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)
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Press freedom is guaranteed by the 1991 constitution, but political pressure, armed conflict, illegal government surveillance, death threats, and violent attacks continued to limit this right in practice in 2009. Journalists are also often subject to legal harassment, including subpoenas to testify in court and violate professional secrecy, as well as criminal libel and civil liability lawsuits.
The country still lacks a comprehensive freedom of information law, though Congress has come under increasing pressure to allow greater and more transparent access to governmental information. Many legislators favor the protection of an individual’s reputation over a journalist’s right to access official records. In February 2009, the magazine Semana exposed six years of illegal telephone, e-mail, and personal surveillance conducted by the Administrative Department of Security (DAS) on well-known journalists, government critics, nongovernmental organization workers, politicians, and Supreme Court justices. In September, President Alvaro Uribe called for the dismantling of DAS, as dozens of DAS employees were dismissed and 10 were charged. Prominent journalists continue to be targets of various legal pressures and intimidation, including defamation lawsuits filed by public officials. In December 2009, El Tiempo writer Mauricio Vargas received three days in jail for failing to issue an acceptable correction to his 2008 article criticizing judges.
Colombia remains one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists. Reporters continue to encounter difficulties related to the country’s complex armed conflict, which involves left-wing guerrilla organizations, drug traffickers, right-wing paramilitary groups, and government security forces. Corrupt government officials also engage in harassment and violence against media workers. Hostile rhetoric by political leaders regarding coverage of the war serves to further stigmatize journalists and put them at risk of violence. In response to verbal abuse, threats, and DAS surveillance, journalist Hollman Morris filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in December 2009, urging the international body to sanction the Colombian government for violating his rights.
After 20 months without a journalist being killed, Jose Everardo Aguilar of Radio Super and Bolivar Estereo in the southwestern city of Patia was murdered in April 2009. Aguilar had engaged in harsh criticism of corrupt local politicians tied to right-wing paramilitaries in his community. A hit man from a drug-trafficking gang was arrested in July as a prime suspect in Aguilar’s murder. Harold H. Rivas Quevedo of CNC Bugavision/Voces de Occidente and Diego de Jesus Rojas Velasquez of Supia TV were also killed in 2009 for unconfirmed reasons, stirring fears of a wave of fatal attacks against news professionals.
Nearly 88 percent of murdered journalists’ cases remain unsolved, making Colombia one of the world’s worst performers in prosecuting the killers of journalists. The Colombian justice system has recently made efforts to address this impunity. In January 2009, a court in the northern Santander province sentenced former Barrancabermeja mayor Julio Cesar Ardila Torres to 28 years and eight months in prison. Ardila and fellow city employees Fabio Pajon Lizcano and Abelardo Rueda Tobon were convicted on charges of planning the 2003 murder of radio commentator Jose Emeterio Rivas. Separately, a criminal court in the northwestern province of Choco in March sentenced Franklin Isnel Diaz Mosquera to 34 years in prison for the 2007 murder of journalist Elacio Murillo Mosquera. Later that month, the Colombian State Council ruled in favor of the family of murdered journalist Henry Monje Rojas. The court ordered compensation of US$250,000 after confirming that two soldiers working for the Arauca mayor’s office had gunned down the correspondent for El Tiempo in 1991. After the general prosecutor vowed to reopen 16 pending cases of murdered journalists across the country, observers expressed hope for progress on the cases of journalists Orlando Sierra (killed in 2002) and Jaime Garzon (killed in 1999), among others.
Instances of media self-censorship continued to occur, as journalists were targeted for critical reporting. Columnist Javier Dario Restrepo was dismissed from the Medellin daily El Colombiano in May 2009 after 17 years of service. His removal was officially attributed to editorial reorganization, though Restrepo had frequently been critical of Uribe’s administration. In October, columnist Claudia Lopez of El Tiempo was dismissed after criticizing the paper for its biased coverage of a ministerial-level scandal. Threats against the media have also driven some journalists to leave the country. In May, the director of the Bogota-based Radio Diversia, Carlos Serrano, was forced to flee abroad after receiving an e-mail threatening harm to him and his employees if he did not leave Colombia. He was one of four Colombian journalists who exiled themselves in response to threats during the year.
Media ownership is highly concentrated among groups of private investors, and television is the dominant news medium. Independent and privately owned print and broadcast media are generally free to express a variety of opinions and cover sensitive issues without official 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 groups. There is a widespread perception that journalists accept bribes in exchange for biased coverage. Local media depend heavily on advertising by provincial and municipal government 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, affecting editorial views and news coverage.The government has made progress in expanding access to and the quality of internet coverage, especially in rural areas. With nearly 21 million users, Colombia has an internet penetration rate of approximately 45 percent, South America’s third highest. While access is unrestricted, online journalists are not immune from threats and intimidation. Online journalist Claudia Julieta Duque of the Madrid-based Radio Nizkor has been systematically persecuted. Despite being under the government’s Journalist Protection Program, she alleges that security agents have intimidated and spied on her.