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CAPSULE REPORT: Threats, surveillance and restrictions undermine journalists trying to cover hearings on paramilitary crimes

(FLIP/IPYS/IFEX) - The following is an abridged 26 June 2007 special report by FLIP and IPYS:

Special report: Journalists demand protective measures to allow them to safely cover the "Justice and Peace" process

Journalists covering the criminal hearings near Medellín of the demobilised members of the paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) are working in a climate of terror. More and more frequently, they are being taped and photographed while they work. As well, they are receiving threatening messages and intimidating responses to questions they ask in interviews. Aside from causing the journalists to censor themselves, this has begun to silence the AUC's victims, who had emerged from anonymity to ask for truth and reparations.

(. . . ) "Normally, during these kinds of situations journalists meet at the site while they lobby to obtain interviews. Since they can't enter the rooms where the paramilitary are testifying to the 'Justice and Peace' prosecutors, they have to wait outside, where the families of the victims and friends of the paramilitary also gather," explained "Semana" magazine on 8 June 2007. That is where some of the demobilized paramilitary group members and unidentified individuals close to the AUC have been quietly recording journalists' activities. The apprehensive journalists have become accustomed to being photographed, having notes taken about their activities, and having people on motorcycles circling around them repeatedly.

On 6 June, the situation became critical. The former chief of "Bloque Élmer Cárdenas" paramilitary group -Fredy Rendón Herrera, alias "El Alemán" - said in the hearing that the press was "tendentious" and "infiltrated by the guerrilla groups." As well, outside the prosecutor's office, a group of demobilized paramilitary, their family members and people apparently hired for the purpose, held a large rally, an expression of their revelry in the situation, which quickly became an offensive attack on the much smaller number of victims present. While the former celebrated, the latter simply tried to read a press release on crimes attributed to "El Alemán." According to "El Colombiano", 370 of Rendón Herrera's followers were bussed in from the town of Necloclí, to support the "social work" done by the paramilitary in Urubá region. They overwhelmed the 70 victims, relatives and representatives, with a "carnival" including music, dancing, and confetti, accompanied by Rendón Herrera dancing at the window from inside the premises of the hearing.

A woman television news programme journalist said that although "we had previously noticed them around, keeping track of our conversations with the victims, that day it was completely shameless. There were two guys standing a meter and a half away the entire time. They never said anything to me, but stared aggressively, as if saying 'we're here'. It was a way to threaten us. The photographer gestured to me, 'watch out with these guys.' Their mission was to stick to me like bubble gum. The editing and press rooms were filled with fear; the obvious questions were, Why are they taking our photographs, taping us, and following us on our interviews? How are they going to use the images and tapes? Who will cover the next hearings if appropriate measures aren't taken?"

"It's a way of terrorising people. We don't think these photographs are being taken for historical purposes or for a book. They're individualized photographs and images of each of the journalists," commented Fernando Cifuentes, a journalist with Teleantioquia and President of the Antioquian Journalists' Association (APA).

This is also true of various pejorative comments made about journalists by the AUC members, spokespersons and press chiefs. (. . . )

There have also been numerous other restrictions on the coverage of the hearings. "I have never been inside a hearing room, nor a victim's room. I've never been allowed in. They allow one journalist with one camera to go in, on behalf of all the media outlets, to tape a few brief minutes, prior to the hearing," said Cifuentes.

In January 2007, faced with complaints by the media and the victims about lack of access to the hearings where the paramilitary were testifying on their crimes, Prosecutor General Mario Iguarán Arana stated that his office had no objection whatsoever to the broadcasting of the testimony.

However, so far, not one hearing has been broadcast and media coverage is completely irregular and scant.

Some journalists have entered the hearings to listen, but are not allowed to record or videotape the paramilitary statements. Therefore, they are obliged to use the accounts they are given outside the hearing rooms by the families of the victims or by the paramilitary, or the members of the national reparations and reconciliation commission. Much of the information is based on accounts by third parties.

Journalists in Medellín believe the paramilitary are battling to control the media, influence the journalists' agenda and keep them in suspense or confused. The demobilized paramilitary often prevent each other from talking with the media, and promise to reveal information at the next hearing, as if the hearings were instalments in a soap opera. An organisation allied with the AUC took out full-page advertisements in both "El Espectador" and "El Tiempo" newspapers lauding demobilised leaders.

As a way of protecting themselves, given the lack of support from the authorities, journalists are doing their work in groups. They consider the restrictions imposed on them unfair, especially compared to the freedom allotted the demobilized paramilitary. They informed the Police about an unidentified individual with a hidden video camera in his briefcase, without any action being taken. Their reports on other similar incidents were met with the same lack of response. The journalists have said that on the contrary, they feel they are also being kept under surveillance by the police and army. (. . . )

For the full text of the report in Spanish, see: http://www.flip.org.co/veralerta.php?idAlerta=215 An English version of the report will be available at some time in the future.

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