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Country in focus: Colombia

Population GDP/Capita USD Capital City 2018 XpA Scores
49,649,000 6,651 Bogotá Freedom of Expression: 0.46
ICCPR ratified 1969 Colombia was an XpA Decliner over both the one-year and three-year time periods. In 2018, Columbia sits within the 3rd quartile.   Journalists killed in 2018: 5 Civic Space: 0.49
Constitution of Colombia 1991 (revised 2015)
TITLE II, CHAPTER I, ARTICLE 20
Every individual is guaranteed the freedom to express and diffuse his/her thoughts and opinions, to transmit and receive information that is true and impartial, and to establish mass communications media.
The latter are free and have social responsibility. The right to make corrections under conditions of equity is guaranteed. There shall be no censorship.
Digital: 0.52
Media: 0.53
Protection: 0.35
Transparency: 0.46

 

After a drawn-out and bloody civil conflict – which cost 220,000 lives and displaced more than 5 million people – Colombia’s government signed a peace agreement with guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Bogotá in November 2016.[1] The peace deal was an opportunity to build a sustainable and fair peace, tackling some of the structural causes of the conflict itself. Thousands of FARC soldiers handed in their weapons and demobilised, while then-President Juan Manuel Santos won a Nobel Prize for his work.

But Colombia’s environment for expression and participation, far from flourishing, has collapsed into further violence, with dire consequences for security and the environment for communicators and activists. Accountability for attacks is virtually non-existent, and legal uncertainty is on the rise, despite constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.

In 2018, the hard right took power, with Iván Duque Márquez as President and El Centro Democrático party in Congress, led by Senator Álvaro Uribe – the ultraconservative former President who led the campaign against the peace deals during the national referendum.

Since the peace deal was signed, Colombia has seen a decline in its freedom of expression environment. Colombia saw a 21% decline in freedom of expression between 2017 and 2018.

Figure 16:

This downturn is not surprising, given the ecosystem of armed groups in Colombia and the failure of President Iván Duque Márquez’s government to implement the peace agreement. These factors have combined with the near-absence of the state in certain rural areas and ongoing lack of political will to support a diverse and critical environment for communicators and human rights defenders (HRDs).

In 2019, the peace process has deteriorated to such an extent that ex-FARC leaders have announced their intentions to re-arm, frustrated by the lack of political will to implement the terms of the agreement and the rising security risks for demobilised FARC soldiers.

Peace, but only on paper: power vacuums and a crisis of violence

Some of the key terms of the peace agreements were that the state would establish an integrated presence in rural regions, implement land justice, and aid crop substitutions – from coca (the base of cocaine) to legal crops. Where steps towards fulfilling these commitments have been taken, they have largely been partial or inadequate.

Zones that the demobilising FARC guerrillas abandoned became a vacuum into which numerous other armed groups have moved, many of whom unleashed even more violence through conflict over these territories, often with citizens trapped in the middle. Indeed, armed groups actually grew in strength and number during 2018.[2] These groups continue to fight for control and access to natural resources, particularly land, illegal mining zones, and illegal crops. Many of the lands being fought over are ancestral lands of Afro-Colombian or indigenous communities – lands that are now under threat from not only armed groups but also industrial or extractive business and government development megaprojects.

Paramilitaries still operate in 28 of the country’s 32 departments, and more than 50% of murders of HRDs are attributable to those groups, though the state has claimed that it is mostly local criminal groups – Clan del Golfo, FARC dissidents, and left-wing guerrillas the National Liberation Army (ELN) – who are responsible.[3]

One of these groups, narco-paramilitary organisation Águilas Negras, issued numerous threats against media outlets and journalists in 2018 and 2019.[4] Clan del Golfo has also been responsible for threatening and harassing communicators.[5]

More HRDs killed than in any other country in the world

Front Line Defenders estimates that 126 HRDs were killed in Colombia in 2018 – more than any other country by a large margin.[6] Including the category of ‘social leaders’ in their methodology, Colombia’s human rights ombudsman registered 172 deaths: around one murder every 48 hours over the course of 2018.[7]

Figure 17: 

By any measure, Colombia is seeing a crisis of violence that has worsened since the signing of the peace agreement[8] and that continued to spiral during 2019. Numerous protection measures and warning systems have been put in place, but none have been sufficient to address the entrenched and structural violence. This is particularly acute in rural areas, where the state has little presence, having established neither service provision nor judicial access.

