Paramilitary groups in Colombia target journalists with hit lists

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  • October 8, 2014

By Jonathon David Orta

Los Urabeños and Los Rastrojos, paramilitary groups in Colombia, have published hits lists threatening a combined ten journalists with consequences if they don’t immediately abandon their posts and leave the towns where they work.

According to La Vanguardia, an estimated 160 journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, and union leaders were directly targeted by paramilitary groups in the month of September, renewing concerns about the freedom of the press in Colombia.

Reporters Without Borders have denounced these threats, urging authorities “to provide protection to the journalists threatened [and to] take this kind of intimidation seriously and confront the increase in threats against journalists in Colombia,” according to their deputy program director Virginie Dangles.

Eight journalists working in the Valle del Cauca region received a warning on Sept. 28 (seen right), when paramilitary group Los Urabeños promised that “those who break the direct order imposed by Los Urabeños will be taken down and shot up.”

Continuing, the letter explains that it is directed towards “journalists working in Cali and Buenaventura that have spoken badly about us. We see how you try to camouflage yourselves; we know everything. This is why we are giving you 24 hours to leave Buenaventura, and the same for Cali. If you don’t, you will have to pay the consequences for your actions.”

In Valle del Cuaca, the group listed Henry Ramírez, of Noticias Uno, Cristian Mauricio Abadía of Red + Noticias, Gildardo Arango director of Noticiero Más Pacifico, Yesid Toro or El Pais, Julio César Bonilla of Voces del Pacífico, Óscar Gutiérrez or Radio Buenaventura, Álvaro Miguel Mina of Radio Q’hubo y Darío Gómez of Radio Caracol.

Los Urabeños, a paramilitary group operating in Valle del Cuaca, accused journalists of providing false and harmful information about Fanny Grueso “La Chili” Bonilla, who has been described as a leader of the Los Urabeños, or Clan Úsuga, and has been accused of overseeing torture operations and holding enemies of the group on Bonilla’s property in Buenaventura.

The Colombian Foundation for a Free Press (FLIP) also denounced the threats, stating, “These acts emphasize the critical situation that journalists live in in the Valle de Cauca department, specifically in Buenaventura. This year, FLIP has registered 10 aggressions against journalists in this city, including the assassination of Yonny Steven Caicedo, who had been working as a cameraman in the months before his death.”

By contrast, Los Rastrojos paramilitary group named 24 people on a separate hit list only two days earlier, on Sept. 24. Among those listed were political leaders, activists, and according to Reporters Without Borders, two journalists, Leiderman Ortiz Berrio, the editor of the weekly newspaper La Verdad del Pueblo, and Edgar Astudillo, who hosts a program on Radio Panzenú. The warning, printed on a pamphlet, circulated through the city of Montería, the capital of the department of Córdoba.

“If you continue with your political, pro-union, pacifist, leftist proselytizing against our organization,” the letter states, “you will pay the price. Our patience has its limits."

In response to this, Camille Soulier, head of Reporters Without Borders Americas desk, told The Guardian that “The government must go beyond providing protection and take systematic action against impunity in order to guarantee the safety of journalists."

Despite the sharp increase in threats directed towards members of the media in September, it is not the first time that paramilitary groups have targeted journalists in Colombia. On Aug. 14, Juan Pablo Gutiérrez, a French-Colombian photojournalist, was threatened by the Aguilas Negras group, which is linked to Los Rastrojos. Gutiérrez is under threat for his work with the Nukak indigenous group and the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia where he created documentation projects and photo campaigns, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Paramilitary groups were also purportedly behind a raid on the home of Javier Osuna, a Bogota-based journalist. On Aug. 22, according to a report published by Reporters Without Borders, Osuna’s home was set on fire and the journalist lost personal computers and other files containing 18 months of research into paramilitary groups' operations in the Norte de Santander region along the Venezuelan border.

In an open letter, Javier Osuna responded:

“I urge society as a whole to assign more importance to journalism because, like me, hundreds of provincial journalists expose themselves to violence and risk their lives to practice it. I will not stop doing this job. I will resist like the thousands of people who are subjected every day to the scourge of violence in our country. I am very proud of the path I have created with my own hands, together with the courage of the hundreds of victims who continue to fight for their rights”.

Nationally, groups and individuals have demanded an end to these types of threats and for the government to take appropriate action. The Colombian Foundation for a Free Press has stated that its “solidarity with all journalists is threatened and we ask the National Protection Unit (UNP) to guarantee the proper protective measures”.

The Colombian Ombudsman, Jorge Otálora, has asked “authorities to take urgent steps to protect these journalists” referring to threats issued by both groups. Otálora stressed that between January and August of this year, the department has registered an estimated 93 threats against journalists, which amounts to 51 more threats than the total registered in 2013, according to El Nacional.

Among reasons for the increase in threats to journalists, Otálora cited President Uribe’s 2006 paramilitary demobilization campaign. In an article in El Nacional, he criticized the government’s current policy, saying the 30 day review period - in which authorities decide whether or not to take protective measures - is too long and that current “mobile services or police patrols” do not guarantee protection.

In the context of a struggling peace settlement between the Colombian government and the FARC, increasing paramilitary strength, and a new election season, the need for a free and independent press remains an important concern in Colombia.

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.