Freedom of Expression

Orlando Sierra

“An attempt to silence the media is doubly a terrorist act because it instills silence through fear.We are already facing a war of weapons, why do we also have to put up with a battle of silence?” 

Orlando Sierra, hours before he was murdered.

Orlando Sierra

On January 30, 2002, journalist Orlando Sierra Hernández was shot in front of his newspaper’s office building and died two days later.  Orlando Sierra was the assistant director of daily newspaper La Patria, in Manizales, Colombia, and one of the most influential journalists in the region.  He wrote a column called Punto de encuentro (Focal Point) in which he critically analyzed issues of national and regional interest, especially cases of corruption involving local politicians. In his columns, Orlando Sierra also criticized human rights violations committed by the guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and State security forces. Despite the threats he received as a consequence of his work, Sierra never stop writing, nor did he lower the volume of his allegations.

The proceeding to identify and try the perpetrators of the murder of Orlando Sierra is ongoing. A few months after the crime, the perpetrator was convicted and spent five years in prison. Two accomplices were also convicted. During the course of the investigation, several possible witnesses have been murdered. In 2006, the attorney general of Columbia at that time reported that Orlando Sierra had been murdered because of allegations of corruption he had made against important public officials, along with other allegations of the presence of paramilitary groups. In 2011, two politicians from the Caldas department were ordered placed in preventative detention as the alleged masterminds of the homicide. In September of 2012, the trial against one of them began, someone who Sierra had harshly criticized in his columns. Three alleged members of his security team were placed on trial with him.

"I chose to be a journalist. But in this job, beyond whether you do it well or poorly, the one single requirement for doing it is commitment. That commitment is what I’ve had to face up to and it's why I have received so many threats.

The investigation into the murder of Orlando Sierra would not have been possible without the efforts of his colleagues in the press. After the murder took place, seven of the country’s leading newspapers and magazines (La Patria, El Colombiano, El Tiempo, El Espectador, Cambio and Semana) worked together to investigate the death of the journalist, an investigation that was published simultaneously by seven media outlets and that helped to reveal the political motive behind the crime. This joint effort, known as Proyecto Manizales(the Manizales Project), later served as a platform allowing the media to work together to pursue some of investigations Colombian journalists had been working on at the time they were attacked. Thus for example, the Manizales Project was reactivated to follow up on investigations that were being carried out by journalist Guillermo Bravo when he was murdered in 2003, as well as the investigations that led to death threats against Germán Hernández - the investigative editor of El Diario, in Huila - in 2007.

Orlando Sierra was born in Santa Rosa de Cabal, Colombia, in 1959. He studied humanities at the Universidad de Calderas and journalism at the Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano. He was a professor at the Universidad de Calderas and also director of the cultural center at the same university. His wish was to be a writer. His link to the Manizales, Colombia, newspaper La Patria goes back to 1985. He began by contributing a column on culture and was later promoted to different positions. In 1990, he became the editor-in-chief, a position he held when he began to write the column Punto de Encuentro. The column became required reading.  When he was murdered, he was working as assistant director of the newspaper. He was also a poet and writer. He wrote three books of poetry and the novel La estación de los sueños , which was published in France  five years after his murder W2007).

As a tribute to the exemplary courage of Orlando Sierra and the journalists who have been murdered or who have risked their lives and their freedom to defend society’s right to be fully informed, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has established the Orlando Sierra fellowship 2012-2013