalists recognized her for work against gender violence.
However, the Fleischaker/Greene Award for Courageous International Reporting that she will receive on Oct. 4 is one of the most special for the journalist because of its “added value.”
The award, presented by the University of Western Kentucky (WKU), seeks to recognize those international journalists who have shown courage and bravery when reporting on social issues. Recipients are chosen by students and professors of this university.
"When people who are studying communications or any field related to communication have a person as a reference and make this tribute, I think it’s invaluable," Bedoya Lima said in conversation with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas on Sept. 30. "I think this [award] is one of the most special that I will probably receive in my life, and I'm going to Kentucky full of pride, and also very proud to be Colombian, for the reporting of Colombian journalists to be highlighted in this manner.”
For Bedoya Lima, each recognition is for the journalists of her country, especially those from the regional areas. So, she wants “for them to feel that this award is also theirs because they have done work out of sacrifice that I appreciate immensely.”
While acknowledging the value of Colombian journalism, she also has criticism for what is currently happening in her country due to a lack of love for the profession. So, her acceptance message for the prize is meant to encourage students to fall in love with journalism and the changes that it can create for society.
"The message is focused on something very important that I have always believed and that saved my life, that I fell in love with journalism. Those dedicated to communication have to understand that they have to fall in love, they have to feel what they do, that when you sit to write a text, that when you sit down to write a story, that when you leave for the field to do an interview you have to get into the skin of who is in front of your recorder, your camera or notebook,” she said.
“And tell them [students] that journalism is always linked to social causes even if you don’t believe it. At school they teach that one must maintain impartiality and objectivity and forget it; journalism transforms communities, transforms societies, and it is good that journalists were aware of that. And I have found that. At some point in my life I decided to unite journalism with activism, with social causes, and have accomplished a lot and that's what I would like the young journalists to do."
The social causes that Bedoya Lima has covered as a journalist and those for which she also worked in an activist role have focused on the Colombian armed conflict and its crimes, such as violence against women.
Some causes have been deeply rooted because, as she has said, the horror of war was etched on her body. At the entrance to a prison in Bogota, where she had arrived in 2000 to interview a leader of the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) as part of her journalistic work, she was kidnapped, tortured and sexually assaulted by members of the AUC. She was later abandoned on a country road.
Since then, and without leaving her work as a journalist, she has fought for justice.
In these 16 years, her investigations and information from the prosecution have shown at least 27 people to be involved in the crime, as Bedoya Lima explained. Nevertheless, only three people have been taken to trial and have been accused of carrying out the crime, but she said that “they are not all the people that participated in the physical acts.”
"But the masterminds behind the kidnapping and all that happened remain in impunity,” she explained. "They have not been identified, have not been prosecuted, do not face legal processes in the Colombian courts and that is one of the strongest points of impunity in the case that undoubtedly affects me, my family and all my social circle a lot."
She said her own research has led her to see that state agents were involved in the crime. In view of the few responses received from the Government, she presented her case in 2011 before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) where the latest hearing was held in April.
With all recourse before the IACHR having been exhausted, the Commission is deciding whether the case should reach the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in order for the entity to determine sanctions, if appropriate, against the Colombian state.
There have been some victories in her case. For example, the attack was declared as a crime against humanity meaning it could avoid prescription (there is no time limit for the authorities to investigate the case). The Government also established May 25 as the National Day for the Dignity of Women Victims of Sexual Violence in commemoration of the crime against Bedoya Lima. And although she received compensation, she returned it because she did not believe "a check could buy the pain of a family."
She has seen it in her journalistic career and lived it in the flesh, which led her to create the campaign “It is not the time to shut up” in 2009 in order to ensure that women victims of violence report it.
Her activism on some issues is not contrary to her journalistic career, but she noted that limits must be set.
"There is a very thin line that can not be crossed and when you start to use journalism as a political action and talk about political parties. Journalism can not be mixed with economic interests, [or] political interests of parties or religious interests because then you will lose your north,” said Bedoya Lima. "But when the media is used to make something visible, to empower communities, I think it's completely valid and in my case, I think that journalism has helped me to make visible one of the most heinous crimes being committed in the world, and which, according to the United Nations, is the second pandemic facing humanity, which is violence against women."
"We must maintain distances, keep ethical margins, but certainly do not think that activism [or] social causes are incompatible with journalism. I think if journalists in Europe put on a sweatshirt for social causes just a little bit, they would be much more of a help to immigrants and all those displaced and all people that are leaving Syria as refugees, for example."
Peace and journalism in Colombia
As a victim of the armed conflict, the peace of Colombia has also been a priority for Bedoya. When the chapter for the victims was signed as part of peace treaty negotiations between the government and the FARC in December 2015, she acted as a spokeswoman for the victims by reading a statement on their behalf.
Additionally, on Sept. 26 she was present at the signing of the final peace agreement as one of the victims of the conflict. And although this Oct. 2, the plebiscite for Colombians to approve the measure did not pass, she said via Twitter that she would keep fighting.
She recognizes that journalists, as victims of the armed conflict, have been "very marginalized.” Although there is a special chapter in the Victims Unit dedicated to journalists, she believes "it is that which has advanced the least.”
"There has been a lot of support for individual cases, cases like that of Jaime Garzón, like mine, like that of Claudia Julieta Duque, but generally reporters are not openly regarded as victims of the conflict. On the contrary, a very large sector of civil society believes that journalists were perpetrators in the conflict, something that is very difficult to try to discuss, argue and defend because of the responsibility that the media have had in the midst of this confrontation.”
"I think journalism as a victim of this war has not been given a role and determined place because we certainly have had many dead, many threats, many kidnapped, many exiled and we are still missing the country and the State’s recognition for the damage caused to journalism amid this confrontation.”
The ceremony for the Fleischaker/Greene Award will take place at 6:30 p.m. CST and will be broadcast live in English through this link.
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.