Wave of threats to journalists in Colombia awakens memory of years of violence against the press

Colombian journalism has not forgotten its darkest time, when due to drug trafficking and armed conflict, the country became one of the deadliest to practice this profession. In the country, 155 journalists have been killed by causes related to their work since 1977, according to the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP).

And although the situation began to improve gradually – in 2016, FLIP did not record any murders of a journalist related to their work – the violence that has affected them in the past means threats to journalists will not go unnoticed.

For this reason, when at least seven journalists were threatened in less than a week, alarms rang in the country. The victims of these threats have recognized careers in the country, and in some cases they have been victims of other attacks in the past.

The first of the recent threats was announced on Saturday, July 14. Through a pamphlet allegedly signed by the Central Bloc of Las Águilas Negras – a paramilitary group – Jineth Bedoya, deputy editor of El Tiempo, and the journalistic team of La Silla Vacíawere threatened.

In the pamphlet, the group accused journalists of being "guerrillas" and declared them "military targets." The threat also included social leaders, human rights defenders and trade unionists, FLIP reported.

"This time we are not playing, we’ve made these warnings for several years and they were not heard by these guerrilla fighters disguised as supposed leaders and social leaders," the pamphlet said, according to FLIP.

On Sunday July 15 it was María Jimena Duzán, a columnist for Semana magazine, who reported through her Twitter account that she had received a death threat from another user of this social network. The writer shared a screenshot of the threat in which the user calls the Colombians to "be patriots" by attacking Duzán in the style of paramilitary groups: rape, "chop" with a chainsaw and hang Duzán in the main square of Bogotá. "Honor the name of paramilitaries," ends the tweet.

Both Bedoya and Duzán have been victims of the Colombian armed conflict. Bedoya was the victim of abduction, torture and sexual violence in 2000 when she was taken at the door of the Modelo prison in Bogotá where she had come to interview an paramilitary leader. So far only two people have been sentenced. Duzán's sister, Silvia Margarita, who was also a journalist, was killed by paramilitaries in 1999, and her body had to be recovered in the Colombian jungle, DW said.

At the beginning of this week, and in the midst of the rejection of these threats, three journalists of the radio station RCN also denounced being victims of this crime. They said that on Monday, July 16, a man who had identified himself as 'Nini' and a member of the ELN guerrilla group called the main line of the radio station and threatened journalists Jorge Espinosa, Juan Pablo Latorre and Yolanda Ruiz, the latter director of the morning newscast.

"Tell Espinosa that he has 72 hours to shut up and stop talking about the organizations. And also to Juan Pablo,” said the man while the journalists offered support to his threatened colleagues on air. The man added for them to be thankful he liked the woman on air, referring to Ruiz, according to FLIP.

"It may be an idle person who wants to bother, but in Colombia it is better to take any threat seriously because we unfortunately have a very long history of problems with the press," Ruiz told FM radio.

The ELN denied being responsible for the threats that journalists have received, and especially rejected the one made on behalf of its group, El Espectador reported.

Also on July 16, Fernando Londoño, former minister during a government of Álvaro Uribe and who is currently working as a journalist, received two threats through Twitter. Two different users intimidated Londoño when referring to the attack he suffered in 2012 in which two people were killed and he was injured. "A group that truthfully launches bombshells on this plague is needed," says part of one of the messages, according to FLIP.

On the morning of this Thursday, July 19, Luis Carlos Vélez, director of the newscast of LA FM, denounced through Twitter having received threats through this social network. The message he shared recommended "take care of your family."

In all cases, FLIP and other organizations have expressed their concern about these threats and have demanded that the Attorney General’s Office investigate. FLIP also demanded that the entity request help from experts in cybercrimes from other countries "taking into account the difficulty that the authorities have had in investigating these type of threats transmitted through the Internet."

The organization also asked the National Protection Unit (UNP) to take into account the new threats when analyzing the risk of these journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also urged authorities to "take these threats to journalists seriously" and investigate them.

In an interview with W Radio, the director of the UNP, Diego Mora, said that the government "is worried" about these threats. "The government rejects these types of threats, freedom of the press is a supreme good that we must take care of. From the UNP we are reviewing each and every one of the cases. We are taking protective measures in each, I know that there is controversy about the types of measures," the official told the station.

President Juan Manuel Santos and President-elect Iván Duque also rejected these attacks on journalism.

Increase in threats is not new

The increase in threats to journalists in Colombia had already been announced by FLIP before the recent cases that caused a stir in the country. On July 11, the organization published a statement in which it expressed its concern about the increase in threats against journalists who also engaged in “social activism.”

According to FLIP, from the beginning of the year to July, it had documented 89 cases (not including the most recent), compared with 65 cases registered in 2017 for this same period. The organization noted that they have seen an increasing trend. In 215 they documented 59 cases, in 2016 there were 90 and in 2017 there were 129.

For FLIP, one of the most worrisome aspects was the lack of response from the UNP.

"On many occasions the entity (UNP) has not been diligent enough to address the risk to which reporters are exposed," FLIP said. "Parallel to the increase in threats, FLIP has worriedly noticed the dismantling of protection schemes for journalists who are threatened and the processing of cases in the UNP are not being done according to the level of urgency of the situation."

"Faced with the critical situation facing the country for the murder of human rights defenders and threats against journalists, FLIP expresses its concern about the lack of effective actions from the UNP to guarantee the protection of those at risk. The Foundation asks the national government to redouble its efforts in order to provide effective measures to safeguard the life and integrity of those who practice journalism," it said at the time.

In its annual reports of recent years, FLIP has indicated how threats to journalists have not ceased and how other forms of censorship have taken hold in the country. Not even the peace process signed with the FARC guerrillas has managed to improve this outlook.

Christian Mihr, director of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), spoke with DW along these same lines."These threats only show that the implementation of the Peace Agreement is extremely fragile," adding that although "the latest journalists threatened are prominent national figures, the harassment of press freedom has not stopped."

This was demonstrated last April when the murders of three members of El Comercio newspaper in Ecuador, allegedly by a group of FARC dissidents, was confirmed. The press workers were abducted on March 26 at the border between the two countries.

Colombia ranks 130 out of 180 countries in the most recent RSF World Press Freedom Index.