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Police violence against journalists during Colombian coffee worker strike

(RSF/IFEX) - In a letter to the Minister of the Interior, Reporters Without Borders calls attention to recurrent violence facing journalists covering the strike of coffee growers in the departments of Huila and Tolima:

Paris, 8 March 2013
Fernando Carrillo Flórez
Minister of the Interior
Republic of Colombia

Dear Mr. Minister,

Reporters Without Borders, an international press freedom organization, wishes to call your attention to recurrent violence facing journalists covering the strike of coffee growers (“paro cafetero”) in the departments of Huila and Tolima. Since the movement began on 25 February 2013 many media professionals have been targeted for attack by members of the mobile anti-riot force (ESMAD).

In Garzón (Huila) on 27 February, several ESMAD officers detonated tear gas grenades in the offices of Radio Garzón, where farmers had taken refuge from attacks. Many radio station employees were injured by the tear gas. They include Humberto Sosa, Angel Vargas and Luz Ángela Rodriguez. Ms. Rodriguez is seven months pregnant and had to be hospitalized. Since the attack, Radio Garzón has gone off the air, due to serious damage to equipment.

Similar incidents occurred in Ibagué (Tolima), where several journalists suffered the effects of violent confrontations between the farmers and ESMAD. The officers launched tear gas grenades inside a restaurant where journalists and coffee farmers had taken refuge. Several journalists were violently set upon by ESMAD members. The journalists include Miguel Gómez (FM radio), Germán Acosta (RCN Radio), Milton Henao (Telesur), Oscar Borja (Q'Hubo newspaper), Nelson Lombana (Semanario Voz), as well as journalists from alternative media.

On the same day, against the backdrop of the strike, Edgar Donoso (TV Caracol), and another journalist of RCN Television and the camera operators with whom they were working, were attacked physically and verbally by officers of the Colombian National Police in Huila. The officers also damaged the journalists' equipment. To be sure, Gen. Rodolfo Palomino, who was in the area, apologized for the incident.

In Neiva (Huila), security forces burst into the offices of the Colombia Informa news service on the pretext of searching for explosives allegedly used in the strike. The agency's journalists expressed their concern at this apparently legally unjustified search, which clearly was aimed at intimidating them. The news service had regularly reported on police abuse of demonstrators.

Lastly, in Fresno (Tolima), on 4 March, Rodrigo Callejas, editor of the Región al Día newspaper, was threatened and prevented from covering incidents linked to the coffee farmers' strike. The threats came from armed and masked men who had infiltrated the strikers' movement. The day before, journalists from Telecafé had been prevented from filming in parts of the city by a similar group of individuals.

Reporters Without Borders condemns these police abuses of journalists, which are especially frequent during demonstrations in Colombia and which hinder the freedom of information. Previously, in the context of peace negotiations with the FARC and a massive mobilization of civil society in October 2012, several media professionals and human rights defenders were victims of police brutality during demonstrations that were part of the “National Week of Indignation”.

Reporters Without Borders emphasizes that news media play a critical role during demonstrations. Journalists relay the grievances that demonstrators express and report the response by authorities, thereby opening a debate on the issues. Hostility toward journalists from security forces reflects the frequent accusation that journalists ignore objectivity in their reporting. But journalists are only doing their job and have no intention of making common cause with protesters.

The State has the duty to protect freedom of information and to protect journalists, as required by Article 73 of the Constitution of Colombia.

Therefore, Reporters Without Borders requests that you assure the enforcement of the rights of journalists to cover demonstrations in person, to film, to take photographs and to interview those involved. Police agencies must commit themselves to respect the neutrality of news professionals.

Impunity must not be allowed for those responsible for abuses of power. These cases must prompt systematic investigation, with penal and disciplinary sanctions against officers found guilty of undermining the right to information and of attacking journalists. It would also be appropriate to establish a system to compensate for medical costs arising from violence against journalists, as well as for expenses due to confiscation and destruction of equipment.

These recommendations by Reporters Without Borders are echoed in a report on 21 January by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights concerning the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of peaceful demonstrations. We encourage you to follow these recommendations, in order to protect the freedom of information in Colombia, especially during media coverage of social movements.

I thank you for your attention to these matters, and stand ready to provide any additional information you may require.

Christophe Deloire
Secretary General of Reporters Without Borders