2018 was more than 44% more violent than 2017, with 805 registered acts of aggression against HRDs, the majority of which took the form of threats by harassment, letters, or phone calls. Paramilitary groups were the main perpetrators of these threats, responsible for more than 50%, with dissent FARC and ELN guerrillas responsible for around 7%.[9]

Most of these killings took place where illegal economic activities, such as drug production and trafficking or illegal goldmining, are common – often where armed groups hold power: the southern provinces of Cauca and Nariño; the northeastern zone of Catatumbo, on the border with Venezuela; and the northwestern areas of Bajo Cauca and Urabá.

There are protection mechanisms in Colombia, but they have also been weakened under Iván Duque Márquez’s government, including his appointment of a new Director of the National Protection Unit (Unidad Nacional de Protección) without experience in human rights or protection.

Murder of indigenous rights defenders doubled

Twice as many indigenous rights defenders were killed in 2018 as in 2017.[10] Indigenous leaders and community leaders remain particularly at risk, including indigenous guards, spiritual leaders, and educators.[11] The civil war has disproportionately affected indigenous groups; Colombia’s constitutional court says that 36 of Colombia’s 102 indigenous peoples are at risk of extinction due to internal conflict, while 67 groups are understood to be at risk of extinction overall.[12]

Indigenous groups have indicated that paramilitary groups are the main perpetrators of human rights violators, posing an ongoing threat to their survival, but have also stated that the government’s refusal to acknowledge the scale – and, on occasion, even existence – of these groups is a serious exacerbating factor.[13]

It is common to claim that armed groups, particularly guerrillas, have infiltrated protests and movements. This is a strategy of stigmatisation often wielded against indigenous and campesino (agricultural activist) movements.[14]

Government and public officials threaten journalists

Violence against communicators rose during 2018;[15] there was a 53% rise in violations between 2017 and 2018.[16] There was also a spike in aggression against communicators in the run-up to the 2018 elections.[17] Violations range from physical attacks to stigmatising journalists via official platforms. In some cases, journalists were unfairly linked to crime or illegal armed groups.[18] Public servants were found to be the perpetrators in 105 of the cases of aggression in 2018.[19]

An epidemic of stigmatising rhetoric against journalists took hold in 2018, which Colombia’s most influential politicians led, often using Twitter to spread accusations and attacks. In March 2018, leader of the ruling party, Senator Álvaro Uribe, tweeted threats of reprisal against investigative journalist Daniel Coronell, whom he accused of links with trafficking the year before. Though Coronell tried to bring the case to the Supreme Court, they refused to open criminal proceedings against Uribe, who has huge influence in Colombia and a history of using social media to make defamatory remarks. He went as far as to accuse journalist Daniel Samper Ospina of child abuse in 2017, for which he was brought in front of the Supreme Court. He was forced to publicly apologise and abstain from further comment on the journalist,[20] but the Court ruling does not seem to have had much effect on his attitude to the press; journalists also came together to speak out against Uribe’s relentless attacks on freedom of expression – to little effect.[21]

Attorney General Nélson Humberto Martínez made several remarks attacking the press during a debate in the Senate in November 2018, worsening the serious harassment that editor of Noticias Uno, Cecilia Orozco Tascón, already faced.[22] At the end of 2017, the Mayor of Rionegro, Wilson González Reyes, threatened journalist Luis Carlos Ortiz with a gun; in January 2018, investigations were opened.[23] Public officials tried to silence the press in court on 40 different occasions in 2018. Uribe himself filed a defamation claim at a US court in early 2019 against Daniel Coronell in an attempt to silence him.[24]

Official rhetoric is also hostile towards social leaders and opposition voices. On several occasions in July and August, El Centro Democrático’s Claudia Ortiz posted tweets demonising social leaders as a ‘malignant band of delinquents, hunting our democracy’, including leading activists Pablo Catatumbo, Iván Cepeda, and Gustavo Bolivar. Somewhat bizarrely, Claudia Ortiz was Iván Duque Márquez’s first choice as Director of the National Protection Unit.[25]

Claudia Lopez Hernández, a leading Senator for the opposition Green Party, has been subject to numerous similar attempts to silence her; she was sued by former Housing Minister, Luis Felipe Henao; former General Attorney, Néstor Humberto Martínez; and Congressman Ciro Ramírez. In all three cases, she was ordered to retract statements.[26]

