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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Colombian Program to Protect Journalists celebrates 15 years amid many worries



Second entry in a series of posts about mechanism of protection for journalists in Latin America. Read here about the mechanism in Mexico.

 

Celebrating its 15th anniversary this August, the Protection Program for Journalists in Colombia (the oldest mechanism of its kind in Latin America) is at a “critical moment,” according to organizations defending freedom of expression. Among the main problems affecting the stability of the program are internal corruption scandals and the lack of financial resources.

Because of these concerns, the Colombian Federation of Journalists (Fecolper for its acronym in Spanish), the Free Press Foundation (FLIP), the Colombian Association of Newspaper Editors and Media (Andiarios for its acronym in Spanish) and Reporters Without Borders (RSF for its acronym in French) launched the campaign 'Journalism at Risk’.

The campaign, which will run until November, seeks to show through weekly reports that this is a critical moment for the program, which serves between 80 and 140 journalists annually.

Since 2000, about 100 journalist annually have received protection provided by the Colombian government, which can range from bodyguards, armed agents who follow them 24 hours a day, to the use of armored vehicles for transportation.

Throughout its history, Colombian journalism has operated in a complex environment of violence and corruption. This created a need for the protection mechanism. The internal armed conflict has not only created more than 6 million victims, it has led to the creation of various armed groups and criminal gangs, sometimes with the sponsorship of the political class and government armed forces. Therefore, the threats to journalism come from various fronts: from the State, government officials, security forces, armed groups - sometimes even civilians.

At the time, the Colombian government acknowledged not only the extraordinary risk that press workers face, but also that the state itself could be a perpetrator, said Pedro Vaca, executive director of FLIP, in conversation with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas. This led to the creation of a program on which journalists relied.

The mechanism has even been identified as a possible model for other countries in Latin America.

In its report “Violence against journalists and media workers: Inter-American standards and national practices on prevention, protection and prosecution of perpetrators”, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) found that this program “offers an important example for the countries in the region of a program that has protected the lives and integrity of dozens of journalists and communicators throughout the country.”

The Rapporteur also highlighted “the reduction seen since the establishment of the program in cases of journalists and social communicators murdered in Colombia for reasons related to their profession.”

According to figures released by FLIP, violence against the press in Colombia has left at least 143 journalists dead since 1977, for reasons related to the exercise of their work. However, the reduction in the number of murders of media workers in recent years has been notable compared to the figures provided between 1999 and 2002 when 32 journalists were killed in the country.

“Many things about the program must be recognized. While the decline in murders of journalists is not a direct result of the program, it has had an inhibiting effect,” said Vaca.

Journalists: a population at extraordinary risk

The origin of the protection mechanism in Colombia dates back to 2000 when the journalists were listed as part of a group of people at risk in the country, as stated in the aforementioned report of the Special Rapporteur. It was for this reason that the ‘Program for Protection of Journalists and Social Communicators,’ which was led by the Directorate General for Human Rights of the Ministry of the Interior, was created.

Three years before this program was created, the government had already recognized the risk faced by some people "for reasons related to political violence or ideology, or with the armed internal conflict,” which is the reason the protection program was created. These people belong to different groups, as leaders of political groups, of social organizations, of human rights defenders, among others.

In 2012, it was decided that all existing protection programs would be unified and restructured, which gave birth to the “Program for Prevention and Protection of the rights to life, liberty, integrity and security of persons, groups and communities,” for people who are at extreme and extraordinary risk. Journalists and social communicators are among the 16 groups eligible for protection.

Under this new framework, the National Protection Unit (UNP for its acronym in Spanish), which would have autonomy and its own assets and would be responsible for “articulating, coordinating and implementing the provision of protection,” was created.

In addition to the UNP, the program has other bodies that help it to function. For example, it has the Technical Body for the Collection and Analysis of Information (CTRAI for its acronym in Spanish) and Preliminary Evaluation Group (GVP for its acronym in Spanish), which performs a risk assessment based on the information provided by the CTRAI and indicates the measures that should be provided.

The most senior body that considers the issue is the Risk Assessment and Measure Recommendation Committee (CERREM for its acronym in Spanish), which, after analyzing the applications and the analysis given by the other groups, determines the protection measures that must be granted and the timing.

