‘This is a forced resignation in the face of a very serious situation’: Colombian journalist Claudia Duque after returning her protection scheme

A little over a month after having returned the protection mechanism granted to her by the National Protection Unit (UNP, by its Spanish acronym) of Colombia after denouncing certain irregularities, journalist Claudia Julieta Duque has already suffered "two sensitive security incidents.”

This situation is cause for even more concern after the fact that on March 7 a judge denied her a guardianship (a legal mechanism in Colombia that seeks to protect fundamental rights) against the UNP for violation of the rights to privacy, habeas data, journalistic freedom, and personal security.

Claudia Julieta Duque (Twitter)

Claudia Julieta Duque. (Twitter).

In the guardianship, among other things, Duque was requesting the UNP be ordered to reestablish the protection mechanism without the GPS installed in the vehicle that was part of it. In her considerations, the judge pointed out that it falls outside her jurisdiction to decide which protection mechanisms are appropriate – referring to the Committee in charge of evaluating the security situation of persons under threat – and emphasized that the UNP has been in a position to offer protection to Duque, according to the ruling to which LatAm Journalism Review (LJR) had access.

According to Duque, the arguments presented by the judge show that she is unaware of her particular security situation. For example, as a result of the consultation carried out between the State and the journalist in the context of the precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), Duque’s security should be evaluated by the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights and not by the UPN.

“The UNP and the judge discharged the responsibility of protection on me. 'It's her fault she handed over the mechanism. So, the measures are being followed.’ It's ridiculous. This is very serious,” Duque said in an interview with LJR. “This is carte blanche for anything to happen to me and the UNP washes its hands by saying ‘look at her, she resigned.’ And this is not a voluntary resignation, this is a forced resignation in the face of a very serious situation.”

Duque's resignation from her security mechanism — which took place on Feb. 8 — happened after she and the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) denounced a massive collection of sensitive data about the journalist that not only put her at risk, but also her relatives and her journalistic sources, according to the complaint at the time.

In October 2021, FLIP warned that the UNP had collected more than 25,000 records about Duque between February and August 2021, through the GPS installed in the vehicle that was part of the protection mechanism.

According to a public letter sent at the time by FLIP’s executive director to the UNP’s director, "monitoring is permanent and detailed, and is sometimes carried out at intervals of 30 seconds." The records include date, time, exact location address, direction in which the vehicle was traveling and a location link on Google Maps, among other data.

Also in October, Duke sent a right of petition to the UNP requesting all data collected, to remove the GPS from the vehicle, as well as to hold a meeting to agree on the IACHR’s precautionary measures.

In response, the UNP stated that the requested information was of a “confidential nature” and added that it is of a “general and statistical nature, and does not endanger private information of protected persons,” according to a FLIP statement.

Later, on Dec. 9, 2021, a meeting was held at the Foreign Ministry where the use of GPS in vehicles was discussed and where Duque again requested for the device to be removed from her vehicle. At that time, there was no final answer. On Dec. 13, another request was made to remove the GPS, and the UNP later denied it, arguing that it was "the only tool the UNP had available to control protection activity in an appropriate and effective manner," according to FLIP.

Duque told LJR that she proposed changing the GPS for a digital tachograph, taking into account that according to the UNP the GPS was used to control speed, as well as the status of the vehicle. UNP did not accept this either.

The journalist also said that during this process the UNP has lied and has not complied with the IACHR precautionary measures. For example, she said that among the people who have had access to the data collected by the UNP is at least one member of the former Security Administrative Department (DAS).

The DAS, which was the former state intelligence agency, was eliminated in 2011 after scandals of monitoring and illegal persecution of journalists, politicians and even magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice, among other people. In the case of Claudia Julieta Duque, former DAS officials were charged with the crime of aggravated psychological torture in 2013. The crime against Duque was classified as a crime against humanity by the Colombian Attorney General's Office in 2017.

"Seeing that guy's name, exchanging information about me there, seemed super serious to me. It felt like I was being revictimized, like a total mockery of everything that had happened," Duque said. “So, in the face of all that, I felt I had no other option. That is why I was forced to hand over the car, because I felt that what happened in these last few months was a mockery on the part of the State, a tenacious mockery.”

The journalist added that during this process other devices were also discovered inside the vehicle, as well as that a remote shutdown function was activated, remote deactivation of the vehicle's door locks and blocking of all signal transmission devices (such as the cell phone). “With which you could remotely stop the car, unlock it, prevent the protected person from sending an alert about what happened, and carry out attacks or assassinations,” she said.

FLIP, an organization that has supported the journalist during this process, expressed concern for Duque's safety, especially now that "comprehensive protection measures by the State" have not been adopted.

“For this reason, we are asking the IACHR to carry out a special follow-up of the precautionary measures granted in favor of the journalist, for the court to evaluate the risks of the use of technology in the protection mechanism, and to insist to the State that these measures be arranged for the beneficiary and be tailored to her risk situation.”

Duque said she has the assistance of the Peace Brigades, an NGO that usually protects people under threat in the country as human rights defenders. However, together with other organizations that have shown their support, they are looking at what other protection options they might have available.

For Duque, her case highlights a more global issue of the mechanism that should come under review. "Here we are, facing a situation with very serious irregularities in the so-called protection mechanism," Duque said.

LJR asked the director of the UNP, Alfonso Campo, for comments on this matter, but as of the closing of this article, no response was given.