On three occasions in 2018, officials attempted to violate the journalistic right to keep sources confidential, and Congress introduced eight different bills to limit journalistic activity.[27]

Three journalists murdered by dissident Farc groups on border with Ecuador

In March, the region was shaken by the kidnap and subsequent murder of a team from the Ecuadorian El Comercio newspaper: journalist Javier Ortega, photojournalist Paúl Rivas, and driver Efraín Segarra. The group was kidnapped on the border while working, held for several weeks, and then killed. The perpetrators were the Oliver Sinisterra Front – a FARC dissident armed group.[28]

Local groups expressed concern about Colombian and Ecuadorian authorities’ mismanagement of the situation, both of which refused to take responsibility at the time.[29] In a historic decision, however, an alliance was later formed between the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the States of Ecuador and Colombia to investigate and bring justice to the victims and their families.[30]

Protest and the Special Police Force

Colombia’s notorious riot forces, Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD), continued to use excessive force against protests, and police continued to detain journalists who braved the violence to cover demonstrations.[31]

The Constitutional Court of Colombia spoke out against law enforcement’s response to protest, condemning the state’s failure to meet international standards when managing demonstrations, as well as the stigmatisation of protests and social movements.[32]

Despite all of this, social mobilisation increased during 2018 as citizens took to the streets over security, peace, corruption, and human rights.[33]

Environmental defenders ignored and attacked at the Hidroituango plant

Police blocked around 400 people from affected communities from demonstrating against the ‘Hidroituango’ Hydroelectric Project, which has consistently raised concerns about flooding, mismanagement, and impacts on fishing, artisanal mining, and farming.[34]

On 8 May, several unknown attackers shot and killed Luis Alberto Torres Montoya, a father of three, while he panned for gold in the Cauca River Canyon region of Colombia. Torres was a member of the Movimiento Ríos Vivos Antioquia (MRVA), a network of Colombian environmental, campesino, and community groups that came together to oppose the Hydroelectric Project.

One week before Torres’s murder, another MRVA member, Hugo Albeiro George, was shot and killed – along with his nephew – hours before he was due to attend a protest against the dam.[35]

Between 2013 and 2018, MRVA documented 151 threats and attacks against their collective: 63 threats, 2 attacks with explosives, 2 cases of torture, 26 cases of trumped-up criminal charges filed against activists, 2 episodes of mass detentions during protests against the project, as well as cases of harassment, public defamation, discrimination, and surveillance. 2018 was the worst year yet; public officials’ inaction and stigmatisation tacitly permitted legal and illegal actors to perpetrate attacks in the area.[36]

The dam, run by state company Empresas Públicas de Medellín, has seen crisis after crisis in the last two years, and the management of information and transparency during that crisis is cause for serious concern. 2019 saw a crisis in the dam’s infrastructure that threatened mass floods from the centre of Colombia to the Caribbean coast, which would have caused hundreds of deaths and massive displacement.[37]

Media ecosystem ravaged

More than half of Colombia has no access to local news: 578 of 994 municipalities are ‘silent zones’, where no news outlet produces or provides local information.[38] Local journalism is under threat from violence, economic pressures, vested interests, and governmental failures. 23% of local media pay their journalists less than a minimum wage, and 42% do not offer them any type of formal employment.[39]

Radio is a rich resource in Colombia, however; there are more than 350 community radio stations, over 250 commercial stations, and around 70 public stations, and radio has played a strong role in politics and rural activism.[40] Community radio is a key medium for local news across the region, particularly in areas where literacy and the logistics of print media are a challenge. Around 250 radio stations are at risk of closure, however, due to the Colombian government’s coercive fines and charges for failure to meet technical requirements.[41] A new scheme of community radio stations was promised as part of the peace accords, but the government has yet to launch this scheme.

The majority of Colombia’s media outlets depend on ‘official advertising’, a system in which outlets are paid to distribute government information, for 40–50% of their revenue. This mechanism allows authorities to create contracts with media outlets to spread propaganda about projects, policies, and plans without media scrutiny. Weak regulation, low levels of transparency, and systematic abuse allows huge expenditure on propaganda, which is often presented as news coverage.[42]

 

 

[1] Centro de Memoria Historica, available at http://www.centrodememoriahistorica.gov.co/

[2] Edison Lanza, Relator Especial para la Libertad de Expresión, Informe Anual de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos 2018, OEA/SER.L/V/II, 17 March 2019, available at http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/expression/reports/annual.asp

