Knight Center
Knight Center


Case of stigmatization demonstrates new dangers facing Colombian journalists

The recent case of stigmatization against Semana columnist Daniel Samper Ospina is just one example of the new types of threats facing journalists in Colombia as the deadly violence of decades past plummets.

For Pedro Vaca, executive director of the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP), although the number of journalists murdered due to work-related reasons has decreased (in 2016, there were no murders of journalists, and in 2017 the figure has remained at zero), other types of press violations are on the increase.

“There is another kind of violence in Colombia that is different from murder that has to do with threats to journalists because of their work, obstructions to journalistic work, even cases of kidnapping have occurred this year which marks violence as a resource of censorship used by actors who want to silence the press,” Pedro Vaca, executive director of FLIP, told the Knight Center.

In fact, the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published a statement on July 26 expressing its concern about "stigmatization and violence against journalists" in the country.

The entity urged the State “to strengthen the comprehensive measures for the prevention, protection, and prosecution in these cases.”

Alvaro Uribe Velez in 2010 (Photo by the World Economic Forum, available under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In particular, one of the cases mentioned in the release was that of Semana columnist Daniel Samper Ospina who sued former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe after the politician called him a "child rapist" through his account Twitter.

In the Tweet published by Uribe, he talked about a letter sent by a subscriber of Semana magazine who complained about the columns of Samper Ospina that led him to cancel his subscription. "Federico Escobar protests the offense made by the violator of children, Samper Ospina, against Antioquia, an offense published in Semana," the Tweet said.

After the subsequent controversy, the former leader did not give any evidence to back up the accusation, but tried to explain it was written to indicate that the columnist was a "violator of the rights of the children" when making fun of the name of the daughter of a Senator in Uribe’s party. He also added that when Samper directed SOHO magazine "he made pornographic publications with minors," El Espectador reported.

The columnist filed a tutela [a resource in the Colombian justice system to restore fundamental rights] against Uribe "for violating his right to a good name," according to FLIP.

On Aug. 2, the Superior Court of Bogotá ruled in favor of the journalist and ordered the senator to issue a “firm and precise” retraction of his accusation against Samper as a “rapist of children” or as a producer of “pornographic publications.” It was to be done through the same media in which the statements were made, “clarifying that these statements made previously by him are not based on available evidence; therefore, that it is not true what he said about the journalist," according to the ruling.

The court granted Uribe 48 hours from the time of the ruling to make the retraction,

“Despite my disagreement and out of the respect I owe to the administration of justice, I abide by the decision of the Bogota court. Consequently, as justice requires me, I correct that he is not a child molester. I never wanted to accuse him of physical or sexual rape of children. As far as child pornography is concerned, my judgment of value is rejected by the Court in a ruling that prevails over my opinion, an ordinance I accept, therefore, I have to accept that legally, according to criteria of the authority, it did not constitute child pornography,” Uribe’s retraction begins.

However, in his letter, Uribe offers his reasons why he believes that the columnist has affected the rights of minors, as well as that he has used physical aspects to mock some people, among other comments.

For his part, Samper published a video in which he expressed his satisfaction with the judge’s decision and although he accepted that the former president made the rectification "very much in his own way, I consider his rectification as a new boundary."

He added that he will continue his exercise of "political criticism and satire of whoever he must, including the person who had to rectify his defamation (injurias and calumnias) against me."

Stigmatization of journalists amidst polarization

The case of Samper Ospina has been one of the most prominent in the national press, and even the region, not only because of the seriousness of the accusation against him, but also because of the political weight that former President Uribe still has in the country.

In the midst of the controversy caused by Uribe's indictment, more than 50 journalists signed a letter demanding that the senator stick to the law and abandon his campaign of stigmatization and indictments against the press.

“It is time for former President Álvaro Uribe Vélez to leave behind the systematic practice of defaming, slandering and insulting his critics as if he were not an ex-president obligated to set an example, nor a citizen subject to the Penal Code," the letter began. "The limit of all Colombians is and should be the law. And it is time for the former president to live up to the enormous power he has been abusing without major consequences. 

According to the letter, what Uribe says is enough to tarnish the name of any person, which is why he must be a “responsible and dignified leader."

This was not the first time that Uribe referred to Samper in stigmatizing terms. He had called him "little bandit," "abuser of newborn girls," "clown," according to FLIP.

That is why, for Samper, the decision in his case can set a precedent to ensure that Uribe and other public officials will not make these kinds of statements.

"I hope that my case will serve as a precedent so that political figures such as Álvaro Uribe can not launch defamation campaigns through networks (which are often used to skip the mediation of traditional media) with impunity," Samper told the Knight Center. "At least this time he was met with a reaction from the journalists themselves, a call from the OAS Office of the Special Rapporteur and a judgment by a magistrate against him, with reprimand included. [...]. I hope the sum of one after another serves as a wall, so that it is increasingly difficult to activate his manual of defamation, which is always the same.”

Nor has Samper been the only journalist the former leader has targeted. Last May, he labeled Noticias Uno reporter Julián Martínez as "pro Farc." It came after the publication of a story that reported Uribe allegedly used state money on his properties while still a president, FLIP reported.

The list of journalists also includes Daniel Coronell, Gonzalo Guillén and Hollman Morris among others.

The case led people to think about the polarized state of the country and the use of social networks. The judgment that forced Uribe to amend his statement, for example, also accounts for the obligation of public officials to be more tolerant of criticism, and urged for the use of social networks, especially by opinion leaders (including journalists), to be carried out with greater responsibility.

“The promotion of hatred of any nature, so in vogue today, can give temporary gains for a flag but does not honor the human condition of its propagators and sooner rather than later will be reflected in phenomena such as those already lamented in neighboring countries and friends," the sentence states.

For Vaca, with FLIP, what worries his organization is the use of stigmatization against journalists by public officials who, in a polarized environment like that of Colombia, put the lives of reporters at risk.

"More than polarized media, what exists [in Colombia] is a polarized society where, what concerns us the most, is that public officials or people in social leadership not only do not contribute to a favorable environment but also encourage violence against journalists," Vaca said. "Public officials do not respond to criticism or denunciations from journalists, but attack via stigmatization."

Civil society has also taken part in these stigmatization processes. Prior to Samper's case, journalist Claudia Gurisatti, director of Noticias RCN and NTN24, reported that she was the victim of a social network harassment campaign, according to the Office of the Special Rapporteur.

On Twitter, the tag #GurisattiAUCN24 linked her to the former paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC). The journalist said she receives seven Tweets per minute against her. "Those who stigmatize me place my integrity at risk," she said in July.

Colombia, as Vaca explained, has not been disconnected from the global trend in which the media have become criticized for their role in reporting as well as being accused of broadcasting 'fake news.'

"Today, more than ever, transparency by the media is required," Vaca said. "It is important that media, in a transparent way, provide information that may be of interest to the audience, such as who they are, what interests they may have both politically and economically. That’s key.”


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