Despite the peace agreement with the Farc, death threats are part of everyday life for many journalists. Many react with self-censorship.
An open-plan office with many individual work booths
The first threat came via SMS to Gustavo Chica’s cell phone. “Watch out for the patrón,” it lit up. For the radio journalist from San José de Guaviare it quickly became clear that the message was to be taken seriously and from which corner it came. “In the run-up to the regional elections at the end of 2015, we had examined the candidates for the post of governor and also reported on Nebio de Jesús Echeverry Cadavid’s good relations with the paramilitaries.
Gustavo Chica, who works for the radio station Caracol, was not alone with that, but the other colleagues, unlike him, did not live in the small capital of the administrative district Guaviare, but in the capital Bogotá, almost 400 kilometres away.
For the 54-year-old radio journalist, fear has been a constant companion ever since, as Nebio de Jesús Echeverry Cadavid was elected governor of Guaviare in the regional elections. “I am sure that influential friends of his are behind the threats against me,” explains Chica. He was defamed by the governor as a “terrorist behind the microphone”, and so Chica turned to the Flip Foundation in Bogotá.
They called in the National Unit for Security (UNP), which finally provided the threatened radio man with two bodyguards and a car. “Privacy has been a foreign word to me ever since, and the bodyguards aren’t exactly helpful when it comes to research either,” Chica describes his experiences at the Flip Conference on the Situation of Press Freedom at the end of 2017 in Bogotá.
“They are mute”
Unlike others, Chica is not afraid to tackle controversial issues. He reported on suspected graves of violently disappeared people in the Guaviare administrative district and also on the investigation of the governor for illegal logging last September.
“This is not always the case,” said Emmanuel Vargas Penagos. The 30-year-old lawyer and journalist is an advisor to the Flip Directorate and has worked on one of the last Flip projects, a map of the situation of local journalism. Research has shown that out of 662 municipalities in the country covered on the map, 388 no longer have critical local reporting.
Last year there were 310 attacks on media representatives, the highest since 2006.
“They are mute. There is no more critical information there. Either because journalists are threatened or because the economic situation doesn’t allow journalistic work,” explains the gawky media analyst and continues: “There are radio stations that only play music or only deal with positive, light topics from all over the world. They are making a great deal of inroads into state politics.”
This has not changed despite the signing of the peace treaty with the Farc, as confirmed by the Flip annual report presented on 9 February, the “Journalist’s Day” in Colombia. According to the report, there have been 310 attacks on media representatives, the highest since 2006. Including 129 massive threats from reporters.
Quite a step forward
According to Vargas Penagos, these have risen sharply, while the number of murders has fallen in recent years. While ten women journalists* were murdered in 2002, in 2016 for the first time in decades no casualties had to be registered, while in 2017 a female reporter died from the bullets of a police unit. Internationally, Colombia has long since slipped out of the focus of media coverage and been replaced by Mexico as the most dangerous country for journalists in Latin America.
It is progress, but it is not proof that Colombia is now safer for reporters. “After the years with the many murders, fear is so deeply anchored in society that a threat of murder has a similarly devastating effect,” criticizes lawyer Yessika Hoyos. The lawyer works for the lawyer collective José Alvear Restrepo, which also represented Hollman Morris. Morris, who once learned investigative research from the daily newspaper El Espectador in Bogotá, is one of Colombia’s most internationally renowned journalists.
In 2003, together with his brother Juan Pablo, he published the television format “Contravía”, which was financed mainly by the European Union and development and human rights organisations and reported on the background to the conflict. This brought Morris into the focus of the ultra-conservative President Álvaro Uribe Vélez, who repeatedly defamed him and publicly described him as an “accomplice to the terror” of the Farc guerrillas. In Colombia this was an extremely risky accusation, soon followed by death threats against Hollman Morris.
Colleagues react with self-censorship
For a long time the now 49-year-old could only travel with bodyguards in Colombia, had to go into exile twice to Spain and the USA and returned in 2012 as head of the capital channel Canal Capital. He gave the station a facelift and focused his attention on social and environmental problems as well as the human rights situation in and around Bogotá. Canal Capital became the country’s fourth most important television station and spurred on social debates.
This success led Morris and his team to verbal attacks by ex-President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. In September 2014, the arch-conservative senator described the broadcaster in the country’s parliament as a “serving instrument of terrorism”. As a result, the station’s employees were mobbed at work, attacked and again threatening e-mails ended up in Hollman Morris’ mailbox.
But this time the journalist filed a lawsuit against the ex-president. “I wanted to send a signal, to show that Álvaro Uribe Vélez is not untouchable, that he cannot afford everything”, Morris explains. A signal for the increasing number of colleagues* who are threatened by politicians and state employees. Morris, who found a grave wreath with his name on his front door in 2009, knows that these threats stick, that they have an effect.
“Many colleagues react with self-censorship when they come into the focus of paramilitaries, criminal gangs or even politicians. Then it is difficult to show an attitude and defend one’s own position,” Morris knows from personal experience. Colleagues who then devote themselves to easy, harmless topics would be plentiful.
76 Attacks on journalists
A disaster for political reporting – and that’s exactly why Morris was delighted when the court came forward in 2016 and asked the previously untouchable ex-president for a public apology. Uribe Vélez reluctantly folded.
But the political climate in the country and the attacks by elected officials and state employees on journalists* have not changed, according to the Flip in her current report. It lists 76 attacks on journalists by public officials such as the aforementioned governor of Guaviare.
The numbers have risen markedly since 2009. Even the incumbent president Juan Manuel Santos has been upset about negative reporting on several occasions,” criticises Flip consultant Vargas Penagos. This creates an atmosphere where it becomes difficult to represent one’s own opinion.
A phenomenon that more or less goes hand in hand with the first term in office of former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez and against which government representatives simply do not act. “Verbal attacks on reporters have become socially acceptable with Uribe Vélez,” Morris analyses on the sidelines of a symposium in Cologne on the role and function of media and culture in Colombia after the peace agreement.
More diversity for Colombia’s media
Morris called for more respect for female reporters*, but also for structural reforms in a country where the majority of the media is in the hands of three large corporate holdings, and also immediately described his party’s plans to make Colombia’s media sector more diverse.
We need mechanisms to build new media and protect their independence. Media do not belong in the hands of corporations that produce fruit juices, brew beer or produce sugar and do not allow reporting against their own interests. They belong in the hands of journalists,” demands Morris. His party’s concept, the Movimiento Progresista, therefore includes a concept and a budget for the development of alternative media. According to the latest survey, Gustavo Petro leads the polls – but there is still much to be done before the elections at the end of May.