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Cúcuta Municipal Police repeatedly harass local journalists

(FLIP/IFEX) - A worrisome situation has arisen since October 2008 in the city of Cúcuta, Norte de Santander department, in northeastern Colombia, where journalists have been insulted and assaulted when they are covering judicial issues.

This situation was brought to the attention of FLIP by various journalists and photojournalists from the "La Opinión" newspaper. The journalists who were consulted said that these incidents started in October and have been happening repeatedly ever since. The attacks take place when journalists attempt to take pictures of and collect statements about incidents of interest to the public, such as homicides, robberies and protests.

Gabriela Sierra, a photojournalist with "La Opinión", said that she has been assaulted multiple times. On one of these occasions, a police captain hit her, pushed her out of the way and insulted her. "He used crude words to get me away from the area. I was only taking photographs; I was not crossing the security tape. I was not interfering with the crime scene," she said. Sierra indicated that another time she was covering a women's protest when she was pushed and hit by riot police officers.

In a separate incident, Cristian Herrera, a journalist with "La Opinión", told FLIP that he and photojournalist Édison Figueroa were struck by an officer who was annoyed by their presence during the removal of a body from a crime scene.

Herrera added that the hostile attitude that the police force exhibits toward journalists is demonstrated "almost every day," and said that it happens to all "La Opinión" reporters. He also said he has expressed his disapproval of the actions of the police officers to the deputy commander of the Cúcuta Metropolitan Police, Colonel Carlos Enrique Villadiego, who sent a letter to the newspaper apologising for the incidents. Nevertheless, the altercations have continued to take place.

FLIP interviewed Villadiego, who admitted that some journalists had been "inconvenienced", but he explained that it was not an ongoing situation. He said that the difficulties have come from the recent implementation of a new accusatory penal system, which demands special procedures for the protection of crimes scenes. "At first, officers and journalists had doubts about the procedures, but they have been resolved," he added.

According to Villadiego, in the case of Sierra, no assault took place, instead she was "moved out of the way with the protestors so that the street they had blocked could be cleared." In the case of Herrera and Figueroa, he said that the officer who assaulted them was later relieved of his position. Finally, he said that he has personally told his officers to respect the work of the press.

FLIP is concerned about these incidents and calls on the Cúcuta Metropolitan Police to respect the work of all journalists and media workers. The role of journalists in these types of incidents is clearly to gather information and, though journalists must respect proper protocol according to the penal process, police cannot apply the law in an arbitrary manner.

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