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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Colombian official says commission is working to free Dutch journalists being held by the ELN



Updated (June 21): ELN-PAZ, the Delegation for Dialogue of the National Liberation Army, released a statement saying it seeks to clarify the situation of the Dutch journalists held in El Tarra, Colombia. However, it added that it had not been able to internally confirm the responsibility of the organization because of "difficulties inherent in the conflict and the lack of rapid communication mechanisms in the area."

"It is a region crossed by armed conflict; in that context, the possibility of temporary deprivation of liberty to persons unknown and from outside the community corresponds to a preventative attitude, of an exercise of protection and security, natural for any insurgent force," the statement said.

If they are being held, the organization said it is the policy of the ELN to ensure integrity of the people and freedom of the press, and to release them to the humanitarian commission. They said security forces should not interfere.

Original (June 20): Colombia’s Caracol Radio is reporting that humanitarian groups are working for the release of two Dutch journalists being held in the northeastern part of the country by members of the National Liberation Army (ELN for its acronym in Spanish).

Photo of Derk Bolt from the Spoorloos Twitter page.

Journalist Derk Johannes Bolt and camera operator Eugenio Ernest Marie Follender were taken on June 17 while in the municipality of El Tarra in the department of Norte de Santander.

An ombudsman for the municipality of Tibú in that same department said the journalists are being held by the National Liberation Army (ELN for its acronym in Spanish), according to Caracol Radio. The ombudsman is a member of a humanitarian commission that has made contact with the group and is working for the release of the journalists.

The outlet talked to a resident who said the community saw the reporters taking photos. They stopped the reporters to see what they were doing, but they fled and so were captured, the person told Caracol Radio.

The media outlet said military operations in the area impede the return of the foreigners, but that their release is expected in the coming hours.

El Espectador reported the journalists were intercepted by members of Frente Héctor of the ELN while taking photos and video. The newspaper said it appeared the Dutch men had not provided information about their activities to authorities or made contact with people in the region before arriving. 

The paper said the military had deployed a plane for reconnaissance in the area where they believe the journalists are being held. It added that troops were deployed to create a humanitarian cordon and that civil authorities were working to find the journalists.

After news of the kidnapping was made public, the ELN said via Twitter that is was “investigating to help clarify the case,” but did not say if it was holding the journalists. The group has not made a statement since Caracol Radio reported the ombudsman’s confirmation.

Bolt and Follender work for Dutch station KRO-NCRV and the program “Spoorloos,” for which they were producing a report about the “biological families of Colombian children adopted by Europeans,” according to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP for its acronym in Spanish) in Colombia.

The ELN is part of the ongoing armed conflict in Colombia. As reported by teleSUR, the larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is in the midst of the final round of weapons collections that resulted as part of a peace deal it signed with the Colombian government last year. The ELN resumed its talks with the Colombian government in Quito, Ecuador on May 16, according to El Espectador.

This is not the first time journalists have been kidnapped in this region. Colombian-Spanish journalist Salud Hernández-Mora disappeared in El Tarra on May 21, 2016 during a reporting trip. Five journalists were then taken in the same area on May 23 by men who identified themselves as ELN members. All but two were soon freed. Hernández-Mora, along with RCN reporters Diego D’Pablos and Carlos Melos, were eventually released on May 27.

According to FLIP, five of the last six kidnappings of journalists in recent years have been in this part of the country.

“The Catatumbo [a sub-region of northeastern Colombia] cannot continue to be a forbidden territory for the press and that’s why this organization calls on authorities to strengthen the guarantees for journalism in this area,” the organization said in a press release.

FLIP, along with organizations like the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), have called for the immediate release of the journalists.

Colombian authorities should do their utmost to locate the journalists and bring them to safety, and all sides in the Colombian civil conflict must respect the internationally recognized status of journalists as civilians,” Carlos Lauría, CPJ program director and senior program coordinator for the Americas, said in a press release.



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