Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Status change explanation: Colombia’s status improved from Not Free to Partly Free owing to the increased willingness of journalists to report critically on political issues such as high-level corruption scandals, as well as a gradually improving security situation.
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. Though legal actions against journalists declined in 2006, occasional criminal complaints and civil lawsuits continue to be filed against media outlets and reporters. 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. The criminal procedure code also 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. In a positive development—reported by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA)—the Senate’s First Commission set aside a legislative bill that would have expanded the definition of insult and defamation offenses.
Colombia remains the most dangerous country for journalists in South America, and violence and harassment of journalists by state and nonstate actors are the primary impediments to a free media. The Bogota-based watchdog Fundacion para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) reported a significant (37 percent) increase in violations of press freedom in 2006, with the greatest number of incidents occurring during March and May, months in which Colombia held elections for Congress and the presidency, respectively. Three journalists were killed during the year. In Cordoba, radio host Gustavo Rojas Gabaldo was shot and killed on February 4 in an incident that the IAPA attributed to demobilized paramilitaries angered by his criticism of links between local government and the paras. Community radio host Milton Fabian Sanchez was killed in August in Valle del Cauca after denouncing local-level drug trafficking. Atilano Segundo Perez Barrios was killed later the same month in Bolivar; the motive for the slaying remains undetermined. Numerous threats against journalists occurred throughout the country, forcing many journalists to go into hiding or exile. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that at least seven journalists were forced to flee their homes owing to threats and intimidation. Journalist Olga Cecilia Vega, who survived two brutal attacks on her life in 2002, was forced to flee into exile in 2006 after receiving numerous death threats. Since 2000, the Ministries of Justice and the Interior have operated the Journalist Protection Program to assist with security, transportation, financial aid, and assistance to leave the country if necessary for those journalists who become targets; this program covered 94 media representatives during the year, compared with 46 in the previous year. Additionally, the journalists’ group Media for Peace, along with several dozen other nongovernmental organizations, received a series of e-mails during the summer and fall threatening physical attacks against organizations deemed to be pro-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
Security forces were implicated in over 20 violations of press freedom, often in the context of protests against state policies, including a free trade agreement with the United States. Government investigations and prosecutions for crimes against journalists have been slow and inconclusive, contributing to an atmosphere of impunity. According to CPJ, none of the 39 cases of journalists murdered since 1992 have been fully resolved. In 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. However, according to the U.S. State Department, in the case of threats against Daniel Coronell, well-known director of a television news show, a Bogota court found Luis Fernandez Uribe Botero guilty of making the threats and sentenced him to 16 months in prison and a fine of 8.16 million pesos (US$3,520).
Politicians, especially at the local level, frequently denounce members of the press as enemies. In 2006, President Uribe mixed firm rhetoric regarding the need to protect provincial journalists’ right to report with a display of anger toward national press outlets, notably the weekly magazine Semana, regarding reports on the burgeoning “parapolitica” scandal concerning links between paramilitaries and the government. Generally, however, Colombian reporting on the parapolitica scandal was persistent, demonstrating that the security improvements of the last five years opened space for journalists to report on high-level scandals involving dangerous and powerful actors.
Most of the country’s media outlets are controlled by groups of private investors. The government operates 1 educational and 2 commercial television stations along with a national radio network. Although the Ministry of Communications has been active in promoting the development of community radio station, and over 400 stations are currently in operation, the process was paralyzed in several cities, including the capital city, Bogota. After pressure from civil society groups, in October the government announced that frequencies would be issued for community radio stations in cities across the country. Separately, in October, the transmission of Senate hearings regarding the parapolitica scandal was temporarily blocked in two northern departments. 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 is a widespread perception that journalists accept bribes in exchange for biased coverage. There were no reported cases of government monitoring or censoring the internet, though internet usage remained fairly low, at around 13 percent of the population, in 2006.