Freedom of the Press

Colombia

Colombia

Freedom of the Press 2006

2006 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

61

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

32

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

16

Freedom of the press is guaranteed by the 1991 constitution, but journalists have trouble exercising their rights in a country racked by a complex armed conflict involving left-wing guerrilla organizations, drug traffickers, paramilitary groups, and government security forces. Human rights organizations expressed concern about comments made by high-ranking government officials, including President Alvaro Uribe, who have chastised journalists for their reporting on the war. Journalists believe that such commentary stigmatizes them and puts them at risk for retribution. The Inter American Press Association noted a significant increase in the number of criminal complaints and civil lawsuits being filed against media outlets and reporters, predominantly by retired military officers, government ministers, and public officials as well as private citizens. Journalists from the Bogota-based newspaper El Tiempo and the magazines Cambio and Semana were the targets of libel actions, as were journalists from many provincial media outlets, including Cartagena's El Universal. Colombia's penal code does not contain provisions allowing journalists to be charged with contempt, but it does allow for slander and libel to be filed as criminal charges. A recent addition to the criminal procedure code allows prosecutors to execute searches in advance of securing a warrant; this provision could make it easier for prosecutors to seize notes or information kept by journalists.

Colombia remains the most dangerous country for journalists in continental South America, and violence and harassment of journalists by state and nonstate actors are the primary impediments to a free media. Incidents of physical violence continued to decline in 2005, but journalists still work in an extremely hostile environment. Domestic and international press organizations have attributed some of the decline in violence against journalists to an increase in practices of self-censorship. The Bogota-based watchdog Fundacion para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) reported the murder of two journalists by unknown assailants. In one case, radio news host Julio Hernando Palacios Sanchez was shot and killed by unidentified men in the northeastern city of Cucuta for a program he hosted on Radio Lemas that focused on local corruption. At least 25 other journalists reported receiving death threats, causing 5 of them to leave their homes and 3 to flee the country. One of the most notable cases was the harassment of three journalists from Bogota's Canal Uno television station. One of them, Daniel Coronell, left Colombia with his wife, anchorwoman Maria Cristina Uribe, and their daughter after they received death threats that included an anonymous delivery of funeral wreaths. Coronell reported that e-mail threats had been traced back to the residence of former congressman Carlos Nader Simmonds.

Paramilitary groups threatened journalists in the departments of Putumayo, Tolima, and Santander, and attacks on radio and television transmission stations in Putumayo and Caqueta were attributed to the FARC guerrilla organization. The Putumayo offices of RCN Radio and Television were the target of a car bomb, while a fragmentation grenade heavily damaged the office of the newspaper El Informador in Magdalena. Since the revelation of a paramilitary "blacklist" of journalists in the Arauca region in 2003, journalists have been reticent to report on sensitive topics. Arauca and Norte de Santander are considered among the most dangerous areas in the country for reporters.

Government investigations and prosecutions for crimes against journalists have been slow and inconclusive, contributing to an atmosphere of impunity. According to the Organization of American States' special rapporteur for freedom of expression, 31 journalists were murdered between 1998 and 2005, and only 6 of those cases had reached a trial phase by 2005. The government established a special unit in the Office of the Public Prosecutor to deal specifically with cases involving the assassination of journalists, but the unit has been hamstrung by insufficient personnel and budgetary resources. Since 2000, the Ministries of Justice and the Interior have operated the Journalist Protection Program to assist journalists who become targets with security, transportation, financial aid, and assistance to leave the country if necessary.

Most of the country's media outlets are controlled by groups of private investors. The government operates two commercial and one educational television station along with a national radio network. The Ministry of Communications has been active in promoting the development of community radio stations, and 415 stations are currently in operation. Government advertising is an important source of revenue since local media depend heavily on advertising by provincial and municipal agencies in order to stay in business. This financial dependence creates a powerful incentive for collusion among media owners, journalists, and officials that affects editorial views and news coverage. There were no reported cases of government monitoring or censorship of the internet, though less than 10 percent of the population was able to gain access in 2005.