[3] Edison Lanza, Relator Especial para la Libertad de Expresión, Informe Anual de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos 2018, OEA/SER.L/V/II, 17 March 2019, available at http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/expression/reports/annual.asp

[4] IFEX, En 2018 las Águilas Negras han hecho siete amenazas a periodistas y medios de comunicación nacional, 7 September 2018, available at https://www.ifex.org/colombia/2018/09/07/aguilas-negras/es/

[5] Edison Lanza, Relator Especial para la Libertad de Expresión, Informe Anual de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos 2018, OEA/SER.L/V/II, 17 March 2019, available at http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/expression/reports/annual.asp

[6] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/resource-publication/global-analysis-2018

[7] Redacción Judicial, ‘En 2018 fueron asesinados 172 líderes sociales: Defensoría del Pueblo’, El Espectador, 10 January 2019, available at https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/judicial/en-2018-fueron-asesinados-172-lideres-sociales-defensoria-del-pueblo-articulo-833374

[8] Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Capítulo V, Seguimiento de recomendaciones formuladas por la CIDH en sus informes de país o temáticos, Seguimiento de recomendaciones formuladas por la CIDH en el informe verdad, justicia y reparación: cuarto informe sobre la situación de derechos humanos en Colombia, 21 March 2018, p606, available at https://www.oas.org/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2019/072.asp

[9] Programa Somos Defensorse, La naranja mechanica, 2019, available at https://somosdefensores.org/2019/04/23/la-naranja-mecanica/

[10] Programa Somos Defensorse, La naranja mechanica, 2019, available at https://somosdefensores.org/2019/04/23/la-naranja-mecanica/

[11] Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, Capítulo V, Seguimiento de recomendaciones formuladas por la CIDH en sus informes de país o temáticos, Seguimiento de recomendaciones formuladas por la CIDH en el informe verdad, justicia y reparación: cuarto informe sobre la situación de derechos humanos en Colombia, 21 March 2018, p581, available at https://www.oas.org/es/cidh/prensa/comunicados/2019/072.asp

[12] Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional, Risk of Extinction of Indigenous Peoples of Colombia is Evidenced Before the IACHR, 9 July 2018, available at https://www.cejil.org/en/risk-extinction-indigenous-peoples-colombia-evidenced-iachr

[13] Aida Maruba Quilcue, Consejera de derechos der los pueblos indígenas, derechos humanos y paz de la organización nacional indígena de Colombia (ONIC), Informe sobre violaciones a los derechos humanos, derechos territoriales de los pueblos indigenas en Colombia, 15 February 2019, p3

[14] E.g. Caracol Radio, Paro minero está infiltrado por el Clan del Golfo y el ELN, 20 August 2018, available at https://caracol.com.co/emisora/2017/08/20/medellin/1503244426_902765.html

[15] Fundacion para la Libertad de la Prensa (FLIP), 2018: recrudece la violencia contra la prensa, 3 May 2018, available at https://flip.org.co/index.php/es/informacion/pronunciamientos/item/2232-2018-recrudece-la-violencia-contra-la-prensa

[16] Fundacion para la Libertad de la Prensa (FLIP), Informe Anual 2018, available at https://flip.org.co/micrositios/informe-2018/descargas/informe-anual-2018.pdf

[17] Fundacion para la Libertad de la Prensa (FLIP), Mapa de violaciones a la libertad de prensa, available at https://flip.org.co/index.php/es/atencion-a-periodistas/mapa-de-agresiones

[18] Fundacion para la Libertad de la Prensa (FLIP), Informe Anual 2018, available at https://flip.org.co/micrositios/informe-2018/descargas/informe-anual-2018.pdf

[19] Fundacion para la Libertad de la Prensa (FLIP), Informe Anual 2018, available at https://flip.org.co/micrositios/informe-2018/descargas/informe-anual-2018.pdf

[20] Corte Suprema de Justicia, Sala de Casación Penal. STP14284-2017, 12 September 2017, available at http://www.cortesuprema.gov.co/corte/wp-content/uploads/novejuri/tutela/STP14284-2017.pdf

[21] Editora Antioquia, ‘Periodistas rechazan los ataques de Álvaro Uribe a la libertad de prensa’, Colombia Informa, 16 July 2017, available at http://www.colombiainforma.info/periodistas-en-contra-de-los-ataques-de-alvaro-uribe-a-la-libertad-de-prensa/

