Colombia Press Under Siege p.10

By: RON CHEPESIUK

WITH THE recent killing of two journalists and bombing of three newspapers, Colombia journalists fear once again that deadlines may become literal.
On March 20, gunmen murdered Gerardo Bedoya, the 55-year-old chief editor of El Pais, Cali’s largest newspaper, and outspoken critic of the country’s powerful drug cartels. The killing came three days after the torture-murder of Freddy Elles, a news photographer based in the coastal resort city of Cartegena.
“We have seen this happen many times before,” said Enrique Santo Calderon, Sub Director of El Tiempo, Colombia’s largest newspaper. “The drug traffickers are trying to impose a real dictatorship of fear upon the press. The situation for Colombian journalists is once again becoming extremely difficult and dangerous.”
The two killings brought to 67 the number of Colombian journalists murdered in the last eight-and-a-half years, according to a report published by the Inter American Press Association (IAPA). Bedoya was the most prominent Colombian journalist killed since 1986, when hitmen gunned down Guillermo Cano, the publisher of the Bogot?-based El Espectador, the second-largest newspaper in Colombia.
Last Dec. 17, a car bomb containing 50 kilos of dynamite exploded outside the office of El Colombiano in Medellin, killing one, injuring 48 and damaging 15 buildings. The terrorist wave continued with the bombings of the left-wing newspaper Voz on Dec. 20 and the Medellin office of El Tiempo, on Dec. 28, which caused no deaths but $300,000 in damage.
The Colombian press thought its worst days of intimidation and violence had ended when police hunted down and killed Pablo Escobar Gaviria on Dec. 2, 1993, an event that in effect ended the Medellin cartel’s position as the major player in the country’s billion-dollar drug trade. Although the Cali cartel quickly filled the vacuum, its godfathers were viewed as a kinder, gentler mafia that preferred the bribe to the bullet.
Under pressure from the U.S., the Colombian government began cracking down on the Cali cartel in 1994 and have since arrested and imprisoned all of its top leadership. The U.S. government has demanded the extradition of the Cali cartel godfathers, who are wanted on drug charges in the U.S., and there has been a movement in the Colombian Congress to reinstate the extradition treaty with the U.S., which has been suspended since 1991.
“The one thing the drug traffickers fear more than a prison cell in Colombia is extradition to the U.S.,” explained one U.S. diplomat. “They have vowed that they would never spend a day in an American jail.”
In the days leading up to the bombing of El Colombiano, the newspaper’s director, Ana Mercedes Gomez, received an anonymous warning that the newspaper should not write about extradition or current legislative moves in the Colombian Congress to increase the penalties against drug traffickers and to confiscate their property.
In his editorials, Bedoya, a former diplomat and legislator, had demanded tougher government action against the drug cartels and went on record as supporting extradition. In one of his last columns, Bedoya wrote, “Even though they call me pro yankee, I prefer the prison of the United States to the narco traffickers. I prefer the influence of the gringos to the influence of the narco traffickers. I prefer the intervention of the gringos in our internal affairs to the drug cartels.”
The authorities say they don’t know if any threats were made against Bedoya and have speculated that robbery may have been the motive for Elles’ murder. Although no one has claimed responsibility for either of the killings, the local press fears that it will be targeted by drug traffickers and other groups who don’t like what they read.
Management of Voz, the paper of the Communist-oriented Patriotic Union Party, believes that assassins, paid by
drug traffickers, were behind the bombing.
Since the early 1980s, when Colombia became the linchpin in the lucrative Latin American drug trade, murder has been just one form of drug terrorism imposed upon the Colombia media. Journalists have been threatened, beaten, kidnapped; advertisers have been intimidated; physical plants and distribution centers, bombed.
Those targeted have included publishers, editors, reporters, station managers, radio commentators and television anchor men and women ? that is, everyone involved in getting the news to the public. The result has been a climate of fear and intimidation. Colombia is renowned among its Latin American neighbors for its long tradition of press freedom, but while there is no official censorship, Colombian journalists admit that there are self-imposed restrictions on how they cover the news.
For example, many articles, especially controversial and sensitive ones, appear without bylines. “I would say that I report about 80 percent of what I know,” confided one journalist.
At times, some journalists have felt it more prudent to simply look the other way rather than become another casualty of the drug war. El Colombiano has had a reputation of being a crusader against drug trafficking, but in August 1989, after drug traffickers blew up local branches of Colombia’s two largest political parties, torched the homes of three prominent citizens and left bombs outside two leading radio stations, the front page of El Colombiano was devoted to a drop in the nation’s revenues from coffee exports.
Colombian reporters have resorted to a roundabout technique when they want to inform the public about drug-related corruption without incurring mafia reprisals.
Their reporters pass on information to U.S. colleagues in the hope that it will be published in the newspapers or aired on television there. Once that happens, the Colombian press picks up the story.
El Espectador now looks like a bunker rather than a newspaper.
Guards patrol the newspaper plant and German shepherds have been used to sniff explosives. A few months ago, police arrested the drug trafficker whom they believe was the mastermind behind Guillermo Cano’s murder 10 years ago, but his brother, Luis Gabriel Cano, El Espectador’s publisher, still goes to work protected by three bodyguards.
“Of course, you’re never really safe; that’s impossible,” Cano confides. “Every day, I think I may be next.”
Drug traffickers have not been the only concern of the Colombian press. Last fall, television news editors charged that a ban on television coverage of coca farmer riots smacked of government revenge for news reports on the drug corruption scandal plaguing President Ernesto Samper, who has been accused of financing his 1994 presidential campaign with a $6.2 million “contribution” from the Cali cartel.
Then last December, Congress passed a new law that gives the government a new weapon to curb press freedom. A new commission charged with reviewing TV news shows is now authorized to take them off the air if the commission doesn’t approve of the content.
“Politicians have taken revenge for the independence of the news media during the political crisis,” charged Javier Dario Restrepo, director of the Colombian chapter of the Committee to Protect Journalists. In February, La Prensa blamed the Colombian government for having to close its doors after eight years of operation, complaining that it had gone bankrupt because the government had pulled all of its advertising.
Since Bedoya’s killing, the Colombian press and several international journalism organizations, including the IAPA, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the InterAmerican Press Society, and Reporters Without Frontiers, have demanded that the Colombian government move to solve Bedoya’s murder. The Samper administration, however, has shown no indication that it will make the case a high priority.
?(Medellin cartel drug lord Pablo Escobar Gaviria was killed Dec. 2, 1993 by Colombian police, an event that in effect ended the Medellin cartel’s position as the major player in the country’s billion-dollar drug trade. Although the Cali cartel quickly filled the vacuum, its godfathers were viewed as a kinder, gentler mafia that preferred the bribe to the bullet. And the killing of journalists and the bombing of newspaper offices stopped for a while.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Colombian newspaper editor Gerardo Bedoya of El Pais, on eof the country’s most influential dailies, was gunned down on March 20, three days after the torture-murder of Freddy Elles, a news photographer based in the coastal resort city of Cartegena. At right, Bedoya’s body lies on the ground next to his car) [Photo & Caption]
?(Colombian soldiers inspect the aftermath of a bomb that exploded in the offices of the newspaper El Tiempo in Medellin on Dec. 28, 1996. One person was wounded in the explosion) [Photo & Caption]
?(Chepstiuk is a professor on the faculty of Winthrop University, Rock Hill, S.C. and a freelance journalist who is based in Colombia and is writing an investigative history of U.S. anti-narcotics policy. 1982 to 1997) [Photo & Caption]
?E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com.
?copyright: Editor & Publisher May 31, 1997

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