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Highway security personnel assault cameraman, threaten journalists, obstruct media work

(FLIP/IFEX) - On 8 April 2007, journalist Omar Jaimes and cameraman Rodrigo Piñeros of Canal CRN television were mistreated by a security guard of the company CIVIG Ltd., at a toll booth on the Bogotá - Girardot highway in the municipality of Chinauta.

The incident occurred as the crew was returning from an assignment in the municipality of Melgar, department of Tolima, covering the operations to ensure smooth flow of traffic returning to the capital at the end of the Easter weekend. Upon arriving to the toll booth, where the crew intended to meet up with the commander of the Highway Police (Policía de Carreteras), brigadier general Guillermo Aranda Leal, a staff member of the private security company guarding the thoroughfare raised objections to the crew's filming of the area, and tried to stop them by covering the camera lens with a cap.

The journalists asserted that they had every right to film in that location, as it was on a public highway. Nonetheless, the security guard then physically assaulted the cameraman, damaging the viewfinder on his camera, Jaimes told FLIP.

Agents of the Highway Police who were on the scene intervened to halt the assault. Even so, the guard gestured to the crew and stated, in a threatening tone, "If you come back here again, I'll kick you out."

Engineer Álvaro Escalante of the National Institute of Concessions (Instituto Nacional de Concesiones, INCO), who is responsible for the Bogotá - Girardot highway concession, said that the incident would be investigated. He added: "The concession-holders are empowered to administer the toll booths, but not to restrict the work of journalists or freedom of the press."

In an 8 April statement, Rafael Hernández, operational manager for the highway concession in question, expressed regret over the incident, asserted the company's commitment to media access, and stated that the conduct of the employee in question was under investigation.

Later, in a communication to FLIP dated 13 April, Hernández stated that, according to independent witnesses, the cameraman was the one to assault the security guard, who only reacted in self-defence.

Brigadier General Aranda Leal, on the other hand, told Canal RCN that the incident was inexcusable and that "the roadways are public and the concession-holders do not own them; they are only administrators and the space is public." Captain Alberto Sabaah of the Highway Police, responsible for the highway in question, opined that the incident was an isolated one, and that the perpetrator should be punished to prevent any recurrence.

FLIP has established that this is not the only incident in which journalists were prevented from doing their work at near a highway toll booth. Giovanni Garay, a correspondent for Canal CRN in Fusagasuga, was previously threatened at gunpoint by an armed private security guard at the same toll booth while on assignment in the area.

In the municipality of Santa Rosa de Cabal, in the department of Risaralda, journalists of the newspaper "El Faro de Santa Rosa de Cabal" were similarly obstructed in their work by a highway administrator, as they were taking photographs to accompany a report about safety problems on some roads in the department.

Similarly, some months prior in Bogotá, Canal CRN journalist Otoniel Umaña was prevented from recording while near a highway toll booth, according to Jaimes.

FLIP denounces such interference with the work of journalists and urges the management of the National Institute of Highways (Instituto Nacional de Vías, INVIAS) and of INCO to issue a memorandum to all their staff insisting that they respect the work of journalists and permit them access. FLIP also asks the authorities to investigate the incidents described above, and to punish those responsible if appropriate. FLIP asserts that access to information is a fundamental right that encompasses physical access to sources of information. Acts of aggression against media workers are serious violations of freedom of the press and of the right of the public to receive information.

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