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Barrancabermeja photojournalist receives threat, judge interferes in his work

(FLIP/IFEX) - On 18 March 2008 in Barrancabermeja, Santander department, "Vanguardia Liberal" newspaper photojournalist Alfredo Estévez was impeded in his work by a judge who made him erase photographs he took at a public hearing. The day after, he received a threat from an unidentified source.

The reporter was covering a public hearing at the First Criminal Municipal Court (Juzgado Primero Penal Municipal) regarding charges of cattle theft against four men. Once Judge Alicia Martínez Ulloa ended the hearing, Estévez took photographs of the courthouse and the accused, which is permitted since the hearing was public.

Once the reporter left the courthouse, a police officer caught up to him, asked him to go with him to the judge's chamber, and obliged him to erase the photographs of the hearing. Estévez told FLIP that Judge Martínez Ulloa berated him for taking the photographs, telling him that doing so during her hearings was prohibited. She warned him that if he published a photograph, he "would get into problems."

The judge, in a press release, denied that she had asked the reporter to erase his photographs. She said that Estévez was "making those released line up to take their pictures" and added that she had simply reminded him that the publication of the photographs had to respect the presumption of innocence of the accused.

The judge also said that Estévez's complaint "was not in accordance with the actual events, witnessed by others, and could easily be disproven by any of the people who witnessed the incidents." However, FLIP verified the journalist's account with some witnesses, who denied the judge's version of the events, although the witnesses did note that the reporter was verbally aggressive with the police officer.

A government source who asked not to be named told FLIP that Martínez Ulloa's conduct would be inexcusable under any circumstances. The source added, "the principle regarding publicity that the accusatory criminal justice system envisages for public hearings was violated."

On 19 March, "Vanguardia Liberal" published an article on the capture by the army of the four people who had been accused of stealing cattle, accompanied by a photograph of the men, provided by the army. That day, at around 6:30 p.m. (local time), Estévez received a telephone call in which he was told, "you S.O.B, get out of Barrancabermeja, or we're going to screw you around."

The threat worries Estévez, who is not sure where it came from: "It may be from the accused, who appeared in the photograph that 'Vanguardia' published," given that they were released after the hearing.

FLIP is concerned about the judge's actions, since she should know that under the new accusatory criminal justice system, the public nature of the hearings is the rule. No one's access to the hearings can be denied without a prior court order. In general, preliminary hearings, such as this one, are public.

Through a prior court ruling, a judge can restrict publicity on the hearing when he or she considers that such publicity will lead to one of the following consequences: it will endanger one of the victims, witnesses or experts involved in the trial; it will affect national security; minors will be exposed; it will interfere with the right of the accused to a fair trial; or it will seriously undermine the investigation. However, in no case can a judge arbitrarily decide that a journalist must withdraw from a hearing, or, even less, oblige him to erase a photograph.

FLIP asks the Prosecutor General's Office (Fiscalía General de la Nación) to investigate the threat received by the reporter.

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