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Journalist covering public hearing arbitrarily harassed, briefly detained by police

(FLIP/IFEX) - The photographic editor of the Barranquilla-based newspaper "El Heraldo", Jairo Buitrago, was mistreated and detained by police officers when he refused to surrender to them photographs that he had taken at a public legal hearing in the city's Civic Centre. Various individuals were witness to the incident.

The 60-year-old Buitrago was left with bruised wrists after being taken in handcuffs along a central street to the police station, located in the city hall building.

According to José Granados, the editor of local news for "El Heraldo", as of noon on 20 May no explanation was given by police for their treatment of Buitrago. To the contrary, an official who witnessed the incident stated that the photographer had gone willingly with the police.

At the hearing, Buitrago was accompanied by his colleague Rosa Herrera who was permitted, by court officials and the police alike, to take notes; representatives of other media outlets were similarly permitted to take notes and even to take photographs and footage. "At no time did the judge tell me to stop taking photographs", said Buitrago.

The public hearing was on the case of a woman who, in April, ran her car into three persons on a motor-scooter; two of the accident victims died. The incident, which captured the interest of the whole city, led to the mayor's office prohibiting youths under 16 and pregnant women from riding on motor-scooters. The decision provoked protests from motor-scooter users, especially those using their scooters as taxis.

FLIP is concerned about the conduct of the police in this case, who seem unfamiliar with the fact that, in the new accusatory penal system, media coverage is permitted by default. No one can be denied access to hearings without a prior ruling limiting such access.

Through a prior ruling, a judge may limit media access to hearings if the judge believes that such access could: put the victims of or witnesses to a crime at risk; jeopardize national security; reveal the identity of minors; prejudice the right of the accused to an unbiased trial; or seriously undermine an investigation. In no circumstances, however, can a police officer arbitrarily decide to evict a journalist from a public hearing or, worse yet, demand that a journalist erase his or her photographs.

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