Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa - FLIP

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Amid a national strike and widespread protests that have roiled cities across Colombia in recent weeks, journalists covering the events have been subjected to violence and intimidation in incidents that span the country. 

Since the unrest began in late April, FLIP has documented at least 159 separate assaults on 184 journalists, and it isn’t restricted to the actions of one side. These include violent assaults on members of the press by government forces and protestors alike. The attacks mark a serious uptick in violence against the press in Colombia; FLIP documented similar numbers—150 attacks against 182 journalists—over the course of the three years preceding this latest round of unrest. 

Santiago Amaya, a journalism student and reporter for Revista Solsticio was covering a protest on May 1, in Duitama, in northeastern Colombia, when he was encircled by half a dozen uniformed police who subjected him to torture and arbitrary detention, and threatened him with extrajudicial execution. Police officers took his backpack, looked through and selectively deleted his photos, and stole the sim card from his cell phone. Then they beat him on his arms and back and bloodied his nose with a baton, simulated a lynching on him, threw him in a prison cell, told him his profession—journalism—was worthless and that he was going to die. Finally, they released him in a rural area, telling him simply to "run."

On May 12, in the town of Popayán, in western Colombia, Kevin Acosta, a reporter for the digital medium Red Alterna, was taking video of a uniformed police officer beating a young protestor when Acosta was surrounded by six police officers, thrown to the ground and beaten across his head, arms and chest as police tried to take away his cell phone. Throughout the incident—as well as a previous attack by the riot control squad of the Colombian National Police—Acosta was clearly identified as a journalist with a press vest, helmet and visible press credentials. Also in Popayán, journalist Óscar Solarte reported being pelted with rocks by hooded demonstrators, while similarly-attired protestors repeatedly tried to take journalist Juan Ortega’s phone after he recorded video of protestors throwing stones at City Hall. Elsewhere reporters have been severely injured in direct attacks on the press from government forces, like in the rural town of Sibaté, where on the early morning of May 6, riot police shot directly at reporters who were clearly identified as members of the press with helmets and press credentials. Though two journalists were injured in the attack the ambulance they called for never arrived. The entire incident was broadcast live. 

The above represent a tiny segment of the 145 assaults on reporters covering these demonstrations since they began. 

The Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP) condemns attacks on the press in the strongest possible terms and calls on leaders in government and the protest movement to publicly disavow attacks against the press and express zero tolerance for the practice. Sadly, though police are responsible for roughly half of the assaults on journalists covering the protest movement, the national government has yet to issue any public condemnation on acts of violence against the press and local authorities have been largely silent as well. 

Meanwhile, troubling developments behind the scenes suggests government officials are working to curtail press freedom further. Local and national authorities have repeatedly refused to release official information related to the protest movement, law enforcement activities, and the victims of violence. At the same time that the government has refused to grant the press access to official information, it has embarked on a troubling, anti-democratic campaign to silence and discredit non-official sources of information. On May 6, top brass in the Colombian military and police released a new initiative aimed at combating what it called “digital terrorism”—the spread of false and fake information masquerading as news reports and government pronouncements. In response to the initiative, some journalists have informed FLIP that they plan to self-censor in order to avoid being monitored, blocked or worse by the authorities. While fake news and false reports are a real problem, the way to combat them is not through state-sponsored censorship, but through a robust and free press able to report openly on consequential people and events. 

Elsewhere in government, officials have allegedly been caught on tape discussing strategies for pressuring the cash-strapped media to spin reports in favor of the ruling party by dangling lucrative advertising contracts, a strategy the Duque government has employed in the past.

Requests 

Amid ongoing demonstrations, FLIP reiterates the following requests:

  1. We demand that President Duque and the Minister of the Interior publicly reject violence against the press and send a clear message of zero tolerance for the members of the government forces involved in said aggressions.
    In addition, we call on the Duque government not to use the campaigns against disinformation as a tool to stigmatize the press and criminalize the dissemination of information. FLIP reiterates that authorities and public figures must not encourage censorship. Where complaints against the press exist, their duty is to channel them through the proper constitutional means that exist to express disagreements.
  2. We invite leadership of the national strike to send a message of support for the work of journalists, disavow attacks on the press, and to express any disagreements with the media in a respectful manner that does not threaten press freedom.

  3. The Attorney General of the Nation announced that it will investigate the ESMAD agents for the violence deployed against the press in Sibaté, Cundinamarca, on May 6. This investigation should be extended to all attacks against the press in which members of the security forces have participated.
    We also request the attorney general to urgently and publicly call upon all officials to fulfill their duty to release information to the press in a timely manner, and initiate disciplinary investigations against those who do not.  

  1. We ask local authorities to provide a public and satisfactory explanation of events that resulted in bodily injury to members of the press who were covering  demonstrations. In particular, we insist on a timely response to the request made a few days ago to the mayors of Cali, Bogotá, Medellín, Popayán and Sibaté, where serious acts of violence have been observed against journalists covering protests.

 

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