The Colombian government’s 15-year-old programme for protecting journalists is clearly flawed and needs an overhaul, according two new reports that have been published as part of the Periodismo en Riesgo (Journalism in Danger) campaign.
One of the reports was produced by the Bogotá-based Press Freedom Foundation (FLIP), the other by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Colombia Federation of Journalists (FECOLPER).
The protection programme’s many problems include inadequate funding, corruption, bad decision-making, difficulties with evaluating risks and choosing appropriate responses, and unjustified delays.
Despite a significant fall in the number of journalists murdered, the programme is disappointing, FLIP’s report says. It has become increasingly complex but also more and more ineffective and falls far short of meeting the needs of journalists on the ground.
In the course of its 15 years of existence, the programme has focused on protecting and escorting journalists, without addressing the need for judicial investigations and prosecutions, or risk prevention and eradication.
Threats and attacks against news providers have not declined and, of the 388 threats against journalists since 2000 that the justice ministry had registered by mid-August 2014, only one has resulted in the arrest of those responsible.
FECOLPER president Adriana Hurtado said the National Protection Unit (UNP) must not use funding and administrative difficulties or problems with individual officials as an excuse for failing in its duty to guarantee the safety of the journalists it is supposed to protect.
Journalists receiving protection say they have often had to pay for the maintenance of the vehicles assigned to protect them without every being reimbursed by the state.
It is unacceptable for the UNP to blame the programme’s flaws on problems of coordination between different departments or on misconduct by former and current officials. It is not the job of journalists to ensure that a government-run programme functions properly. According to the law and Colombia’s constitution, it is up to the UNP to ensure that the entire protection programme works as it should.
“The protection programme is obviously defective and must be reformed,” said Emmanuel Colombié, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Americas desk. “This kind of programme is essential in a country such as Colombia, one of the deadliest in the western hemisphere for journalists. We urge the authorities to begin restructuring it at once.”
A successful overhaul of the programme would provide a significant boost to media freedom in Colombia. Here are some of the recommendations that FECOLPER, RSF and FLIP propose:
- Reformulate the concepts and methods used for evaluating risk levels and deciding which protective measures to apply.
- Reorganize the chain of command in order to ensure a swift and appropriate response to the dangers to which journalists are constantly exposed.
- Properly train the UNP personnel responsible for security, by making them more aware of issues related to freedom of information.
- Ensure that the justice ministry participates in the protection programme. Protection will never be complete if threats against journalists continue to go unpunished.
- Redesign the programme so that it is not just reactive in nature. Anticipating risks and creating a secure climate are the best way protect journalists.
The report by RSF and FECOLPER, entitled Colombia: actividad periodística en riesgo, includes interviews with 104 journalists who have received UNP protection. It provides facts and figures about the various aspects of the programme and how they work. It also provides insights into the lives of journalists in the field and the risks they run.
The FLIP report, entitled 15 años de protección a periodistas en Colombia: esquivando la violencia sin justicia, analyses the regulatory, financial and operational changes in the programme during the past 15 years and provides key data about its funding, its results and the mistakes that have been made.
FECOLPER, RSF and FLIP urge the authorities to take appropriate measures to address the programme’s flaws of the past 15 years while at the same time combatting the origins of the problem of violence.
As many of the country’s journalists said on 9 February, celebrated as Day of the Journalist in Colombia, the best gift they could receive would be physical safety and an end to impunity.
Colombia is ranked 128th out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.