Endangered Journalists  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 2003

Endangered Journalists   

A percolating brew of drug cartels, right- wing paramilitary units and Marxist guerrillas: Welcome to Colombia, where some of those unhappy with coverage are more apt to communicate their views with death threats or the real thing than with letters to the editor.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     


The call to the reporter's cell phone came from inside a blood-splattered prison where torture and murder were part of a grisly routine. A notorious paramilitary leader known as "the baker" wanted to talk. The directions were precise: She was to meet the inmate, a convicted killer, alone at 10 a.m. in the warden's office the following day.

It was an opportunity Jineth Bedoya Lima could not refuse. She had written about clashes among rival factions inside the maximum-security compound housing some of Colombia's most vicious criminals. But a stark reality gave the reporter pause.

Death threats received by Lima and others who delved into the secretive underworld of drug cartels, right-wing paramilitary units and Marxist guerrillas hung heavy in the newsroom of El Espectador, a newspaper known for fearless investigations. As a safeguard, an editor and photographer accompanied her to the infamous La Modelo prison near Bogotá.

When they arrived, guards ordered them to wait. Exactly what happened next is hazy. According to stories in the local press, the editor and photographer stepped away for a few seconds as they awaited clearance. One version says they went to buy sodas at a nearby concession stand. When they returned Lima had vanished. No screams, no signs of a struggle, no eyewitnesses willing to talk.

That night, a taxi driver spotted a young woman, bloodied and swollen, her hands tied, crawling out of a garbage dump.

Police reports show that Lima was admitted to a local hospital around 8 p.m. "near nervous collapse." Later, there were terrifying recollections: the biting, acidic odor as dizziness overwhelmed her at the prison entrance; a man with shiny shoes and a scar over one eye hissing, "Don't look up," as he shoved a gun into her spine; black-masked thugs slamming fists into her diminutive 5-foot frame.

Worst of all, Lima relived the agony of the gang rape, one attacker passing her off to another while she prayed to die. Her ordeal occurred on May 25, 2000. The reporter was 26 years old. In interviews afterward, she told how her captors yanked her head back by her hair and ordered her to "pay attention. We are sending a message to the press in Colombia."

In this violence-plagued Andean country, known for its brutal narcotics trafficking and savage civil war, media professionals like Lima are caught in a crossfire from the left, the right and the government. Colombia has been labeled "the most dangerous beat in the Western Hemisphere" by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

There is ample evidence to support CPJ's assessment that Colombia is one of the "10 worst places to be a journalist." While precise figures are hard to come by, some reports list 44 Colombian media professionals killed during the 1990s. Dozens more have been kidnapped, tortured and forced into exile. Right-wing forces have acknowledged committing some of the murders.

The World Association of Newspapers issued a report after a recent conference, placing Colombia at the top of a list of countries where the most journalists have been killed in 2002. Ten had died there, according to the group.

A long history of violence against the press has landed Colombia on the "Impunity Black List" compiled by the Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders. That means it is one of 21 countries, including Burma, China and Iraq, where murderers, abductors and torturers of journalists are granted full or partial immunity by their governments. According to the organization, 95 percent of such crimes go unpunished in Colombia.

Carlos Castaño, one of the most vicious paramilitary chieftains, has boasted in interviews about executing journalists. Wanted on charges of kidnapping, murder and arms trafficking, he is listed by CPJ as one of the "Top 10 Enemies of the Press."

Castaño, a death squad leader, views journalists as "military targets" or tools of his enemies. He accuses reporters of being spies and rebel sympathizers. He heads Colombia's largest paramilitary group, called AUC. Its nickname: the head-cutters.

To outsiders, living with the threat of being beaten to death, gang-raped or cut down by gunfire for reporting the news is mind-boggling. Why do premier journalists like Lima continue to square off against people who have been known to shoot school children and decapitate their enemies? What safeguards, if any, can they depend on as they fulfill their role as public watchdogs?

"These are among the most endangered journalists in the world," says Frank Smyth, CPJ's Washington representative, who has traveled to the region to investigate the brutality. "There is no place as consistently frightening to me as Colombia."