[22] ARTICLE 19, Fundacion para la Libertad de la Prensa (FLIP) et al, Exigimos reforzar las garantías a la libertad de prensa tras la publicación de los audios de Jorge Enrique Pizano, n.d., available at https://flip.org.co/images/Documentos/Comunicado_Conjunto_NoticiasUno.pdf

[23] Edison Lanza, Relator Especial para la Libertad de Expresión, Informe Anual de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos 2018, OEA/SER.L/V/II, 17 March 2019, available at http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/expression/reports/annual.asp

[24] Committee to Protect Journalists, La demanda de Uribe es parte de una ‘campaña sistemática para silenciarme’, sostiene el periodista colombiano Daniel Coronell, 20 May 2019, available at https://cpj.org/es/2019/05/la-demanda-de-uribe-es-parte-de-una-campana-sistem.php

[25] Revista Semana, ‘Los cuestionados trinos de la posible nueva directora de la Unidad Nacional de Protección’, 8 September 2018, available at https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/claudia-ortiz-la-cuestionada-nueva-directora-de-la-unidad-nacional-de-proteccion/578850

[26] Revista Semana, ‘Claudia López, cuarta rectificación en cuatro meses’, 22 November 2017, available at https://www.semana.com/nacion/articulo/claudia-lopez-a-rectificar-contra-cambio-radical-orden-de-corte-suprema-de-justicia/548207

[27] Fundacion para la Libertad de la Prensa (FLIP), Informe Anual 2018, available at https://flip.org.co/micrositios/informe-2018/descargas/informe-anual-2018.pdf

[28] Forbidden Stories, Frontera Cautiva, available at https://forbiddenstories.org/es/case/frontera-cautiva/

[29] Fundación para la libertad de prensa, Las Vidas Que Nos Quitaron En La Frontera Colombo-Ecuatoriana, available at https://flip.org.co/micrositios/informe-2018/frontera.html

[30] IFEX, Historic Alliance Between IACHR, Ecuador & Colombia Will Investigate Murder of ‘El Comercio’ Journalists, 25 July 2018, available at https://www.ifex.org/americas/2018/07/25/cidh-iniciativa/

[31] Colectivo de Abogados, Pronunciamiento: Estado y EPM vulneran derecho a la protesta en Sabanalarga, Antioquia, 5 April 2018, available at https://www.colectivodeabogados.org/?Estado-y-EPM-vulneran-derecho-a-la-protesta-en-Sabanalarga-Antioquia

[32] Corte Constitucional de Colombia, Sentencia C-082/18, 2018, available at http://www.corteconstitucional.gov.co/relatoria/2018/C-082-18.htm

[33] Programa Somos Defensorse, La naranja mechanica, 2019, available at https://somosdefensores.org/2019/04/23/la-naranja-mecanica/

[34] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/resource-publication/global-analysis-2018

[35] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/resource-publication/global-analysis-2018

[36] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/resource-publication/global-analysis-2018

[37] Jake Kincaid, ‘The Death-Defying Activist Standing in the Way of a $4.5 Billion Dam’, Ozy, 30 April 2019, available at https://www.ozy.com/provocateurs/the-death-defying-activist-standing-in-the-way-of-a-45-billion-dam/93858

[38] José Peralta, ‘Historic alliance between IACHR, Ecuador & Colombia will investigate murder of El Comercio journalists’, IFEX, 25 July 2018, available at https://colombiareports.com/see-nothing-hear-nothing-more-than-half-of-colombia-left-without-local-news/

[39] Fundacion para la Libertad de la Prensa (FLIP), Informe Anual 2018, available at https://flip.org.co/micrositios/informe-2018/descargas/informe-anual-2018.pdf

[40] Juan Camilo Maldonado Tovar, ‘El País del Silencio’, Fundacion para la Libertad de la Prensa, 2019, available at https://flip.org.co/cartografias-informacion/content/el-pa%C3%ADs-del-silencio

[41] Juan Camilo Maldonado Tovar, ‘El País del Silencio’, Fundacion para la Libertad de la Prensa, 2019, available at https://flip.org.co/cartografias-informacion/content/el-pa%C3%ADs-del-silencio

[42] Emily Hart, ‘More than half of Colombia’s media reliant on state propaganda funds’, Colombia Reports, 18 February 2019, available at https://colombiareports.com/shady-propaganda-contracts-contaminate-more-than-half-of-colombias-media/

 

 

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