Will Colombia Stop Killing Its Journalists?

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Written by Jamie Shenk

Post-conflict Colombia is a dangerous place for its journalists. On August 1, 2018, a man on a motorcycle shot and killed the director of a local magazine as he waited at a stoplight in western Colombia. Just a few weeks earlier, three journalists from the prestigious outlet La Silla Vacía appeared on a hit list signed by the far-right paramilitary group, the Aguilas Negras. Less than 72 hours later, an anonymous user on Twitter posted that the prominent journalist María Jimena Duzán should be “raped, spat on, cut up with a chain saw, and hanged in Bolívar Square.”

Colombia has made remarkable strides in recent years. After ending its armed conflict with its largest guerrilla group in 2016, the country has held two of its most peaceful elections in decades and was welcomed into the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in early 2018. But along with a change of government, Colombia’s presidential election in June 2018 also ushered in a wave of threats and violence against the country’s media that threaten the country’s precarious position as an emerging regional power. As President Iván Duque settles into the presidential palace and decides the country’s direction, he must make protecting journalists a top priority to prove his commitment to a peaceful and just Colombia.

Throughout its decades-long armed conflict, Colombia consistently ranked among the deadliest countries for journalists in the Western Hemisphere. However, the situation improved markedly after the government committed to negotiations and ultimately signed a final peace deal with the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) in November 2016. According to the watchdog group the Committee to Protect Journalists, no journalists were killed in 2016. In August 2017, then-President and former newspaper editor Juan Manuel Santos said that improving Colombia’s press freedom ranking would be a priority for his final years in office. But any improvement proved fleeting.

Over the past several months, Colombian journalists who cover the country’s peace process have reported experiencing an “ugly and dangerous new atmosphere.” Journalists have received at least 90 death threats in 2018, compared to 65 in the same period in 2017. Over a period of 72 hours in July, six reporters from major national outlets were the targets of death threats, while the August murders of two local journalists in the Cauca Valley show that local reporters are likely most at risk.

Journalists are not the only ones at risk in Colombia; the threats come in the context of a disturbing wave of assassinations of community leaders and social activists. But while this broader violence is troubling, attacks against journalists are especially worrying for two reasons.

First, a free press is a crucial of any democratic government, but it is especially important for a country rebuilding after decades of armed conflict. The killings of journalists during the country’s armed conflict created virtual “information black holes” throughout rural Colombia. Where journalists are killed or intimidated into silence, Duque’s government in Bogotá and international observers will be unable to monitor and effectively protect the country’s fragile peace.

Second, and perhaps more troubling, research published in 2017 by the political scientists Anita Gohdes and Sabine Carey shows that killings of journalists are often a warning of worsening human rights conditions for the rest of the population. In their own words: “torture, killings, political imprisonment and disappearances of people generally become more likely in the two years following the killing of a journalist—regardless of who committed the crime.” Following their findings, Colombia’s peaceful elections this year are not necessarily a positive indicator—democratization and economic development are unlikely to outweigh the risks exposed when a journalist is murdered.

What can Duque do? For his part, he has already made statements denouncing violence and threats against journalists, including the specific threat against Duzán in July. During his presidential inauguration, Duque acknowledged the country’s heightened insecurity, calling on Colombians to defend and protect “the integrity of political and social leaders and our journalists. Every homicide, every attack, every threat hurts us.”

But Duque must also reinforce his words with concrete actions. As a first step, Duque should create a special task force to investigate and prosecute cases of cyber harassment against journalists, given the centrality of Twitter and social media in many of the recent death threats against Colombia’s journalists. Currently, no state agency in Colombia is dedicated to assisting victims targeted online. Duque could also follow Australia’s example and push to revise Colombia’s criminal code to take online harassment seriously before virtual threats become physical violence.

He must also lead by example. Duque’s closest advisor and mentor, former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez, is notorious for his attacks and slander campaigns against journalists on Twitter (Uribe is currently under investigation for witness tampering and bribery and has also been accused of harboring ties to paramilitary groups in the past). As Duque swears to protect Colombian journalists, he must hold his government to a higher standard of online behavior.

In his inaugural address, Duque promised to construct a Colombia that values legality and unity above all. He should see a free press as an ally that can help build Colombians’ trust in his administration by both trumpeting his successes and holding him accountable for his failures in this mission.

About the author: Jamie Shenk is a doctoral student in Sociology and a Clarendon scholar at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on social conflict and the extractive industries in post-conflict Colombia. She previously worked at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Latin American Program and Synergy Global Consulting. She graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University with a BA in History. 

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