One of the positive aspects that the Office of the Special Rapporteur has stressed is the impact of civil society participation on the protection mechanism. In fact, there are four representatives of each group or protected community, including one for journalists, that are permanent guests of the CERREM.

Gender considerations have also been highlighted. The program understands that women have particular needs and that protective measures should respond to them. In fact, there is a CERREM for women. When a woman journalist thinks she needs protection, she can choose to have her case reviewed by the specialized women's committee or the general committee.

Overall, the mechanism has provided protection to journalists in an immediate manner. An example is the case of the chief of investigations at Semana magazine, Ricardo Calderón, who was attacked in May 2013. He immediately received a security plan from the UNP.

Another example is the case of the May 2012 attack against Fernando Londoño, former Minister of Interior during Alvaro Uribe’s administration. Londoño had a "robust" security plan because of the many threats he received not only for his work as a former minister, but also for journalistic work to which he dedicated himself after his political post. At the time, the director of the UNP said that it was thanks to this security plan that Londoño escaped the attack with his life.

However, its implementation has not been without criticism and even scandals.

Vaca noted that one of the problems is that, at present, the system of protection has grown very large and so it operates more slowly. That is, because the program offers protection to other groups of the population, the number of people in need of security schemes has increased, and with it, the infrastructure required for its operation.

"The program [in the beginning], perhaps more traditional and with less criteria, was faster. We now are talking about the involvement of many actors which is more expensive and also slows attention to the cases,” Vaca said.

According to Vaca, since the inception of the UNP, its budget has not been sufficient.

“At the half year mark, the [UNP] alerts us to the lack of resources,” Vaca said. “This has huge impacts on existing programs for journalists who complained that they were not given money that they should have received or that they had not paid the security guards. And this happens every year, there is a planning problem.”

As an example of this problem, consider the April 2015 case of Yesid Toro. Toro was a journalist who confessed to being the author of threats against him and seven colleagues so that he could continue to have the protection of the security plan, but also so that he’d receive money, that according to him, was owed by the mechanism.

Another case that placed the program in the spotlight because of its tragic end was the murder of journalist Luis Carlos Cervantes on August 12, 2014, weeks after his security measures had been withdrawn. At the time, the UNP said the measures were retired because the CERREM had determined that the safety of the journalist was not in danger, the Special Rapporteur said. Only until recently, a year after the crime, did the authorities issue 16 arrest warrants against members of a criminal gang accused of being the intellectual and material authors of the murder, according to El Espectador.

But these are just two examples of the scandals that have surrounded the program in the last year and have questioned not only the effectiveness of the mechanism, but the transparency with which it operates.

A corruption scandal erupted within the UNP in mid-2014.

By November 2014 the deficit was estimated at 70,000 million Colombian pesos (more than US $23 million), which put at risk the protection of more than 2000 people, of whom about 100 were journalists. In the latest scandal, cost overruns of more than 14,000 million Colombian pesos (less than $ 5 million US), were discussed, according to the magazine Semana. Investigations are ongoing.

Eliminate risks and rigorously investigate

Although the security plans are certainly an effective tool to safeguard the lives of journalists, for Vaca, the best protection method would be to eliminate the risk that called for the plan.

A task at which Colombia is not improving, he said. To illustrate, he said that out of more than 400 cases of threats reported in the past year, there has only been one conviction, as stated in the report published in February of this year.

“When a journalist is at risk, it is good to have a protective measure, but the measure should be temporary while the risk is eliminated. The program is not acting to remove it and that's part of the current problem.”

Although the cases aren’t high in number, FLIP has registered cases of journalists having security plans for more than 10 years. This not only affects the exercise of their profession, but is also a high cost for the program. A serious protection plan (bodyguards, armored vehicles, weapons, etc.) can cost up to US $ 10,000 per month, Vaca said.

But in order to eliminate a risk, there needs to be a rigorous investigation. FLIP proposes that the cases of journalists should be prioritized.

"Much of the corruption in the budget may be due to the protection cases that have been accommodated by the program for a long time. A risk that remains for years without being investigated,” Vaca said. “We have become accustomed to the fact that the press in Colombia is overprotected and this is not good for press freedom,” he said. 



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