When journalists cross into taboo areas--arms and cocaine trafficking, for example, or the murky connection between right-wing paramilitary units and corrupt government officials--intimidation often follows. Rapid-fire death threats come by telephone, e-mail and letters.

The roster of those who have been assassinated or intimidated clearly indicates that Colombian journalists can be picked off anywhere, at any time. Accounts compiled by International Freedom of Information Exchange, CPJ and other media organizations provide the documentation.

Attacks often occur in journalists' homes and in front of loved ones. Radio broadcaster Jorge Enrique Urbano Sánchez was shot in July 2001 while celebrating his 55th birthday with friends in a park in the coastal city of Buenaventura, according to CPJ's Web site. In a broadcast just before his death, he denounced a local criminal gang called "Tumba Puertas"--Knock Down Doors.

That same month, according to CPJ, Eduardo Estrada Gutiérrez, a local radio reporter in the municipality of San Pablo, was shot as he returned home with his wife from a family reunion. A year later, Mario Prada Diaz, of the weekly El Semanario Sabanero in northeast Colombia, was abducted from his home late at night and shot to death.

José Duviel Vásquez Arias was one of three journalists from radio station La Voz de la Selva--The Voice of the Jungle--assassinated during a seven-month period in 2001. Others from this station have fled the country.

Sometimes, the threats are surreal. This past March, seven journalists, accused of being "gossipy sons-of-bitches," received notices of their own funerals. They were ordered to leave the country within 72 hours or die. Letters of condolence sent to family members have become common as warnings.

The funeral notices were signed "Death Commando" and included an image of Jesus. The journalists were investigating high-profile criminal and drug organizations. Three went into hiding.

In some cases, the intimidation is intensely personal. Early last year, television reporter Carlos José Lajud listened as anonymous callers described his every move, proof that he was in their gun sights. One day, a stranger on the street grabbed him by the arm, accused him of having a "big mouth" and predicted he would "disappear."

For Lajud, it was the replay of a nightmare. In 1993, his father, also a reporter, was shot and killed after he accused a mayor of corruption.

Jorge Enrique Botero, director of current affairs programming for Caracol Television, sent his family away and went into hiding after receiving death threats because of a documentary about government troops and police being held in jungle prisons by leftist rebels.

Callers sometimes played recordings of Botero's private phone conversations as proof they were stalking him. In January 2001, two death threats arrived at his home that read, "We offer our condolences to the Botero family for the death of Jorge Enrique Botero." The journalist briefly left the country, then returned to freelance.

At times, journalists have been used as couriers. During her captivity, Jineth Bedoya Lima's tormentors repeatedly taunted her with the names of colleagues they planned to kill. One of them was Ignació Gomez, a leading investigative journalist in Colombia who, at the time, also worked at El Espectador. They threatened to "cut him into little pieces," Lima reported.

In an article for Newsday in October 2001, María Teresa Ronderos, editor of Semana, Colombia's largest magazine, described what it was like to live under the constant threat of physical harm.

"When terrorism is so common, the fear changes. It is not a strong, heart-pounding panic, but a kind of permanent paranoia.... There was a time when I was sure every motorcyclist that went by was going to shoot me," Ronderos wrote. "It was not rational to think like that, but my fear was more powerful than any rational argument."

Ronderos is board president of the Foundation for Freedom of the Press in Colombia, an organization in the forefront of helping journalists there. She travels throughout the country conducting workshops on safety issues. The real heroes, she says, are those operating out of the limelight in small cities and rural areas under the control of corrupt politicians. "These are some amazing people," she said in a telephone interview from Bogotá.

Why does Ronderos put her life on the line? "Institutions in Colombia are very weak. The media has a lot of possibilities to help build society by pointing out what's wrong and by doing watchdog work," the editor says. "The press here is very competitive, very open and has contributed a lot" to keeping Colombia from falling apart entirely. "Journalists are like the glue."

Journalists often cite helping their beleaguered nation as a reason for continuing the dangerous work. Still, there is an undercurrent of fear.

