As peace deal nears, Colombia’s journalists and activists still live in fear

As peace deal nears, Colombia's journalists and activists still live in fear
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Javier Osuna received no warning. On 22 August 2014, strangers broke into his apartment in Bogota, Colombia, and piled months-worth of investigative research into a bonfire, burning everything to ashes.

For the now 29-year-old freelance journalist, this was only beginning.

In the following months, his investigation into the killing and disappearance of hundreds of men, women and children in the department of North Santander by the paramilitary group Frente Fronteras (linked to the AUC, Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, or United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia) resulted in dozens of threats against him and his family.

“At first, they call you at all hours of the day and the night and don’t talk. You just hear silence on the other end of the line. Then they start swearing at you and threatening to kill you,” Javier tells Equal Times.

Even for a continent where silencing journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, politicians and ordinary citizens is not uncommon, Colombia’s five decade-long state of war stands out as a breeding ground for crimes against anyone who dares to speak out.

What also sets the country apart, observers believe, is the high level of impunity that perpetrators of violence – right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrilla groups, drug cartels and state institutions – have enjoyed.

Peace agreements with armed militias, like the one about to be concluded in Havana, have in some cases brought relief, and the days when national newspaper offices were bombed by the likes of Pablo Escobar are partially over. However, like Javier, hundreds of reporters and editors continue to put their lives on the line while performing their work.

“Fearing for your life is a terrible thing. When you are afraid, you become a shadow of yourself. It kills your character,” says Javier.

His four-year investigation was eventually turned into a book, Me hablarás del fuego, which describes how innocent victims were executed and their bodies burned by paramilitaries who accused them of being linked to the guerrilla groups FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional).

Because of his ongoing research into the links between paramilitary groups and power structures in Colombia, Javier still lives under the permanent protection of the Unidad Nacional de Protección (National Protection Unit).

This government agency, conceived to evaluate risks and protect individuals, has been praised for helping to reduce casualties in Colombia. But analysts argue it should now evolve into a more preventive mechanism and involve all state entities.

“I feel safer but it affects my work. It’s impossible to work with bodyguards. People feel even more in danger when they speak to you. I even thought of leaving the country, but my commitment is with the people of Colombia,” Javier adds.

 
“Impunity is entrenched”

Though a lot of progress has been made since the 1990s, when an average of seven journalists were killed annually, three reporters were shot dead last year. In total, 56 journalists were murdered between 1990 and 2015, making Colombia the 11th most dangerous country in the world for the press, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

In 2015 alone, another 230 media workers were threatened, physically assaulted, sexually abused, prevented from doing their work or illegally detained says the Fundación para la Libertad de Prensa (FLIP), a Colombian organisation dedicated to protecting journalists and freedom of press. Four media infrastructures were also attacked.

Emmanuel Vargas, deputy director of FLIP, thinks “it’s harder to see media offices bombed in Bogota and other big cities, but it still happens in the regions. Despite the peace agreement in 2005, some paramilitary groups resumed their activities. They are the main danger to journalists. Those who denounce illegal mining and resource exploitation are also threatened. In the cases denouncing government corruption, the problem is not only physical attacks, but economic pressure as well.”

The government has vowed to step up its efforts against these loose alliances of demobilised paramilitary groups which gang up with criminal syndicates involved in anything from drug dealing to extortion, money laundering and illegal mining. Dubbed ‘BACRIM’ (for bandas criminales, or criminal bands), they are widely considered a serious threat to the country’s stabilisation efforts and to anyone who gets in the way of unlawful business.

Colombia ranks poorly in international monitors of press freedom.

In the 2016 ranking of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), it dropped six places compared to the previous year and now ranks 134th out of 180 countries. Only Honduras, Venezuela, Mexico and Cuba score worse in the Americas.

Along with violence against the press, the lack of media pluralism – three corporations have 57 per cent of the market reach across the traditional media – is a key factor behind Colombia’s dire level of press freedom.

In an email to Equal Times, an RSF spokesperson explained that Colombia is particularly dangerous for investigative journalists who cover drug and weapon trafficking, as well as corruption.

“Assaults are often committed in collusion with local politicians and most remain unpunished. This issue of impunity is very problematic in Colombia”.

Since the mid-1970s, more than half of all cases related to the murders of journalists have already reached their statute of limitations.

No one has ever been indicted for threatening a reporter.

