Progress for freedom of the press in Colombia after conviction for illegal wiretapping of journalists and opposition members

By Carolina Peredo

The conviction that the Supreme Court of Colombia issued against the former director of the defunct Administrative Department of Security (DAS, by its Spanish acronym), María del Pilar Hurtado, and former Secretary General of the Presidency in the administration of Álvaro Uribe, Bernardo Moreno Villegas, implies a breakthrough in the investigation of cases related to violations of freedom of the press in the country, according to some organizations.

In its February 27 decision,  the Supreme Court found them guilty  of giving instructions in 2007 to illegally intercept phone calls from journalists, judges and opponents of the government of former president, Álvaro  Uribe (2002-2010), according to the newspaper El Espectador.

According to the newspaper, Hurtado was convicted on charges of conspiracy, embezzlement by appropriation, unlawful violation of communications, falsification of public documents and abuse of public office. The former official will remain in custody until sentencing.

For his part, Moreno was convicted of conspiracy, unlawful violation of communications and abuse of public office. Moreno, who had been removed from his position and banned from holding public office for 18 years, has been released until sentencing.

The Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP, by its Spanish acronym), a nongovernmental organization that monitors violations of press freedom in Colombia, highlighted the case as “a step in the clarification of these facts that constituted serious violations of press freedom in the country.” However, it noted that as recalled by other media “although the Prosecutor has identified 68 possible suspects, less than 20 of these are in jail.” The FLIP called for the court decision to be “a component for the effective punishment of all those involved”.

The FLIP  reported that between 2003 and 2009, at least “16 cases of stalking, framing, interceptions and threats to journalists” occurred. Among the  journalists  who were victims of these attacks were Hollman  Morris,  Daniel  Coronell, Carlos Lozano,  Gonzalo  Guillén , Alfredo Molano, and Claudia  Julieta  Duque.

The journalist, Daniel  Coronell,  was  one of the targets of the espionage and smear campaign initiated by the Uribe administration and his intelligence agency in 2007 “for the inconvenience generated by his columns and articles in the magazine Semana to the President of the Republic." El Espectador reported that searches for private information about Coronell and his family were subsequently ordered.

Coronell, current Executive Vice President and Executive Director of News at Univision, former director of Noticias Uno and columnist for the magazine Semana in Colombia, linked government officials to corruption cases. He reported, among other things, the vote buying that allowed the re-election of Álvaro Uribe and the business affairs of the sons of the former president.

Coronnell’s case became known when the “chuzadas – phone tapping – of the DAS” (as it was known in Colombia) scandal came to light in 2009. The DAS was the intelligence agency of the country that depended directly on the Presidency. It was dissolved in 2011. Journalistic investigations indicated that during the Uribe administration, mail and phone lines were intercepted with the objective, according to former officials of the agency, to establish the sources of information from journalists.

Seven years later the Justice determined that in fact the former director of DAS gave precise instructions to her subordinates to get this information illegally. Hurtado was presented for the first time before the Court  in the trial for espionage when she surrendered to Colombian authorities on January 29 after being a fugitive in Panama for nearly four years.

Another victim of espionage, persecution and silencing was the journalist Claudia Julieta Duque who became the target of intelligence officials for her investigation on the killing of Colombian journalist Jaime Garzón in 1999. Last year, the former DAS intelligence director accepted responsibility in what was characterized as “aggravated psychological torture” committed against the journalist.

At least 20 persons have been convicted in the past five years for the scandal of illegal wiretapping and monitoring, but the case against former President and current Senator and leader of the Democratic Centre, Álvaro Uribe - who has been identified by victims as the supposed great architect of the “chuzadas” – has not advanced.

Following the judgment of the Supreme Court, the Democratic Pole senator Iván Cepeda said “it is time to discuss the direct responsibility of Álvaro Uribe. [...] The question one asks is how was this whole criminal environment operating in the Presidency of the Republic without knowledge of the President,”according to the newspaper El Heraldo. Uribe only emitted a statement through Twitter saying that he was “grieved” by the recent convictions.

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.