"Sometimes I write and publish, then for the next three days, I really suffer worrying that I went too far, that I put a source or myself at risk," Ronderos says. "This is very, very common. Some of my colleagues are more brave than I am." She singles out Ignació Gomez as "an incredibly brave journalist."

In a recent interview, Gomez, 41, talked about why he stays on the job. "I love my life. My plan is to live for 120 years. But if there is a big story and it is good for the people and is workable, then I will do it," says the reporter, who has seen 14 of his colleagues killed, more than 20 kidnapped and one raped in retribution for their work.

"It is an internal feeling that, at least for now, I will not fall into their hands," adds Gomez, who directs investigations for a public affairs television show called "Noticias Uno." He fled the country four times, most recently in 2000, after he linked paramilitary chieftain Castaño to a massacre in the village of Mapiripan. He's exposed everything from collusion between drug lords to corrupt soccer teams.

Two years ago, Maud Beelman, director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington, D.C., teamed up with Ronderos on a project that documented how some tobacco companies are involved in cigarette smuggling. Beelman calls the former Knight Fellow at Stanford University "one of the best journalists I ever worked with."

"In conversations with my colleagues [from Colombia], they feel if they are doing good investigative reporting, they are being patriots and helping their country," Beelman says. "They sometimes make brief comments how bad it is getting, but to their credit, they don't belabor the point. That's one of the things that makes it so amazing. They don't talk about the danger a lot, and they certainly don't complain."

Some who have lived under constant death threats choose to leave Colombia for a time to study and practice journalism abroad. María Cristina Caballero, the former editor of investigations at the daily newspaper El Tiempo, remembers a period in 1999 when a string of messages filled her voice mail, warning: "You will not be alive at the end of the day."

Cards, with hearts and flowers on them, carried handwritten death threats. She received a note saying every member of her family would be killed if she did not back off a story. Neighbors called her cell phone to warn that they had observed a gunman hiding near her apartment door. She quickly went into hiding. "It seems that someone had hired a killer," she says calmly.

Some believe it was Caballero's daring reporting on the infiltration of drug money into the highest ranks of government and on the massacres of peasants that put her on the hit list. She once rode a horse through the jungle for eight hours to Castaño's secret headquarters for an exclusive interview. The physical rigors of the trek in the rain, over a treacherous landscape, left her with a severe back injury.

Caballero, who won CPJ's International Press Freedom Award in 1999, is a fellow at the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University, where she previously had a Nieman Fellowship. A colleague in Colombia once told her, "If they kill you, we'll never know exactly who it was because you are exposing all of these people."

She returned home for three months last summer to work on a research project. Opinion pieces she produced during that period appeared in the New York Times, Boston Globe and Miami Herald.

In an article for London's Guardian in May 2002, Francisco Santos, former editor of El Tiempo, explained why he fled the country in 2000 after being threatened by a powerful guerrilla group known as FARC--the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Ten years earlier, he had been kidnapped by the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar and held for nearly eight months. Santos lived in Spain and worked for the daily newspaper El País. He has since returned to Colombia and is now the country's vice president.

The wake-up call came when he tried to buy insurance and was refused. "Obviously, the chances of being killed in Colombia are high, and when you are a journalist, they are even higher. Yet, journalists keep doing their job. And keep dying for it," wrote Santos, who had been labeled a guerrilla sympathizer by right-wing forces.

"At El Tiempo, we tried to rotate reporters on dangerous beats. To be honest, certain stories with a high impact were not done due to the danger they carried."

Santos holds Colombian journalists partly responsible for some of the reaction to their work. "Many stories, due to bad reporting, are so lopsided that some of the warmongers might interpret them as a personal bias that has to be 'rectified,' " he wrote. "They do not send complaint letters to editors; they take the law into their own hands."

Whatever the reporting flaws, they hardly justify the violent responses.

The plight of the Colombian media draws close attention from Human Rights Watch and other groups that meticulously document the violence and keep an eye on those most imperiled. The groups have helped move threatened journalists to safer havens in such countries as Peru, Costa Rica, Spain and the United States.

