Discussing freedom of the press in Colombia is more than a conversation about laws in place. The media’s ability to freely communicate is controlled by the ongoing civil conflicts between rebel groups and the government. These conflicts have made for a weak central government with little repercussions given to those who break the law. Journalists suffer threats, kidnappings and murders trying to report in a country where impunity runs rampant.
What are the rules?
The 1991 Constitution gives citizens the right to freedom of expression, information and communications. Defamation is still a criminal offense.
Journalists have also been facing lawsuits related to coverage of sensitive topics in the past 50 years. Those who cover crime, corruption and war are often watched. The fear of being involved in a lawsuit keeps journalists from writing risky stories, as many do not have the money or resources to fight in court.
But, those who do not like a journalist’s work usually take matters into their own hands.
In the past two decades, more than 200 journalists have been killed, and even higher amounts have been kidnapped or forced into exile due to activity during the civil conflicts. The inception of paramilitary groups during the conflicts led to free speech deteriorating in Colombia. Those who do not agree with their ideologies were at risk of being killed. This affected the lives of many journalists and stifled free speech amongst all Colombians.
In Colombia Reports’ interview with W Radio, Catalina Botero said the reason journalists don’t have freedom in Colombia is due to the government’s threats and spying.
“It is difficult to to say that there is freedom of expression in a country where the state intelligence agency has a few officials who systematically conduct espionage, stigmatization, and issue death threats against the people who are performing the heroic labor of informing the public what is going on in the country.”
-Catalina Botero, special reporter for freedom of expression at The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)
A spokesperson during the interview recalled an incident in which a journalist received a threat saying that they were going to kill her daughter, saying the situation was “chilling.”
As a result, many journalists have avoided covering topics like illegal mining, drug trafficking and corruption.
After speaking with more than 300 reporters in the last year about their experiences, Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP) concluded…
“it’s evident that there is a lot fear in the local media, where many prefer to remain silent than run the risk of violence.”
However, some journalists haven’t given up so easily. Editor in chief of El Tiempo, one of Colombia’s most popular newspapers, has received threats from the government in the past. He has provided protected vehicles for his family and top staff to travel in for extra safety.
Additionally, many organizations have been created to fight violence against journalists, like the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists). These organizations advocate for journalist safety and provide protection. Private investigators are also available for hire to locate missing journalists.
Has there been progress?
Freedom House dubbed Colombia as a “partly free” country in 2015, as the legislation allows for free speech, but little has been done to enforce the law.
But, in 2014 President Juan Manuel Santos signed a law requiring the publicity of official acts and documents, called the Law on Transparency and Access to Public Information. The law resembles the United States Public Record Act, which gives access to public records in a timely manner. This has helped the government become more transparent and accountable with its actions.
This new legislation is in light of the current peace talks that are underway between the rebel groups and the government. For the past few years, the two sides have been negotiating an ending to the civil war.
An impending end to the half a century long violence means that guerrillas and paramilitary groups have been less violent.
“The recovery of the monopoly of force by the state and the weakening of organized armed groups outside the law, has meant that journalists have a new environment that facilitates the free exercise of their profession and the expression of opinion.”
-The Colombian ambassador to the Organization of American States
Today, the peace talks are in the final stages, and violence against journalists is slowly dwindling. With the development of a stronger central government, the lives of many future journalists could be saved.
What about today?
It’s evident through news coverage that Colombia is making efforts to move past the civil conflicts. Not only are journalists avoiding covering the conflicts, they are choosing to cover topics that apply to tourists. The front page of the City Paper Bogota today is covered with mostly stories about Colombia’s culture. Some of the topics include an art gallery, Kayak.com, removal of tourism taxes, and airline additions. There is only one story about the conflicts, and it reflects positively on Colombia.
Colombia Reports also reported one time about the conflicts this week. Both publications wrote about the F.A.R.C. and government’s agreement to release soldiers that are under the age of 15. The story goes on to discuss how the children will be readmitted to society, mentioning that the F.A.R.C. has wanted to release the children for some time. This story has nothing but optimism for the future of conflicts, which is a reflection of Colombia’s efforts to change their reputation. With so many years of reporting on terror from the conflicts, positive stories such as this one help Colombia’s foreign reputation.
The lack of reports about conflict reflects the fear of reporting on conflict. Perhaps with the dwindling of issues with rebel groups, journalists find it less pertinent to write riskier stories. With fewer stories to be written about the conflicts, reporters are playing eenie-meanie-minie-mo to decide who reports on them.