New reports of illegal espionage of journalists in Colombia reignite fears

Illegal espionage of journalists and other public personalities, including magistrates and politicians, seems to have another chapter in Colombia after a scandal over this same issue almost a decade ago ended in the abolition of the country's intelligence department.

The new complaint was published by Semana magazine, which in its investigation found that the departure of the commander of the Colombian Army on Dec. 27, 2019 was related to allegations of illegal espionage.

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According to the investigation, some Army intelligence groups used “mobile units” and “state-of-the-art equipment to find out what some journalists, politicians, magistrates, and even colonels, generals and commanders of other forces are doing.”

Some of the victims of this espionage allegedly were journalists of Semana magazine itself and their sources apparently in retaliation for their previous investigations that reported alleged irregularities in the armed forces.

According to the investigation, during 2019, the Army illegally monitored Semana with different means such as parking a vehicle near the office with equipment capable of intercepting phone calls and text messages. Agents also allegedly followed some journalists including the magazine's director, Alejandro Santos.

One of Semana’s sources told it that the Army offered him more than US $15,000 to introduce malware into teams of journalists of Semana, according to the magazine. Also as part of a campaign of intimidation, a tombstone was sent to a journalist in the newsroom.

According to one of the military members who served as a source to Semana, the 'chuzadas' – as these illegal interceptions are known in Colombia – were allegedly made from two military garrisons to “protect them and avoid a surprise search by the justice or the snooping of the media,” according to Semana.

The novelty of using military garrisons allegedly was a lesson learned after the so-called Andromedia Operation, exposed in 2014 and through which the communications of the peace process negotiators with the FARC guerrillas were intercepted, according to the same source. On that occasion the agents used a restaurant as a facade, a headquarters that was later raided by the Prosecutor's Office.

In response to the allegations, the Ministry of Defense issued a statement announcing the immediate commencement, by instruction of the president of the country Iván Duque, of an internal investigation and called on the other corresponding authorities to also initiate investigations into the case.

“This department reiterates the commitment of President Iván Duque and the National Government of zero tolerance with any action by members of the Public Forces that is contrary to the Constitution, the Law, human rights and International Humanitarian Law,” the statement said. “If the participation of members of the Public Forces is proven in events that are not in accordance with the Law, those responsible must respond individually to Colombian justice.”

Different national and international freedom of expression organizations voiced their rejection of the alleged espionage cases and asked for guarantees to carry out journalistic work in the country.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged authorities to conduct a transparent and thorough investigation.

“As if journalists in Colombia did not already face enough danger from other armed actors, it is clear that the military poses a serious threat to reporters and their sources,” CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwic, according to a press release. “Colombian authorities must thoroughly investigate the army’s alleged illegal spying operation and ensure that its architects face justice.”

Through his Twitter account, Edison Lanza, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), also asked for an investigation into the complaint.

There are state agents that do not assume that espionage and illegal digital surveillance violate fundamental freedoms. My solidarity with journalists and media of #Colombia that allegedly were spied on by the military sector. It is essential to investigate and punish,” Lanza wrote.

Although the authorities have repeatedly denied surveillance actions against journalists, reality has shown, with sufficient evidence, that this form of aggression is constant,” Colombia’s Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) wrote in a statement.

“These actions, in violation of the Constitution and the criminal law, endanger and affect the rights of journalists and jeopardize the free exercise of journalism,” FLIP added.

The organization said that in the last two years "the situation of risk against journalists has increased exponentially." "In this context of escalation of threats it is especially dramatic that the Army would again be the institution that is involved in intimidation, threats and interceptions of journalists," the organization said.

Almost a decade ago, Semana magazine unveiled one of the biggest scandals of illegal espionage in the country in which the country's intelligence agency was involved.

At that time, the magazine reported that the Department of Administrative Security (DAS), as it was known, was spying on journalists, politicians, human rights defenders and magistrates, among others. The DAS was abolished as a result of the scandal and some of its executives and officials are facing justice.