Latin American Newspapers Know Terror

By: Mark Fitzgerald

One of the world’s most dangerous professions is “Colombian journalist.” Seven were killed because of their work in the last six months alone. As head of security at El Tiempo in Bogota, the nation’s biggest daily, it’s Felipe Andrade’s job to protect the newspaper’s employees and property.

“Clearly, Colombia has many, many years [of contending] with the problem of security, and in our daily lives it’s become like a routine,” Andrade said in an e-mail interview last week.

Some routine: The paper’s own managing editor, Francisco “Pacho” Santos, had to flee the country last year when he got wind of a plot, by the leftist guerrilla group known as the FARC, to assassinate him and make it look like a street crime. Santos, a scion of the family that owns the paper, is no stranger to Colombia’s violent ways: He spent eight months in 1990 chained to a bed as a hostage of drug lord Pablo Escobar.

With the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath, U.S. newspapers are only now taking their first truly serious look at the security of their employees and physical plants. In Latin America, terrorism has been a reality for more than two decades. On a literally daily basis, journalists and other press employees are harassed, threatened, assaulted, kidnapped, raped, or murdered.

Newspaper offices are less common terrorism targets than journalists themselves — but the massive 1989 bombing of El Espectador‘s building in Bogota remains a vivid memory in the hemisphere.

As Andrade describes it, the longtime security procedures at El Tiempo‘s newspaper building resemble those now in place at Reagan National Airport in Washington. Access by visitors and employees is tightly controlled, all bags and purses are scanned, and some people are picked for random searches. Police and private guards — employed by the paper and neighboring businesses — patrol outside and are in constant communication with the Army.

“You can’t take what is happening to Colombian journalists out of the context of Colombian society,” said Timothy Pratt, a Las Vegas Sun reporter who worked as a free-lancer in Cali for nine years. “The newsrooms are not any more or less protected than any other place — every building in Colombia has armed guards outside it.”

Elizabeth Vargas, an official with the Bogota-based Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP, for its initials in Spanish), said many Colombian papers offer an employment benefit hard to find in the United States: “They are giving self-defense lessons for reporters. We’re doing it ourselves, [instructing] on methods to defend when you’re traveling, at the workplace, in your house, etc.”

Terrorism is not the only violent danger to Latin American newspapers, as Magdalena Rivero, a journalist at Ultima Hora in Asuncion, Paraguay, noted in an e-mail message to E&P: “Security — the control of access by strangers and even employees — at Paraguayan newspaper buildings was implemented years ago because of a wave of robberies and assaults in broad daylight, even in the busiest downtown areas.”

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