Colombia | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Colombia

Colombia

Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status

Partly Free

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

59

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

30

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

16

The status of press freedom deteriorated in 2007 owing to a rise in attacks against journalists by both state and nonstate actors as well as mounting economic uncertainty for media outlets amid the ongoing civil war. 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. Occasional criminal complaints and civil lawsuits continue to be filed against the media, with slander and libel considered criminal charges under Colombia’s penal code. In addition, media watchdogs decried as prior censorship a January court decision in Barranquilla that barred a local newspaper from disseminating further information regarding the results of a corruption investigation. In May, a large telephone-tapping scandal was uncovered that included the illegal surveillance of at least 13 journalists. Also in May, the Colombian Federation of Journalists was formed to advocate on reporters’ behalf.

The media continued to play an important role in exposing paramilitary activities as well as contributing critical reporting on high-level corruption scandals like the “para-politics” affair, which linked government officials with paramilitary leaders. However, Colombia remains the most dangerous country for journalists in South America, with the violence and harassment of journalists by state and nonstate actors representing the primary impediments to a free media. Comments made by high-ranking government officials (including President Alvaro Uribe), who have chastised journalists for their reporting on the war, serve to further stigmatize the press and put them at risk of retribution. The Bogota-based watchdog Fundacion para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP) reported a 16 percent increase in violations of press freedom in 2007, with a spike in incidents occurring in September and October during the run-up to local and regional elections. Security forces were implicated in over a dozen violations of press freedom, often related to press coverage of protests against state policies. Two journalists were killed during the year. In Choco, reporter Elacio Murillo Mosquera was shot and killed on January 10, possibly in retaliation for his reports on the movements of armed groups in the area. A member of the criminal group Aguilas Negras was arrested and charged for Murillo’s murder two days later, and the investigation continued at year’s end. Radio reporter Javier Dario Arroyave was stabbed and killed in his home in Cartago in September; authorities claimed it was unrelated to his work, but his past run-ins with local functionaries over corruption denunciations caused doubts among colleagues. Numerous threats against journalists occurred throughout the country, forcing at least 16 journalists to go into hiding or exile; among them, correspondent Gonzalo Guillen of Miami’s El Nuevo Herald was forced to leave the country after receiving two dozen death threats. President Uribe had publicly accused Guillen of trying to harm him. FLIP reported a total of 85 death threats against journalists in 2007. In sensitive cases, local journalists often consider it safer to practice self-censorship or to leak information to large national outlets for publication or broadcast rather than break the stories themselves. Paramilitaries and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels were implicated in the greatest number of threats and attacks against journalists. In August, the FARC warned various broadcast media outlets in Arauca that they would become military targets if they refused to air rebel communiqués.

Since 2000, the Ministries of Justice and the Interior have operated the Journalist Protection Program to assist endangered journalists with security, transportation, financial aid, and assistance to leave the country; however, FLIP reported that only in 45 of the 102 cases in which protection was recommended were the suggested measures implemented. Government investigations and prosecutions for crimes against journalists have been slow and inconclusive, contributing to an atmosphere of impunity. 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. Little progress was reported in the investigations into three murders committed in 2006, but several older cases received new boosts owing to information divulged in the courtroom by paramilitaries engaged in a demobilization process. Unfortunately, there has been little consistency with respect to journalists’ ability to view the testimony of these ex-fighters directly, at times making them reliant on information from prosecutors and often intimidated victims.

Most of the country’s media outlets are controlled by groups of private investors. Independent and privately owned print and broadcast media are generally free to express a variety of opinions and cover sensitive issues without restrictions. The government operates one educational and two commercial television stations along with a national radio network. Despite some advances, the hundreds of community radio stations operating in Colombia sometimes come under pressure from both the government and armed actors. Government advertising is an important source of revenue, since local media depend heavily on advertising by provincial and municipal agencies to stay in business. Low salaries add to this financial dependence, which 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. In August, a majority stake in the country’s paper of record, El Tiempo, was sold to Spanish investors. There were no reported cases of government monitoring or censoring of the internet, which was accessed by close to 23 percent of the population in 2007.