Freedom of Expression

Press Release 49/01


During a visit to Colombia by the Rapporteur, he received information about the serious conditions in which many journalists covering the armed conflict were working. The Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States expressed his serious concern over the assassinations, acts of violence, and intimidation of which a large number of journalists are victims.

The Rapporteur visited Colombia for the purpose of assessing the situation of journalists, as part of a visit by the IACHR which took place December 7 to 13, 2001, at the invitation of President Andrés Pastrana Arango.

During his stay in Colombia, the Rapporteur completed an agenda of activities in the cities of Bogota and Medellín. The agenda included meetings with government organizations developing programs for the protection and defense of journalists, with directors and editors from the media, and with independent organizations and journalists in different regions of the country. The purpose was to assess the working conditions of journalists and the right to information in Colombia. The information gathered will be processed in due time and the Rapporteur will issue a detailed report on the results of the visit.

The Rapporteur recognizes the efforts made by the Colombian authorities to guarantee the right to freedom of expression by creating mechanisms to protect journalists, such as the Sub-Unit for Investigation of Assassinations of Journalists of the National Human Rights Unit under the Office of the National Attorney-General, and the Program for Protection of Journalists and Members of the Media in the Interior Ministry. These mechanisms have made it possible to protect the personal integrity of a large number of Colombian journalists.

The Rapporteur received information on the assassination of approximately ten journalists in 2001. According to information received, over 90% of the assassinations which have occurred in recent years continue to go unpunished. In some cases, no investigation has even been initiated to identify the actual perpetrators or the persons who planned the crimes. The high degree of existing impunity contributes significantly to the perpetuation of violence against journalists.

The Rapporteur conducted interviews in the cities of Bogota and Medellin with over 30 journalists working in the regions of the country most affected by the armed conflict. The journalists spoke of their concern over the assassinations, physical and psychological attacks, kidnappings, threats, and other acts of harassment of which they have been victims, and which are perpetrated both by armed groups of dissidents and by paramilitary groups. In this regard, they said that those involved in the armed conflict should refrain from identifying journalists as allies of their opponents. At the same time, the Rapporteur received information on a strategy developed by illegal armed groups designed to silence journalists, by means of assassination, intimidation, or forced displacement.

The Rapporteur condemns the acts of violence against journalists, in the light of principle 9 of the IACHR Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, which states: "The murder, kidnapping, intimidation of, and/or threats to social communicators, as well as the material destruction of communications media violate the fundamental rights of individuals and strongly restrict freedom of expression. It is the duty of the state to prevent and investigate such occurrences, to punish their perpetrators, and to ensure that victims receive due compensation."

In many regions of the country, there are checkpoints established by participants in the armed conflict which hamper circulation of journalists and members of the media and make them vulnerable to attacks and harassment. The Rapporteur learned of cases that illustrate the conditions in which some journalists are working, which are described below.

Journalists working in the Departments of Caquetá, Antioquia, Nariño, Bolívar, and Valle del Cauca are faced with constant harassment, which in some cases has forced them into exile. Some of the murders recorded in 2001 occurred in these places. According to information received, in some of these departments, television, radio, and the press have stopped reporting on the armed conflict out of fear stemming from threats. The violence against the work of journalists is not only a threat to the exercise of freedom of expression, but also a threat to their right to work.

In November 2001, four journalists from Pasto, Nariño, were threatened by paramilitaries and were forced to leave their cities. The Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, acting through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, requested that the Colombian government adopt precautionary measures for the protection of Cristina Castro, Alfonso Pardo, Oscar Torres and Germán Arcos. One of the journalists reported that the threats on his life were repeated following the protection granted by the authorities.

The Rapporteur also met with two journalists, Jineth Bedoya Lima and Hollman Morris Rincón, who spoke of the follow-up of the precautionary measures granted for their benefit in 2000. In the specific case of Jineth Bedoya Lima, the Rapporteur was told that there had been no progress in the investigation to identify the persons responsible for the kidnapping and violent attack he was a victim of in May 2000.

Without prejudice to the report which will be published shortly, and in a desire to cooperate to improve the situation of many journalists, the Rapporteur would make the following recommendations:

The Rapporteur requests the Colombian government to adopt immediately the measures required to ensure an impartial and a thorough investigation of the assassination and acts of violence committed against journalists, with a view to prosecuting and punishing the perpetrators.

Various journalists indicated that the Journalists Protection Program under the Ministry of the Interior needed to be extended to cover not only the media reporting on the armed conflict, but also the members of the media investigating other areas, such as administration of justice or corruption. The persons responsible for this Program told the Rapporteur that that they were ready to expand the Program as requested. On this point, it is recommended that the Colombian government increase the budget for governmental programs for the defense and protection of freedom of expression, and that it conduct information campaigns.

The Rapporteur urges all the participants in the armed conflict to allow journalists and the media to perform freely their valuable work of informing the public.

The Rapporteur would like to highlight the need to achieve greater cooperation among Colombian journalists. The experience of other countries has shown that a significant contribution has been made to improving security conditions for journalists by organizing journalists into civil society organizations formed to protect their personal integrity, and to ensure their freedom of expression, and the right of all people to information.

The Rapporteur would like to make a special request to the directors of the media, to support the peace and human rights units in Colombian newspapers and periodicals. The work of the journalists devoted to these areas serves as a example for a large part of the media in other countries of the hemisphere. The Rapporteur believes that it is essential to ensure that these journalists can continue informing the Colombian public on the development of the armed conflict and the human rights situation in Colombia.

The Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression would like to express his appreciation for the cooperation and facilities provided by the Colombian government and nongovernmental organizations and civil society institutions in preparing for and carrying out this visit. The Rapporteur also extends his thanks to representatives of civil society, the media, and especially to journalists for the important information they gave him during the visit.

Finally, the Rapporteur would like to express recognition for the extraordinary bravery, dignity, and professionalism of the many Colombian journalists who, in spite of the serious threats against their lives, have continued to perform their work of providing information for the benefit of the entire Colombian society and the international community.

Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, IACHR
December 13, 2001
Santafé de Bogotá, Colombia