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Renewed death threats against journalists in Barrancabermeja and Popayán

(FLIP/IFEX) - On 22 November 2007, two journalists based in different departments of Colombia received death threats: Diro César González, director of the Barrancabermeja-based weekly "La Tarde", and Feibir Beltrán Luna, director of the Popayán-based Cauca Visión television station news programme "Cauca Noticias". Barrancabermeja is an oil port in Santander department and Popayán is the capital of Cauca department.

On the morning of 22 November González's wife, Tatiana Sánchez, who also works for "La Tarde", received at their home a condolence note expressing sympathy for the purported death of her husband. Such messages are understood in Colombia as death threats.

González told FLIP that the note did not make reference to any recent articles of his published in the newspaper, so he does not know for certain who is responsible for it.

González and Sánchez have been living under threat since January 2006, when González appeared on a "blacklist" of journalists slated for murder in Barrancabermeja. Weeks later, they began receiving threats and being followed, apparently by an individual connected to the paramilitary groups operating in the area (see IFEX alert of 23 January 2006). Due to those circumstances, the couple were forced to leave the region in March 2006, only returning in December of that 2006. They are currently being provided with some protective measures by the state.

The National Police Commander for Barrancabermeja, Colonel Óscar Torres, told FLIP that he was aware of the new threats against González and stated that the police are conducting the monitoring activities and investigations needed to guarantee the journalist's security.

In a separate development, Beltrán told FLIP he is concerned about the new death threat he has received. At 10:00 a.m. (local time) on 22 November, he received a call to his cell phone in which he was told "Buddy, you've been told in every way possible (. . .) you'd better not keep trying to be the Arizmendi of Popayán." The caller was referring to Darío Arizmendi, national news director of Caracol Radio, who had to leave the country in March 2007 due to threats (see alerts of 26 and 20 March 2007).

Beltrán notes that he has recently made various criticisms of the police on his programme.

Subinspector Claudia Liliana Gutiérrez, chief of risk analysis for the Intelligence Section of the National Police (Seccional de Inteligencia de la Policía Nacional, SIPOL) in Popayán, assured FLIP that this new threat is being covered in the investigations already in progress on the Beltrán case. She said that the police will continue to provide the security measures that have been ordered for the journalist, which she assured FLIP have been implemented in a thorough manner.

Beltrán first began receiving threats in February 2006, when he received telephone calls and leaflets warning him that the authors intended to kill him. The authors of those threats identified themselves as members of paramilitary groups. A 15-year old youth was murdered while traveling on a motorcycle similar to Beltrán's. Beltrán believes that he was the intended victim of the murder, because the day after, he found a message on his own motorcycle saying "You've escaped, you S.O.B. The paras." For several months after the murder, Beltrán continued to receive threatening telephone calls.

FLIP is worried about the new death threats to González and Beltran, since both journalists have been receiving various kinds of threats for several months from illegal groups. Therefore, FLIP urges the authorities to promptly implement stronger security measures. It also urges the legal authorities to intensify their efforts to determine the source of these death threats, which undermine freedom of information in both Cauca and Santander.

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