Committee to Protect Journalists
Country Report: Colombia
As of December 31, 1998

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Four journalists were murdered in Colombia during the year in reprisal for their work -- more than in any other country -- earning it the dubious distinction of being the world's most lethal place for the press. The four assassinated journalists were: Oscar García Calderón, a reporter for the Bogotá daily El Espectador; Nelson Carvajal Carvajal, a producer for Radio Sur; Bernabé Cortés Valderrama, a reporter for the nightly news- program "Noticias CVN"; and Amparo Leonor Jiménez Pallares, a former television news reporter. CPJ continues to investigate the deaths of five other journalists killed during 1998 to determine the motive.

Escalating civil war and pervasive criminal violence create a deadly climate for the press. All parties in Colombia's brutal conflict, from paramilitary death squads to guerrillas and local politicians, target journalists. But the leading threat continues to be violence associated with the drug trade. While the two powerful cartels that dominated drug trafficking in the 1980s have been largely dismantled, the smaller and more decentralized drug trafficking organizations that have emerged recently have also been linked to many attacks against the press. Profits from the drug trade also subsidize the political violence. Right-wing paramilitary groups with ties to the military and the large land owners now control and are financed by coca production and processing throughout the country. In August, members of a paramilitary unit murdered Amparo Leonor Jiménez Pallares in retaliation for a report she produced in 1996 on an enormous estate in Cesar Department owned by a former government official.

While the two country's leftist guerrilla groups say that their involvement in the drug trade is limited to protecting small coca farmers, the circumstances surrounding the murder of Bernabé Cortés Valderrama suggest a more direct role. In May, local drug traffickers in Cali, angered over a television report in which Cortés showed that guerrillas were protecting a large cocaine laboratory, ordered his murder, according to the preliminary findings of the attorney general's office.

Guerrillas often kidnap journalists and release them only after they agree to disseminate the rebels' propaganda. In April, a group of reporters was detained and held for three days by left-wing guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (ELN). Three journalists who went out to look for their colleagues were detained two days later by members of a paramilitary group.

The history of violence against the Colombian press -- second only to Algeria in the number of journalists killed in the last decade -- is a sad testament to the integrity of journalism in a country where other institutions have been badly compromised by corruption. Against daunting odds, Colombia's press remains vital and aggressive, but recent developments have raised concerns about what one journalist described as a "crack" in the press's reputation. Several sports reporters have been accused of accepting money from the Cali drug cartel, and two journalists were charged with "illicit enrichment" in October (one was later acquitted).

Local journalists also allege that then-President Ernesto Samper, angered over aggressive reporting on contributions made by members of the Cali cartel to his presidential campaign in 1994, continued to use the power of his office to undermine the independent press. Under Samper -- who was replaced by newly elected President Andrés Pastrana in August -- the government denied broadcast licenses to critical television news programs while distributing concessions for radio frequencies to the president's friends and supporters. The concentration of media ownership also accelerated under Samper. Some journalists fear that the press's independence will be compromised by the commercial and political interests of the new owners. Several editorial staffers, including columnist and investigative reporter Fabio Castillo, were forced to leave the Bogotá daily El Espectador in March after it was purchased by a financial group with close ties to Samper's Liberal Party in December 1997.

Pastrana, a former television reporter, has promised to "recover the press freedom" lost under Samper. Prior to the peace talks which Pastrana initiated with members of Colombia's largest guerrilla force in January 1999, journalists played an active role in the peace process by reporting extensively on the different factions, including the paramilitary units, and by offering analysis and context. Journalists can also find some solace in the fact that what could have been the year's most deadly attack was aborted when policed deactivated a powerful bomb placed in front of the Medellín offices of the Bogotá daily El Tiempo.
Attacks on the Press in Colombia in 1998
Date Journalist Incident
10/14/98 Saúl Alcaraz Killed
08/11/98 Amparo Leonor Jiménez Pallares Killed
08/06/98 Radio Caracol Legal Action
05/19/98 Bernabé Cortés Valderrama, Noticias CVN Killed
04/16/98 Nelson Carvajal Carvajal, Radio Sur Killed
03/14/98 José Abel Salazar Serna, Radiojournalist Killed
02/22/98 Oscar García Calderón, El Espectador Killed

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