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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

For the first time, Colombian Justice condemns the entire “criminal network” in a journalist murder case



Former Colombian legislator and politician Ferney Tapasco has been sentenced to 36 years in prison for being the mastermind of the 2002 murder of La Patria deputy editor Orlando Sierra who was killed because of his work.

This is the first case in Colombia that the entire “criminal network” of a crime against a journalist has been condemned by justice, from the perpetrators to the masterminds, according to the Foundation for Press Freedom (FLIP by it’s acronym in Spanish). It is also a landmark because of the international repercussions and the subsequent campaigns made to get justice.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the ruling “a landmark conviction that followed years of lobbying for justice by local journalists.”

This judgment is 13 years in the making, during which there were many setbacks to linking Tapasco to the crime, taking suspects to trial, and gaining convictions. FLIP said that more than nine witnesses were killed during this time.

“This case shows that in order to end the impunity, we can never give up. We must continue to demand the pursuit of justice until all those taking part in and responsible for crimes against journalists be punished,” said Juan Francisco Ealy Ortiz, chairman of the IAPA’s Impunity Committee. The organization said the case “represented a symbol of the fight against impunity in Colombia.”

The Criminal Tribunal of the Higher Court in Manizales’ June 24 ruling overturned a controversial 2013 acquittal of Tapasco for Sierra’s murder. La Patria reported that the court validated witness testimony that was not considered in the first case.

In addition to Tapasco, the court also sentenced Fabio López Escobar and Jorge Hernando López Escobar to almost 29 years in prison. Henry Calle Obando was acquitted of charges in the case.

The court said there had been a “criminal enterprise to kill” Sierra, according to FLIP.

A list of men were previously sentenced to prison for playing a role in Sierra’s murder.

Luis Fernando Soto Zapata was sent to prison for 19 years for carrying out the attack, but was released early. He was later killed in a police shootout in Cali. Two other men, Francisco Antonio Quintero Tabares and Luis Arley Ortiz Orozco were sentenced to 28 years in prison for being co-perpetrators of the murder, according to the IAPA. A court ruling is pending against Gabriel Jaime López Escobar.

The sentence against Tapasco is the “second highest penalty handed down for the violent death of a journalist in Colombia,” according to El Tiempo. The highest is 39 years for the February 2005 murder of journalist Magangué Rafael Enrique Prins.

Sierra, 42, was shot upon arriving to work with his daughter on January 30, 2002 in downtown Manizales. He died two days later in the hospital.

In the 1990s, Sierra started writing about Tapasco, former president of the Liberal Party in the Caldas department, and crimes for which he had been convicted, according to CPJ.  He “also investigated possible links between Tapasco and a death squad.”

He denounced political corruption in Caldas in his much-followed Sunday column “Punto de Encuentro,” according to the IAPA.

FLIP quoted the court as saying that Sierra “constantly criticized the ruling political coalition” and linked state contracts to Tapasco’s family members. “This generated resentment toward Sierra Hernández, in his role as journalist, for questioning his power, his political leadership and his leadership.”

Regarding planning of the murder, a witness told the court that Sierra was a “victim with a national reputation, so his death and subsequent impunity required a thorough preparation,” La Patria reported.

Sierra had bodyguards months before the shooting in anticipation of a possible action taken by Tapasco, according to according to El TIempo. A friend said the journalist had told them just days before the murder that Tapasco was going to kill him.

After Sierra was killed, local and national media created a coalition called El Proyecto Manizales to investigate his death. That project was later expanded to investigate the death of journalist Guillermo Bravo.

The IAPA’s Rapid Response Unit in Colombia, with support from the Knight Foundation, investigated Sierra’s murder and publicized the crime through the documentary “La Batalla del Silencio” (The Battle of Silence). Additionally, the IAPA and ANDIARIOS, a Colombian newspaper association, used the murder trial as a case study whose “recommendations were taken into account for the 2010 legal reform which increased the length of the statute of limitations in crimes against journalists from 20 to 30 years,” according to the organization.

The delay in Tapasco’s conviction is emblematic of problems with impunity concerning crimes against journalists in Colombia. The country ranked 8th on CPJ’s 2014 Global Impunity Index, though the organization noted a decline in killings of journalists. They pointed to “overburdened prosecutors and mishandling of evidence” as reasons for delays in criminal investigations.

With respect to the court’s decision, Nicolás Restrepo, editor of La Patria, said, “What is important is the precedent that has been set for journalism in general, as it is a message for press freedom to be strengthened and helps to improve the situation with regard to crimes against journalists that continue to go unpunished.” 



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