Threats to Colombian journalists continue amid peace talks

Advocates are reporting that criminal gangs and paramilitary groups in Colombia, one of the most dangerous Latin American countries for journalists, have been issuing death threats for journalists and human rights defenders for the past two months. Media and government representatives have called for investigation to find the sources behind these threats.

The Colombian Minister of the Interior, Juan Fernando Cristo, recently announced that threatened journalists and human rights defenders will be provided protection and emphasized the importance of finding out who is behind the threats.

“It is not acceptable that every day in Colombia pamphlets are appearing against various leaders of public life and we need to find those responsible for these actions,” Cristo said.

The new string of threats started last December and continued into the new year, said Fabiola León, Colombian representative of Reporters Without Borders (RWB).

After an interview with Leon, TeleSUR reported that “over the course of around 20 days,  5 written threats have been delivered targeting 150 people, who include not only journalists but also social activists and land restitution leaders.”

In early December 2014, RWB published that paramilitary group Bloque Capital – Águilas Negras made threats against a news analysis website, TV stations and a journalist.

The organization said it “condemns the fact that Colombia’s criminal paramilitary groups are still able to sow terror with complete impunity. Their continuing existence – a result of the failure of the demobilization process – is a bane on Colombian society.”

Threatened journalists met in Bogotá on December 11 to discuss the threats. RWB reported that the paramilitary group had given news outlets until January 1 to leave their cities and that they described the journalists as “terrorists directed by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (National Liberation Army).” The organization criticized the Colombian government for not yet having addressed the situation.

When the Minister of the Interior spoke about the threats, he said they were meant to affect the peace process.

The Colombian government and FARC started peace talks in October 2012 to end one of the longest internal conflicts in Latin America. For the greater part of the last century, Colombia has been home to fighting between state security forces, leftist guerrillas, drug cartels, criminal gangs and paramilitaries.

The government and FARC agreed on three points, but are still negotiation on victim’s rights, disarmament of FARC members and implementation of the peace talk plan. Fighting has continued during the talks and critics have questioned certain agreements and the effectiveness of the process.

The government and one of the largest paramilitary organizations, Autodofensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), signed a peace deal in 2003, and since then, thousands have demobilized. However, many say that some groups continue to operate.

This isn’t the first time that armed groups have distributed death threats to journalists via pamphlets. In May 2013, Colombia journalists faced a wave of threats and attacks that advocates said were in response to denouncement of corruption and the peace negotiations.

On Jan. 22, 2015, the Defensoría del Pueblo, a national institution that monitors human rights in Colombia, denounced recent death threats that had been released on pamphlets with the name of criminal group Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Atlántico y Magdalena and called for an investigation to determine authorship of the pamphlets. The organization also called on the National Unit of Protection to revise security methods for protecting those threatened.

2013 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists explained that criminal gangs known as bandas criminales or bacrim were created by former paramilitaries. These gangs traffic drugs and extort businesses.

“The bacrim often work in cahoots with local politicians, and when journalists dig into issues like government corruption, they sometimes receive threats from the bacrim,” according to the report.

Pedro Vaca with the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) in Colombia said to the Knight Center that during 2014, the organization recorded 131 attacks on the press. Agents of the security forces committed 24 percent of the attacks and bacrim committed 33 percent. There was an increase between 2013 and 2014 in the percentage of attacks carried out by bacrim.

Vaca said that the protection program in place for journalists provides them with bulletproof vests, helps with transportation and gives subsidies for temporary relocation. In high-risk situations, journalists are provided with protective escorts and vehicles.

Vaca said the main problem is that protection schemes can only contain risks, not eliminate them.

“For this reason, it is required that they advance the investigations into the origin of the threats and unfortunately this does not happen,” Vaca said. “The ability to protect has declined significantly in recent months due to lack of economic resources to withstand the high number of protected persons, this creates the paradox that several journalists have protection schemes that do not work properly.”

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.