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Barrancabermeja councillers block coverage; Montería builder brags he can arrange impunity for assault on journalists

(CESO-IFJ/IFEX) - Pedro José Severiche Acosta, a journalist with the persecuted radio station Antena del Río, was the victim of an act of aggression by a group of city councillors in the oil port of Barrancabermeja. The councillors seized his tape recorder when they realised he had recorded part of a decisive debate, reports the association representing journalists in Barrancabermeja and Magdalena Medio River valley (Corporación de Periodistas de Barrancabermeja y el Magdalena Medio).

The incident occurred on the night of 13 January 2008 inside the Barrancabermeja city hall, when the coalition of councillors who appointed the city's Comptroller and Ombudsperson met to complain about what they considered a "lack of commitment" on the part of two councillors who were apparently drifting toward another political alliance.

The councillors' shouting and coarse language could be heard by a group of journalists who cover the usual work of the council and who at that moment were outside the room but within earshot. When the councillors realised that Severiche was taping them, they not only berated him, but also seized his tape recorder, asked several police officers to remove him from the building and threatened to take him to court.

Support from other journalists was swift. Sereriche was released and the assailants - which included the City Council president Luz Enna Cortés Angarita and her colleague Diego Elkin Arango, who both belong to the Convergencia Ciudadana, and Liberals Nestor Riaño and Nadin Saad - were asked to return his equipment and audio tape.

However, the councillors say they will only return the illegitimately seized tape recorder and tape if the journalist signs a document, the content of which has not been revealed.

"A few disagreements between manipulative politicians turned into a serious assault on press freedom," said Eduardo Márquez, president of the Colombian Federation of Journalists (Federación Colombiana de Periodistas, FECOLPER), and also the executive director of the IFJ's Solidarity Centre in Colombia (CESO-IFJ). "The signing of a document by our colleague, who is also the president of the Barrancabermeja journalists association, would constitute an illegal constraint, another crime on top of the seizure and violation of his right to carry out his work," Márquez added. He said that CESO-IFJ will bring the case to the attention of the national Attorney General's Office (Procuraduría General de la Nación.)

Márquez indicated that FECOLPER and CESO-IFJ believe that journalists may record any conversation that occurs in a public building, in the absence of a rule forbidding them to do so. Under the Colombian Constitution access to information can only be limited to safeguard public safety or national security, and any such limitations must be established by regulation. In this case, the incident occurred in a public building between public officials who were on duty, and it involved a matter of public interest. The shouting from the meeting was not private, and was itself newsworthy due to its unusual nature. The stealing or seizure of the tape recorder is a clearly arbitrary act of aggression.

Marquéz also reiterated concern about a similar case in the city of Montería, capital of the Córdoba department. An ex-mayor now working as a contractor for the city assaulted Pompilio Silva Sánchez, manager of the "Zona Franca" television programme, and photojournalist Milton Carmona Morelo, who also works for the programme. FECOLPER and CESO-IFJ are asking the Attorney General's Office to keep a close watch on the criminal proceedings, initiated at Offices 26 and 21 of the Prosecutor General (Fiscalía), in order to ensure that the justice system functions as it should and that society's interests in having a press free from threats and pressure is protected, given that the builder has now apparently bragged that he can "fix things" with the Prosecutor General's offices.

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