Overwhelming increase in threats against journalists in Colombia

Guest article by FLIP (Foundation for Press Freedom – Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa). MLDI has been working with FLIP since 2014 to provide legal defence to journalists, bloggers and independent media in Colombia. 

Colombia once had the highest number of journalists killed annually of any country. While that level of violence has, thankfully, lessened, Colombian media still face huge risks, violence, and threats of violence. Despite a governmental protection system and the peace agreement with FARC[1], there is still a large element of violence and threats against journalists are increasing at an alarming rate. In 2017 there were 129 cases of threats against journalists reported by Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) across the whole year. By September 2018 there had already been 152 threats reported already – exceeding the previous year’s total.

These numbers are part of a wider increase in violence across Colombia. Though the 2016 peace agreement with FARC reduced the overall number of violent crimes and deaths in Colombia, the murder rate of social leaders and human rights defenders has reached 123 cases in 2018 at the time of writing. In some areas dissident former members of FARC have taken command of local crime networks, with increased risk of violence. For example, in April 2018, a group of three media workers from Ecuadorian journal El Comercio were kidnapped and murdered by a group alleged to be made of former members of FARC in the border between Colombia and Ecuador.

Most of the cases of attacks on press have been against journalists covering topics such as corruption in local government administration or illegal groups such as former paramilitary groups returning to violence. While the majority of threats come via emails or WhatsApp messages, there has also been an increase in threats coming through social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter.

On 2 August 2018, Colombian authorities issued a joint statement, with FLIP and the Colombian Association of Media (AMI), about the increase in threats to journalists. They rejected the increase in violence and threats against journalists, and pledged to promote a free press. On 23 August the Colombian government, the Inspector General,[2] the General Prosecutor and the Ombudsman all signed an agreement to protect the lives of human rights defenders and social leaders. Among the points of this agreement was the creation of public policies and reform of the National Protection Unit (NPU) – an entity dedicated to ensuring the safety of journalists, victims of the armed conflict, political leaders and union leaders, among others.

FLIP has constantly called for reform and improvements to the systems which are supposed to protect the Colombian media. The NPU’s approach to cases in rural areas is still slow and often detached from local realities. Furthermore, the protection offered is only reactive to risk, and so doesn’t provide crucial preventive measures. Moreover, FLIP has also emphasised that the current arrangement of the protection system lacks a judicial approach. While the General Prosecutor’s office has a seat in the different discussions about protection, its function is merely advisory. FLIP argues that there needs to be a stronger link between the risks which Colombian media face and the implementation of protective measures – and that these need to be backed up with action by the judiciary.

As FLIP has noted, the number of penalties for threatening journalists are few– especially when compared with the annual numbers of cases. On top of this, there is a deeply concerning impunity around the killings of journalists, and due to the statute of limitations, 79.2% of cases where a journalists has been murdered cannot now be prosecuted. Furthermore, there is only one case where the Colombian justice system sanctioned the prosecution of all the members of a criminal enterprise for plotting and carrying out a plan to murder a journalist.

The judiciary has taken some relevant steps to combat the threats to the media, but they are still far from meeting the ever-increasing demand. The General Prosecutor has announced the identification of some perpetrators of online threats, but this only reflects a limited percentage of the cases. In February 2018 a criminal court handed down a 58 year prison sentence to the gunman who killed journalist Luis Peralta and his wife in February 2015, and in August 2018 the Colombian administrative justice condemned the Colombian Government for not bringing proper protection to journalist Edison Molina who was killed in September 2013. However, in both cases, the people who ordered the killings have still not been identified or prosecuted.

Furthermore, there are local authorities with roles and functions in fighting violence against journalists. For example local majors are in charge of implementing safety measures and law enforcement in their jurisdictions. Taking this into account, local majors should publish statements rejecting the attacks against the Colombian media.

Colombia’s protection of journalists has been deficient, and evidence of this is reinforced by the Inter American Court of Human Rights’ condemnation of the state for not giving adequate protection to local radio reporter Nelson Carvajal, who was murdered in 1998. In the 20 years since his death no charges have been made in relation to his killing, but his family have been forced to leave the country due to death threats.

While some steps have been taken to improve on these shockingly low standards, the path to safety and media freedom in Colombia is still long and uphill.

[1] FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) is a Marxist guerrilla army. It was involved in the Colombian armed conflict from 1964 to 2017. In November 2016 FARC signed a peace deal with the Colombian government and on 27 June 2017 FARC ceased to be an armed group, handing its weapons over to the United Nations.

[2] The Inspector General is a constitutional body in Colombia with responsibilities including overseeing public servants and protecting human rights.

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