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Media in Colombia: Killing the messengers
Hollman Morris / Thursday 19 March 2009

This autumn I had coffee with a journalist colleague who was forced to leave Colombia for more than two years due to death threats. When he returned, President Álvaro Uribe welcomed him home by publicly calling him a liar. Soon after, fresh death threats arrived at his office.

Uribe commonly tars the opposition, human rights defenders and journalists with the same brush, accusing us of being in cahoots with guerrillas and terrorists. In Colombia, such accusations can be a death sentence.

I have also been the victim of Uribe’s attacks. Two years ago, he accused me of working with guerrillas. Weeks earlier, our babysitter found a funeral wreath decorating our front steps.

The messages sent to journalists can be subtle or unsubtle, but they’re always unmistakable. I can only hope that someone tells Uribe his personal attacks can be the seed of violence against journalists and that he should stop these personal attacks before another journalist is killed.

My country is one of the deadliest places in the world for reporters. More than 70 Colombian journalists have been killed in the past 30 years. Fewer journalists are being murdered today, relatively speaking, but we now have increasing self-censorship.

A recent survey of 235 Colombian journalists found that more than one third had received death threats. Almost all of them - 88 percent - said they believed that freedom of the press is under threat and admitted to having refrained from publishing information due to pressure from paramilitaries, guerrillas, politicians, media owners and government officials. The vast majority have seen no improvement in the situation of freedom of the press in the last five years.

This is ironic because Colombia’s reporters are never short of news. Forty years of armed conflict has featured targeted killings, massacres, kidnappings and major atrocities against civilians. Left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries and government forces all commit abuses. Civilians are caught in the crossfire and the continent’s largest humanitarian catastrophe.

Yet the same recent survey found that 89 percent of journalists believed that the information about the armed conflict provided by the government authorities was manipulated. Without a free, unconstrained press, what Colombia and the world usually get is just the government’s version of events.

To cite one example: Over the last five years there has been a dramatic increase in the number of extrajudicial executions of civilians committed by the army. In a pattern that is repeated over and over around the country, soldiers take civilians from their homes or workplaces, kill them, and then dress them up as combatants to claim that they were guerrillas killed in combat.

The United Nations and human rights NGOs have carefully documented and reported on this trend, which appears to involve hundreds of cases a year. Yet the president has refused to recognize the problem, publicly dismissing the reports as the work of guerrillas seeking to make trouble for his government. And, unfortunately, the reports by the major media, especially television, rarely reflect this information.

Colombia is a society that prefers to forget: to forget the atrocities, the lost lives. We forget every day. To end the conflict, we must recover our memory of these abuses.
The government has done almost nothing to help the victims - too many abuses ignored, too few abusers brought to justice. But sometimes even the voiceless can speak.

I will never forget reporting the discovery of a mass grave in the southern state of Putumayo. As the experts who were exhuming it said, "The bodies will tell their stories."
If this work sounds grim, it’s only part of the story. We see tragedy, yes. But we also see brave people - journalists, judges, human rights defenders - who are pressing for the truth despite all the obstacles. They are Colombia’s greatest assets.

One day, they will show our government that the only way to change the nation’s destiny is to help victims tell their stories.