Some in the local press corps protect themselves with bulletproof vests and change the routes they take to the newsroom each day. When there are serious threats, they avoid their homes and sleep at secret locations. Directors of major media outlets, such as El Tiempo and RCN Television, report attacks against journalists to international media organizations and government security agencies.

In recent months, there have been signs that the Colombian government is taking a more aggressive stance toward safeguarding the press. In October, the attorney general's office announced that, because of a rise in crimes against journalists, it was adding 12 prosecutors--up from four--to a unit dedicated to investigating such attacks. Two years ago, the government established the "Program for the Protection of Journalists and Social Communicators," which supplies bodyguards and, at times, armored vehicles to those who have been attacked. The Ministry of the Interior has offered money to help those under death threats escape.

Yet, if the past is any indication, there is scant cause for optimism. The special unit was created in 1999 to investigate the murders of journalists, but monitors like CPJ say that impunity for those who commit such crimes remains the rule. "All sides in the conflict are acutely sensitive to their media profile, and all have resorted to violence to ensure favorable coverage," a CPJ report says. "The right-wing paramilitaries were the worst offenders, but journalists had plenty to fear from leftist guerrilla organizations as well."

Outsiders try to help in a variety of ways. Frank Ochberg, chair of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the University of Washington, helped arrange psychological counseling for El Espectador's staff in the aftermath of Lima's ordeal. The psychiatrist sees a supportive network forming among media organizations, human rights groups and trauma specialists. "The paramilitaries and guerrillas don't want their dirty work to be seen, so they punch out the eyes of the nation by silencing the media," says Ochberg, who has worked with endangered journalists worldwide. "There is a growing network of colleagues who are paying attention to journalists in Colombia."

In December, the International Center for Journalists took its traveling seminar series "Media and Freedom of Expression in the Americas" to Colombia. The stop there was scheduled at the end of the series due to difficult logistics and safety issues.

CPJ's Smyth views the constant brutalizing of the press as the ultimate in information control. "The killers aren't doing this just because they are bloodthirsty individuals but to influence the story that is being told locally and nationally," says Smyth, a veteran of covering international conflicts. "What's amazing about Colombia [is] it has a vibrant free press struggling under siege."

Survivors like Gomez, Lima and Ronderos have received high praise from colleagues around the world. In November, Gomez, called Nacho by friends, traveled to New York City to accept CPJ's International Press Freedom Award amid cheers at the Waldorf-Astoria. Gomez was a 2000-2001 Nieman Fellow and has won Amnesty International's media award for practicing journalism under threat.

Ronderos received the 1997 King of Spain Ibero-America Award for Journalism, an equivalent to the Pulitzer Prize, for stories about a scandal involving a presidential campaign financed by drug money.

In 2000, Canadian Journalists for Free Expression presented Lima with a press freedom prize for continuing to work under dangerous circumstances. A year later, she won the International Women's Media Foundation's Courage in Journalism award. At the time, she noted, "My purpose in this life is journalism. I fell in love with my career and it has given me my greatest satisfaction, but also my greatest sadness."

Just 15 days after being kidnapped, Lima was back on the job, protected by a bodyguard. In interviews, she describes how each morning before work she receives a blessing from her mother and says a prayer to the Virgin Mary.

"After the attack, I waited until the bruises on my body got better in order to return to work," says Lima, who now covers military affairs for El Tiempo. "The greatest support that I have received was from my colleagues, my editor and the director at the paper."

The horrible memories of the hours in captivity continue to haunt her. Lima once told a reporter, "There are days when I wish the man who was pointing a pistol at me had shot. There are days when I wonder why they didn't kill me. There are days when I don't want to be alive because the sadness and the memories get me down."

Now, like so many prominent journalists before her, she is contemplating leaving her homeland. "It has been hard to manage the stress and the episodes of depression that I have been suffering," she says. "Perhaps when I have healed, I could leave the country for awhile, perhaps to study or to look for another lifestyle."

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