“Impunity is entrenched,” insists Carlos Lauría, senior program director for the Americas at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “Progress in terms of justice has been slow and sporadic. Much more needs to be done, especially in terms of prevention.”

The case of Jineth Bedoya exemplifies the critical shortcomings of Colombia’s judicial system. In 2000, the then-reporter for El Espectador was abducted by paramilitary fighters, beaten and raped. It took more than 15 years to bring her attackers to justice.

“I believed that my stories were changing the world. But the criminals who kidnapped me were the actors in a plan to shut me up. My audacity to mess with that criminal web almost cost me my life, and left a deep wound that today, 15 years later, is far from closed,” she writes.

For Javier, “We don’t just need people to protect us. We need justice to identify and prosecute the people who want to hurt us.”

 
Activists also at risk

Reporters are far from being the only professional group in Colombia living in fear.

In 2012, Equal Times reported that nearly 3,000 workers and trade unionists had been killed since 1986. Women are disproportionally affected by these record levels of violence, and the attacks have only increased since, making Colombia one the world’s ten most dangerous countries for labour activists.

And just like for journalists, “it is clear that, despite the government’s announcement that measures are being taken to guarantee the free exercise of trade union rights, the violence against trade unionists and the impunity enjoyed by its perpetrators remains unchecked,” reads an online petition to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos.

Defending other human rights, especially the ones related to land and indigenous groups, is also notoriously risky. In its latest report, the Dublin-based organisation Front Line Defenders claims that out of the 156 human rights activists that were killed or died in prison globally in 2015, 54 came from Colombia – the highest number in the world.

Against this backdrop, the global alliance of civil society organisations CIVICUS held its biannual congress in Bogota, in collaboration with the Colombian Confederation of NGOs (CCONG).

“Colombia has a vibrant, robust, colourful civil society. Yet, it is also a place where civil society organisations are highly persecuted. Activists are putting their lives on the line,” argues Matthew Reading-Smith, senior communication officer at CIVICUS.

According to Carlos A. Guevara, from the Colombian non-governmental protection program for human rights defenders Somos Defensores: “Since the presidential term of Juan Manuel Santos began in 2010, at least 365 human rights defenders were assassinated – approximately one every six days. In the first three months of 2016, 133 defenders suffered attacks, more than 80 received threats, and almost 20 were murdered. This is not new.”

“The paramilitaries are the almost exclusive source of threats. The risk has increased along with the peace talks; as soon as defenders started participating in the negotiations in Havana in 2014, massive threats, smear campaigns and attacks were launched in order to prevent them from taking part in the peace process.”

The Colombian civil society organisations that gathered in Bogota are all gearing up for a historic peace deal with the FARC that could redirect public resources towards the protection of civilians against criminal bands while allowing more space for civil society. A truce with the ELN is also potentially viable. Yet, no one expects these agreements to end the violence.

“The security problems will not disappear, especially in the countryside and remote areas,” says human rights lawyer Heidi Abuchaibe.

“Ninety per cent of crimes in this country either go uninvestigated or unpunished. If you change that, if you build a stronger state and stronger institutions, people will start being scared of being prosecuted.”

Colombian organisations are also worried that the process of building a post-conflict civil society will be hijacked by corporations that are more interested in compensating their economic activity with business-friendly initiatives rather than guaranteeing effective social and economic rights. Combined with deep-rooted corruption at a local level, this approach could cast aside any potential for effective change, NGOs contend.

Adriana Ruiz-Restrepo, a lawyer and founder of the NGO Civisol, says that: “restrictive space or the government are not our biggest problem anymore. For me, corporate social responsibility – the abusive one, the unclear unaccountable one – has killed civil society space. We cannot compete with ideas of social justice and human rights vis-à-vis thousands spent on publicity and marketing.”

Colombia is no exception. This “corporate takeover” has already been seen in other parts of the world, according to Mandeep Tiwana, head of policy and research at CIVICUS.

“When peace deals are reached, the periods immediately afterwards are very fragile. That’s when the government really needs to step up the efforts to have social and economic transformation of society. It’s about creating avenues to allow the majority to have access to the resources of the country. And in situations like this, those who control access to resources are reluctant to give them up. So we’ll see how far the government is willing to go to address the root causes of the conflict, which is extreme inequality in many ways,” he says.

In the words of a conference delegate in Bogota, “peace is only the beginning.”