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Prosecutors, jurists, journalists call for reduction in "relative impunity" for crimes against the press

(IAPA/IFEX) - Bogota, April 27, 2009 - Public prosecutors, judges and members of the press agreed that the reduction of sentences in cases of crimes against journalists must be limited to prevent what has become known as "relative impunity." The call came during a forum here held by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the Colombian National Newspapers Association (ANDIARIOS) and the Attorney General's Office.

In his opening words, IAPA President Enrique Santos Calderón declared, "Judges and we journalists both understand that violence, impunity and the lack of an effective justice system go against the rule of law and common well-being."

The day-long training course, titled "Offenses and Crimes against Journalists," brought together 126 public prosecutors, judges and investigators. It was held in Bogotá with video conferencing to Pereira, Medellín, Cali, Barranquilla, Sincelejo, Bucaramanga, Cúcuta and Montería. The forum was a follow-up to the IAPA-sponsored Hemisphere Conference on Justice, The Press and Impunity held in the Dominican Republic in July 2007 with the participation of 24 Supreme Court chief justices from throughout the Americas.

Santos Calderón informed that the IAPA and ANDIARIOS had conducted a study of the murder case of Colombian journalist Orlando Sierra in which the murderer was condemned to a twenty-year prison sentence but was released in fewer than five. That study led to recommendations to the legislative and judicial branches of government regarding "paroles and inconsistencies in the reward system that benefit many criminals."

For his part, Colombian Assistant Attorney General Guillermo Mendoza Diago said, "What is needed is an adjustment to the 'judicial reward system' restricting sentence reduction and making minimum prison sentences mandatory." He added, "At the time of sentencing, judges must bear in mind the importance of the victim and the role he plays in society since applying the full force of the law translates into real prevention of further homicides."

Within this context, the debate focused on the need to understand that a journalist's murder implies harm to society and his assassination affects the public's right to know. This principle was raised during the keynote speech by jurist Asdrúbal Aguiar who cited the standards applied by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Aguiar stated that "stiffer penalties for murder or violation of journalists' right of personal integrity are not only reasonable and necessary, but do not compromise the principle of citizens' equality before the law, given that what we seek is not special protection of these professionals as such, but rather protection of the constitutional role that the press and free speech perform in a democratic society. So when a crime is committed to silence the voice of the press, an attack is made upon the very backbone of democratic experience, without which all human rights and guarantees are compromised.

IAPA President Santos Calderón pointed out during the forum that in Colombia a total of 20 journalists' murderers have been sentenced and a number of murders solved thanks to testimony given by paramilitaries under the umbrella of the Justice and Peace Law in a process which the IAPA requested specifically of Attorney General Mario Iguarán two years ago.

Santos Calderón also called attention to the large number of cases that remain unpunished in 57 work-related murders of journalists over the last 15 years and the "relative impunity" enjoyed in the majority of these cases - a reference to the light sentences handed down to those found guilty of masterminding the crimes.

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