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Valle del Cauca department in western Colombia has one of the highest rates of press freedom violations in the country, forcing journalists into silence, the Foundation for Press Freedom (Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa, FLIP) has found.

According to FLIP's analysis, from 2003 to mid-2007, 50 violations were documented: 35 journalists were threatened, five of whom fled into exile; and three journalists were killed.

Cali is the city with the highest level of human rights violations in the department. Threats, intimidation, assaults and attempted murder by armed groups or corrupt politicians wanting to conceal their crimes has led to the widespread practice of self-censorship by journalists in the region.

"Here, one can only publish official pronouncements because to investigate puts one in danger," Blanca María Torres, editor of the newspaper "El Caleño", told FLIP.

In the port city of Buenaventura, armed groups vying for control over the drug trade tried to assassinate more than 100 people in 2006. Journalists who are supposed to be protected under a special government programme complain that precautionary measures, such as police patrols around journalists' homes and places of work, are no longer being taken.

FLIP says the cases it has documented do not represent all of the press freedom violations in the region. Journalists are often afraid to report them, or do not trust the authorities. The police, district attorneys, local administration and office of Vice President Francisco Santos told FLIP that they receive few complaints of threats against journalists. But journalists in the department say that the official bodies often have links with illegal, armed groups active in the area.

Meanwhile, in the capital, a Colombian human rights group is demanding an inquiry into accusations that illustrate the close ties between President Álvaro Uribe Vélez's government and the paramilitary.

Salvatore Mancuso, chief of the paramilitary umbrella group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC), recently testified before a special tribunal that Vice President Santos had urged AUC leaders to set up a paramilitary group in the capital, Bogotá. Such a presence was later established.

The human rights group Colectivo de Abogados has now called upon the Attorney General to initiate a thorough investigation into Mancuso's allegations.

Mancuso's testimony has worrisome implications for journalists targeted by the paramilitary. One emblematic case is that of Radionet journalist and popular comic Jaime Garzón, murdered on 13 August 1999 in Bogotá by the AUC. A Colectivo investigator of the case, journalist Claudia Julieta Suárez, has herself been subjected to surveillance and harassment by security and intelligence agents.

Other AUC members, in their testimony before the "justice and peace" hearings, have admitted murdering three journalists: José Emeterio Rivas Rivas, well known for his work with Calor Estéreo radio station in Barrancabermeja; Efraín Varela, director of Meridiano 70 radio station in Arauca; and Martín La Rotta Duarte, director of La Palma Estéreo radio station. Under the "justice and peace" process, former paramilitaries receive substantial sentence reductions in exchange for confessing their crimes and demobilising.

Visit these links:
- FLIP report on Valle del Cauca:
- "Semana" magazine on Mancuso's testimony (Spanish):
- Colectivo:
(2 October 2007)

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